SEATTLE -- Queen Anne Thriftway and Admiral Thriftway are plowing ahead with plans to obtain more signature, "ripened to perfection" stone fruit this year, based on record sales of tree-ripened peaches last summer.
The three-unit independent sold more than a quarter more of its "perfect peaches" in 2001 than it had the previous year, bringing the total to 85,000 pounds sold in six weeks. And earlier in the summer, having obtained a pallet and a half of specially handled Rainier cherries from a grower who usually reserves his entire crop for the Japanese market, the retailer "had fantastic success with them," too, said Rich Zegil, the company's produce specialist.
Even with a retail price of $5.99 a pound, the super-sweet cherries sold out over one weekend, Zegil said.
As a result of such sales successes, Queen Anne/Admiral Thriftway has expanded its exclusive agreement with a handpicked grower in Eastern Washington that will give it a significantly bigger supply of "perfect peaches" this year and has already contracted for several pallets of the pampered Rainier cherries.
The peach grower has pulled five acres of peaches that didn't meet the retailer's specifications last year, and has replaced them with "the sweetest variety he could find for us," Zegil said. In addition to that, he has newly planted more acreage in sweet varieties chosen specifically for Queen Anne and Admiral Thriftway, Zegil added.
"The sugar content, as well as the variety, has to meet our specifications, and that takes a lot of care, but he knows we can sell them, and we'll be getting more of those special cherries this year, too. You should see what they do with those to make them so sweet," said Zegil.
He explained how the cherry grower coddles the already-sweet Rainier variety to make sure the product is just right.
"The pickers actually just drop the imperfect ones on the ground so they won't get mixed up with the others," Zegil said, explaining that only perfect ones make it to market.
But the grower takes a number of extraordinary measures to ensure that most of the crop is perfect.
He spreads out Mylar-type reflecting material on the ground, for example, so the sunlight will be reflected back up into the trees. He also stretches a gauze-like blanket over the top of the cherry trees. That lets sunlight in, but keeps rain and birds out. Sun gives the yellow cherries their red blush and their sweetness, but drops of rain near the stem can cause the cherry to crack, Zegil explained.
"The grower even blocks one side [of the orchard] off from the wind. That's to prevent the cherries from getting banged against each other. That would bruise them."
Like the cherries, the "perfect" peaches featured in the retailer's annual Peach-O-Rama [see "Tree-Ripe Fruit Stars in Summer Promotion," SN, Aug. 6, 2001] also get extreme care throughout the growing season.
"The grower keeps monitoring the brix level and then picks them at just the right time so the flavor and texture is there for our customers. Typically the more sugar, the better the taste and the less pithy they are," Zegil said.
Queen Anne/Admiral Thriftway stores supply their handpicked peach growers with a refractometer to measure sugar levels.
"You put a little drop of juice on it [the refractometer], close the top, and look at the amount of light refracted, and that will tell you the percentage of sugar in the fruit. Pithiness is caused by picking too early. The fruit doesn't have time to sugar up," Zegil said.
Other precautions are taken, too.
"For instance, you don't want the peaches to be watered near the pick because it dilutes the flavor. A lot of growers do that deliberately to get more weight, but it dilutes the fruit's juice," Zegil said.
He went on to describe a special picking process that keeps the peaches from getting bruised. Not only are they picked at peak sugar level, but they're put directly into single-layer boxes right in the field.
"They're not dumped on top of each other in a bucket or bumped together on conveyor belts. It costs us a lot more this way, but we get a great peach."
Then the fruit has to be kept within an optimum temperature range to retain its goodness, so temperature sensors accompany the peaches en route to the retailer.
Queen Anne/Admiral Thriftway has exclusive agreements with two growers to supply the peaches -- a grower in California for organic and one in Eastern Washington for conventional. The company retailed the peaches this year for $3.69 a pound for organic, and $2.29 a pound for nonorganic.
An important part of the selling process is demoing the fruits, Zegil pointed out. So, each summer, during the six-week Peach-O-Rama promotion, the company employs full-time demo people to give customers a taste of the fruit and to talk about it.
"You can see people's faces light up when they taste those sweet peaches. They're like peaches we ate when we were kids."
While regular customers look forward to the company's Peach-O-Rama -- which is heralded with huge banners outside the stores, mass displays and hoopla in the local media -- Zegil estimates that at least 25% of customers are new to the store.
"So it's a training process. We have to get them to taste these great peaches. We use them as a bring-in promotion, and I guarantee you when customers taste one of these, they'll buy some. Some people buy a case on the spot. We have to warn them that they'd better use them up right away because they're at their peak of perfection."