Bananas have long been standout members of the produce family: consistently strong sellers, easily recognizable by virtually everyone in the country and available on a year-round basis. The same cannot be said for their cousins, plantains, which in many cases are being underexploited by retailers, an SN poll found.
The familiar yellow variety of bananas has a lesser-known extended family, with siblings like the miniature petites and ninos, and cousins including the plantains.
Plantains are long-standing staples in Hispanic cuisine, but some retailers say many shoppers are not familiar with these more exotic varieties.
Neither are a lot of retailers that SN queried.
Some of the retailers polled were unsure of how to handle or merchandise plantains; consequently, sales haven't been growing. This seems to be creating a vicious circle: If the category remains small, there is little incentive for retailers to devote time, effort and money into learning more about plantains.
"In general, I'd have to say we, as retailers and wholesalers, do a poor job with plantains," said Tom Anderson, produce director at Nash Finch Co., Minneapolis. He said some retailers in ethnic areas do a very good business with plantains, but many do not.
"Yes, we do buy plantains. No, we do not ripen them in our ripening rooms. Some stores in ethnic areas buy three truckloads of plantains [a week]. We can't buy in that volume. We purchase virtually all our plantains off the Los Angeles market.
"Unfortunately, it's not a big area for us. I'm envious of those who can buy three truckloads," Anderson said. "One of the biggest [plantain] problems of retailers and wholesalers: We don't treat it like a banana. We treat it like other produce items. We put it in coolers, we chill it, we make it turn black, we make it turn gray. We don't ripen it properly. The consumer doesn't get the same fruit as if it is handled like a banana," Anderson said. The problem is volume, he said. "When you get stores that are moving a case a week, it's just not worth the effort to try and resolve the problem." Plantains have not gone over very well in Steele's Markets in Fort Collins, Colo., according to Tim Helzer, produce manager.
Steele's introduced plantains to its four stores in May, none of which has a large Hispanic base, Helzer said. Plantains are just one of many specialty items Steele's has added to its product selection recently, he told SN.
'We wanted to increase produce selection," he said. "They haven't done very well so far. We don't really have the clientele who is used to using them," he said. Still, there are no plans to discontinue carrying the fruit. "The plantains just aren't making it right now. But they might; you never know," he said. Helzer said he has not done much in the way of advertising the plantains, or letting customers know even what they are. More expensive than their regular counterparts, plantains retail for $1.99 per pound at Steele's, while regular bananas are generally 59 cents a pound.
However, Steele's produce departments are due for a remodeling, and Helzer said he hopes to do more promotions with the plantains when he gets additional space.
Some retailers have managed to develop a niche for the plantains, though. While they are not big sellers, carrying them adds variety and a hint of the exotic into an otherwise staid banana category, some produce executives reported.
Ken Lanhardt, director of produce and floral operations at Cub Foods Stores' Atlanta division, Lithia Springs, Ga., said he carries plantains in each of his 13 units, but the category has remained static for several years. "The plantains represent 5% to 10% of all banana sales, tops," he said. "It depends on the store location and the customer base." Lanhardt said he advertises the plantains as cooking bananas, so that shoppers know not to eat them raw. Charles Rego, vice president of produce operations at Riser Foods, Bedford Heights, Ohio, is very selective about the positioning of plantains: he carries them in only five of Riser's 44 corporately owned stores.
"We have five stores in Spanish neighborhoods, and in [those] neighborhoods, they sell well," he said. But a large hispanic population is not always the criterion for the presence of plantains in produce. Rex Hooper, produce buyer at Byrd Food Stores, Burlington, N.C., said he carries plantains in each of the chain's approximately 40 stores.
"We don't necessarily have a large Hispanic population," he said. "We carry them to have some variety in the [banana] program." Hooper said plantains are not big sellers, but their presence adds to the department.
Plantains have also found a niche in five upscale Westward Ho Markets stores in Los Angeles, according to Ralph Kelley, produce manager.
There too, the recognition has come not necessarily from Hispanic patrons, but with the unsolicited marketing assistance of several local Caribbean and Cuban restaurants that feature the plantains in their dishes. "People who have tried them in restaurants come in looking for them the next day," Kelley said. "Or they may see plantains featured in a recipe, or on a gourmet cooking show."
Kelley encourages his employees to sample the plantains to customers who express an interest in the product.
Proper merchandising is also of paramount importance, according to Bill Lessard, a tropical fruit consultant and author of "The Complete Book of Bananas." Specialty bananas are best merchandised in a separate display, but placed very near their regular counterparts, Lessard told SN.
"Setting up nice displays and keeping them near the regular bananas is the main thing," he said.
Cub Foods' Lanhardt and Hooper of Byrd both said they merchandise plantains near the regular bananas. "Bananas are a natural draw," said Lanhardt.
In contrast, at Riser Foods, the plantains are merchandised in a special section with other Hispanic specialty items, Rego said.
Kelley of Westward Ho Markets said he generally merchandises the plantains with other specialty items, although he occasionally features them with the regular bananas.
Shoppers also need to be educated about the plantains, Lessard said. He suggested that retailers make recipes available so shoppers know how to use the plantains. He said fliers that explain exactly what they are also can be helpful.
At least one plantain importer offers shoppers a brochure and an 800 telephone number to explain that plantains are more than just "an ugly banana."
There are, of course, other members of the banana family, but their success on the produce shelves appears to be minimal. Lanhardt said he does about 1% to 2% of his banana sales in red bananas. Nash Finch's Anderson estimated he moves about half the volume of reds that he does with plantains.
Rego of Riser Foods also carries ninos and red bananas in the five stores that carry plantains.
From the comments of produce merchandisers and managers, it would appear that there are still possibilities to further exploit the market for plantains, particularly as consumer tastes turn more toward the exotic. Whether retailers will be able to devote the time and creative energy required remains to be seen.