(July 19) When your customers ponder whether to buy a piece of fruit, its appearance, firmness and aroma are factors that weigh heavily on their decision. But whether they come back for more depends largely on one thing — flavor.

Great flavor may start with the grower-shipper, but it doesn’t end there.

Seek help from suppliers and researchers so you know how to maintain flavor. Suppliers could offer retailers training seminars or interactive computer programs. This kind of training will ensure that produce delivers the flavor you want consumers to experience.

ATTEND RIPENING WORKSHOPS

Staff members at the Postharvest Technology Research and Information Center at the University of California, Davis, say retailers can play an important role in maintaining or enhancing flavor.

Those retailers who attended the university’s annual Management of Fruit Ripening workshop in Sacramento in April learned that the proper ripening protocol can make or break a piece of fruit.

One of the biggest challenges facing the industry, says Adel Kader, professor of postharvest physiology at UC-Davis and a speaker at the workshop, involves the ripening process. Today, fruit often is picked when it is far from optimum maturity so that it will survive the trip from grower to retailer. That can devastate its flavor.

Kader says retailers, who ultimately are responsible for providing the end user with a flavorful product, may have to apply pressure to some distributors and reorient them toward focusing on flavor, not just shelf life.

GET HELP FROM SUPPLIERS

Retailers should source from suppliers that focus on proper ripening and good flavor and then follow up by checking the brix and ripeness levels of fruit at store level before displaying it, says workshop speaker Marita Cantwell, postharvest specialist at UC-Davis.

Rich Zegil, product specialist at Metropolitan Market, a Seattle-based supermarket group that will have five stores by August, goes to the source for the company’s Peach-O-Rama every summer. He visits orchards where peaches are grown to order.

Metropolitan Market started dealing directly with a grower who field packs peaches to the company’s specifications seven years ago when the retailer simply couldn’t get a good peach.

The fruit is more expensive — typically $2.69 per pound — and there’s not a lot of profit for the retailer, but there are a lot of sales. Last year, four stores saw 5% to 10% increases in peach sales during the Peach-O-Rama.

The peaches have a brix level of 13 to 14, sometimes as high as 18, Zegil says. Brix levels are posted daily, and the stores even sell devices that enable consumers to check the sugar level themselves.

The Peach-O-Rama runs for three weeks, but local peaches are available for seven weeks from Aug. 1 to Sept. 20. During that time, there are full-time sampling people and the stores sell peach pies and peach ice cream. There’s a Web site, www.peachorama.com, and a hot line so consumers can check on the availability of ripe peaches daily.

“We make an event out of it,” Zegil says.

The stores have a similar pear program with comice pears from October to the end of December, and mangoes are picked ripe and flown in from May through September.

BE KNOWLEDGEABLE

Retailers also have to do their homework and learn which varieties have the potential for the best flavor, Kader says. If necessary, call on grower-shippers for some one-on-one tutoring.

Fruits fall into two groups — those that don’t ripen after they’re picked and those that do. Berries, cherries, citrus, grapes and pineapples fall into the first group. Peaches, plums, nectarines, apples, pears, apricots, avocados, bananas, mangoes and kiwifruit are among those in the second group.

Studies show that ripe fruit can outsell nonripe fruit by a 3-1 ratio or more, so it’s a good idea to offer your customers fruit that is ready-to-eat.

A hand-held refractometer that helps determine sweetness can be purchased for about $100, says Elizabeth Mitcham, postharvest pomologist at UC-Davis. And you can buy a penetrometer that helps determine ripeness for less than $200.