(Oct. 24) ORLANDO, Fla. — A new partnership between a citrus giant and the third-largest California strawberry shipper is pairing two brothers and company leaders who share a name well-known in produce and plenty of experience in working together.

As a result, consumers soon can expect to see Sunkist-branded strawberries year-round.

The deal reunites in business John Gargiulo, president and chief executive officer of Watsonville, Calif.-based Coastal Berry Co., and his brother Jeff Gargiulo, president of Sunkist Growers Inc. The two men and their father had owned Naples, Fla.-based tomato and strawberry shipper Gargiulo Inc., which at one time owned what became Coastal Berry.

BUSINESS RELATIONSHIP

“We’re treating this as a great business relationship. We’re almost more used to a business relationship than a sibling. We’ve worked together for 20 years,” said John Gargiulo. “For Coastal it will mean significant growth. It’s an alternate way to market other than our traditional means. We’re able to coattail on a large infrastructure and huge brand. It gives Coastal an opportunity for higher returns.”

Beginning in January or February, some consumers will begin seeing California strawberries under the Sunkist Growers label under the marketing agreement between the Sherman Oaks, Calif.-based citrus cooperative and Coastal Berry.

Sunkist expects to ship about a million cartons of Coastal-grown strawberries under the Sunkist brand in 2004.

“This is an exciting step forward for Sunkist and its growers,” Jeff Gargiulo said. “Coastal Berry is part of our former company. My brother is the CEO. He has a new marketing plan and was looking for a marketing partner. He approached us and others in late summer, and this worked for both companies.”

TOP BRAND

The deal allows Sunkist to test the waters in fresh fruit other than citrus. For Coastal Berry, it gives access to additional markets and a consumer-trusted brand name.

“High-quality brand names are a growing market trend,” John Gargiulo said. “Consumers like to buy names they trust. We wanted to partner with Sunkist because Sunkist is one of the best known and most trusted brand names in fresh produce.”

John Gargiulo said the Sunkist brand and sales and marketing network would improve Coastal Berry’s ability to gain consumer awareness.

“I feel it’s time to see branded strawberries. They are very brandable because the packaging has labels,” he said.

Sunkist, which markets citrus for its 6,000 California and Arizona grower members, expects to target specific markets rather than a nationwide rollout in its first year of strawberry marketing.

“We’ll have a finite number of berries for the first year,” Jeff Gargiulo said. “The first year we’ll tread lightly and work out the kinks.”

Which markets will first see Sunkist-branded strawberries has not been determined.

Eventually Sunkist plans to target foodservice and retail with the strawberries, but it probably will go after retail consumers in the beginning.