LYCHEES
CARE: Always keep refrigerated or frozen. Chilled fruit should last a few weeks without flavor loss. Fruit will not ripen once picked.
NUTRITIONAL VALUE: A 3½-ounce serving (about 10 fruits) contains 66 calories. Lychees are a good source of vitamin C and potassium.
AVAILABILITY: June to July from Florida and Mexico; July to September from Israel and Taiwan.

(May 28) Lychees are small, flavorful fruits about one inch in diameter with a thin, rose-colored shell, clear, sweet pulp and a pit in the center. The fruit originated in southern China and has been China’s “imperial fruit” for more than 2,000 years. Lychees are easy to eat. The thin shells can be easily slipped off the fruit, which can be eaten raw or frozen.

Epicure Market, South Beach, Fla., sells about 100 cases of lychees each week, says Jeff Grodzienski, produce manager and buyer for the single store. Lychees are displayed in wicker baskets near high-volume items like grapes. He uses three or four baskets to display about seven or eight cases of lychees at a time.

Lychees normally sell at $12-13 a pound, he says. When the store demos the product, sales may increase by about a case per day, Grodzienski says. But it is difficult to judge the actual effect sampling has on sales, he says. The main point of the demos is to create an atmosphere of experimentation in the store.

HARD TO STOP EATING

Lychee sales stay fairly constant because customers really like the taste, Grodzienski says. “Eating lychees is like eating potato chips — once you start you can’t stop,” he says. “Lychee (sales) increase because people look forward to them and wait for them and get hooked on them. It’s a lot like cherries. Both are high volume.”

One key to Epicure Market’s success with lychees is the produce sales staff, Grodzienski says. The staff knows customers personally and knows who will be looking forward to lychees each year. A few customers will buy them by the case, and the sales staff makes sure it knows when lychees are coming in.

In the past 12-20 years, and especially in the past decade, Florida growers have been trying to produce a much larger domestic lychee crop. And this year they’ve done it. An industrywide crop will allow Florida growers to produce as much as 4 million pounds of packed lychees, which is 100% more than ever before, says Marc Ellenby, co-owner and manager of LNB Groves, Homestead, Fla.

PRICES LIKELY TO FALL

Lychees should get a lot easier to sell because prices are expected to drop dramatically. Although it’s impossible to anticipate where prices will land, Ellenby gave an example. “If historically they’ve been at retail at $4-8 dollars a pound, I don’t see any reason they can’t go this season for $2-3 a pound,” he says.

Retailers need to intensify lychee merchandising to move the greatly increased amount of product. Florida lychees are only available from around the end of May to the end of June or early July.

“Over the long run, if Florida lychees are accepted in the market place, you could have cultivation in many areas of Florida and many varieties could come up, extending the season significantly,” Ellenby says.

Florida growers are planning a few promotional materials to help retailers sell lychees. LNB Farms plans to create 3- by 5-inch recipe cards and a “demo pack” for sampling that includes a few educational points explaining how to choose and eat them and recipe suggestions. Freezing lychees is a great way to extend their shelf life, Ellenby says. The high sugar content gives a frozen lychee the consistency of a sorbet. The frozen fruits can be taken out of the freezer, warmed in the hand or under cool water and the skin will slip easily off the frozen pulp, he says. They should be eaten immediately after skin is removed.

Ellenby hopes that sampling and lowered prices will prompt more consumers to buy lychees. “The consumer will taste them and say ‘Wow, these are great.’ They’re going to buy them if they can afford them,” he says.