Retailers in different markets searched this year for ways to bring shoppers imported tree fruit that is ripe, fragrant and flavorful, and they were willing to do some work to get it.
"We would like to get our fruit in a little more ripe condition," said Norm Frewin, senior vice president and director of produce for Randall's Food Markets, Houston, who is traveling to Chile this month to visit growers and shippers. Ripening will be on his agenda, Frewin said.
"It's getting to be more and more of a concern for all fruits. People want it more palatable," he said.
One produce executive told SN he started airlifting tree-ripened peaches this year and said the added freight cost was worth the benefit in quality. Another has started to receive fruit in controlled-atmosphere containers. Still others said they've been tinkering with using their banana-ripening rooms for imported winter peaches to bring customers ready-to-eat fruit.
Why the effort? The fruit not only brings a quality image to the department with its ray of summer in the dead of winter, but also brings in a respectable ring. Peaches in some markets reach $2.99 per pound, and certain customers are willing to pay that as long as they perceive the fruit is worth it.
With the winter import season in full swing, SN asked supermarket produce executives what changes they have made in managing their imported fruit busienss, from tree fruit to other items. Here's what they had to say:
We do work a little more with peaches in our central warehouses. We make use of our banana rooms. We just put them in there and give them some heat to break them a bit and keep them in the warehouse for 24 hours. We put them in the rooms for a few hours and then we hold them before we ship them to store. Number two, we try to take that type of item and handle it with care as far as loading procedures go. Imports have been predominantly fruit. But now there are snow peas and other vegetable items and that will be increasing over time. It's still an area that to us is fairly new. More of us will be making trips to Chile.
We've got peaches coming in. They airlift them into Miami and then they're trucked. We wanted to get a better quality product. If they are tree-ripened, I don't think they would withstand the boat trip.
We just wanted to have something in the market that nobody else would have. We will have special signs up and have a special display and will promote them as tree-ripened peaches. We're looking at close to $3 per pound.
We promote Chilean fruit during the whole season. Being located in California, you can have warm weather in the winter and that kind of fruit will really appeal.
In terms of cutting out freight costs, there isn't much you can do. Right now they are bringing it up by boat or they can bring it by air, which is way too expensive. We're doing a lot of things to get more maturity on stone fruit without having to go to air freight. It's not an issue with grapes. In particular with stone fruit, we're asking for more mature fruit. They are putting some in controlled-atmosphere containers. Once that gets refined, it will be good.
We would like to get our fruit in a little more ripe condition. We'll do whatever we've got to do. I'm going to Chile on a tour with the Topco people and growers and shippers to see if there are any new techniques. It's getting more and more a concern for all fruits. People want it more palatable. Kiwifruit and avocados are being preconditioned. If it's got to be done at the warehouse level or shipping points, that's what we're concerned with. We have done a little ripening ourselves. I think it is still in its infancy stages.
The only thing that we're going to do differently is buy stone fruit in a controlled-atmosphere container. It will allow the fruit to stay on the tree longer. Once it ripens, it will be juicier, not as dry as before. We intend to put it in our banana rooms and finish it off. We're going to promote it as tree-ripe.
Normally we get a lot of products from Chile: grapes and peaches, plums, nectarines, the tree-ripe items. When the tree-ripe product comes in from Chile, we highlight it. We put in mass displays on European tables. We found putting it right out there in the front of the department in mass displays increases sales.
We usually handle all the Chilean fruit. We will be adding items if they have any new items. In most of our stores we put the Chilean fruit in the middle of the department.
Quality's getting better every year and they're increasing the variety. We carry everything they have: grapes, stone fruit, raspberries. Last year was the first year we used point-of-purchase material to an extent. The customer likes to have the information on where the fruit comes from. We will probably do a lot of that this year.
We integrate the imported fruit with other items. We create plenty of big displays. But we put our sales items up front on European tables.