What’s New? Not the Same Old Story

Originally printed in the March 2024 issue of Produce Business.

In specialty produce, you get asked a lot of questions. I’ve been working in specialty for over a decade, and I’ve heard them all. But there is one that gets asked more than any other: “What’s new?”

You would think that is an easy question for a company that handles thousands of products from all over the world, but it’s not so simple.

There seems to be an expectation that a specialty produce supplier can, and should, deliver not just your standard specialty lineup, but also, somehow — miraculously — conjure new and never-before-seen produce curiosities out of thin air, on request.

I suppose it’s not surprising. Newness is somewhat of an obsession for our society, pervasive in every aspect of our existence. We tend to buy into fast fashion, that irresistible feeling that we must own the latest release of every gadget.

In food, the hunger for novelty has deep roots, about as deep as human civilization goes. Some of the earliest evidence for the willingness of people to pay for novel goods comes from the vast network of trading routes that made up the Silk Roads of Central Asia.

During the era of European colonization, novel imports took on a whole new level of cultural significance. The pineapple, for example, became the ultimate status symbol for the European elite.


In the past century, the pace of newness in produce (and its accessibility) has increased exponentially. The produce department has gone from a reflection of local availability and simple tastes to a rainbow of fruits, vegetables and herbs from every imaginable corner of the globe. We’ve seen the introduction of an unbelievable array of products, from tomatoes on the vine to kiwi to jicama to plantains to blood oranges to bitter melon. It’s a long list.

Eventually, the natural pipeline of produce novelties provided by globalization was destined to fizzle out. And it has indeed slowed to a trickle. With genuine newness becoming harder and harder to come by, the industry, at the behest of the marketing powers that be, has turned to breeding, brands and packaging to keep consumers endlessly dazzled by a constant flow of things we hope they believe they have never seen before.

These efforts are commendable and have resulted in many positive innovations, but is there another way we can approach this challenge that is lower risk and lower cost — and perhaps approachable for those of us in the industry who have limited control of growing and packing operations?

Perhaps we can dig a bit deeper to the root of this obsession with new.

If you look at consumer data, especially for younger generations, this novelty-seeking tendency does not develop in a vacuum. It is driven by a sense of curiosity. Psychologists like Carnegie Mellon’s George Lowenstein support that theory, explaining curiosity — essentially FOMO (fear of missing out) for information gaps — drives the human attraction to new things.

If that’s the case, I think we’ve got more in our arsenal than we give ourselves credit for. Remember, for most people, the entire food supply chain is new — and it’s fascinating, too. We just need to deliver this information in a package that’s as digestible as a logo or an eye-catching new variety. Like stories.


Why stories? The reality is stories have impact. As Steve Jobs is purported to have said: “The most powerful person in the world is the storyteller.”

Luckily, our industry has millions of stories to be told — authentic stories that relate to the things consumers care about: health, pleasure, sustainability and value.

Our industry has millions of stories to be told — authentic stories that relate to the things consumers care about: health, pleasure, sustainability and value.

Think of peppers and their incredible spread from the Americas to every plate in every corner of the globe, or how Ayurveda has used turmeric medicinally since 500 BCE. What about how the flavor and quality of avocados changes throughout the year? Or how sourcing from growers around the world allows us to enjoy delicious pomegranates nearly year-round?

These are good stories.

As a wholesaler, what can we do to take advantage of this storyteller mindset? We have an opportunity to broker these stories. We are already a matchmaker for physical products. Can we be a matchmaker for stories as well?

Can we help our growers weave facts into humanized narratives that speak to the interests of consumers? Are we able to get our customers who own the consumer transaction truly excited about the potential these stories have to create an emotional connection with the desired audience? What tools can we leverage to make sharing our vast repository of stories easier?

At John Vena Inc., we’ve already seen storytelling tactics pay dividends in our marketing efforts, and internally with employee engagement as well. That’s not to say we don’t have our eyes open for the next big thing, but in the meantime, we are tapping into our creative abilities as storytellers to create that novel excitement around the amazing products we already have.

So next time someone asks, “What’s new?” just remember you already have plenty of stories to tell.

Emily Kohlhas is director of marketing at John Vena Inc. Specialty Produce (JVI), a wholesaler, distributor and importer based in Philadelphia, PA, at the Philadelphia Wholesale Produce Market. The company was founded in 1919 and serves the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast regions.