Increasing ethnic minority populations and their discriminating tastes appear to be helping red and burro bananas, plantains and other specialty banana-related varieties, according to banana marketing agents.

Plantains lead the field, they say.

“That’s a pretty steady business, but with the Hispanic trade,” said Dave Hahn, buyer with Ephrata, Pa.-based Four Seasons Produce Inc. “You’re not getting Anglos consumption of bananas to grow anywhere near some of the other commodities in the department.”

The heaviest emphasis on marketing in the banana area comes with the specialty varieties, and sometimes they’re priced at levels designed to lure customers into the stores, Hahn said.

“Only the ones that market aggressively to Hispanic trade, and what we find the most successful, the merchants that have Hispanic trade, we find they use in many cases plantains as a loss leader,” he said.

He called plantains an “essential” item for customers in the Hispanic trade.

“They use you for plantains and a couple of other staples in their diets, and you pretty much have their whole shopping order.

Coral Gables, Fla.-based Banacol Marketing Corp. has a healthy plantain business, said Bill Sheridan, executive vice president of sales.

“We absolutely try to promote that,” he said.

Part of the plan is educating the consumer about the item, particularly the difference between plantains and bananas, Sheridan said.

“We’re seeing a lot of growth potential in that category, as more and more people experience and taste it,” he said. “Every food show we’ve done in the last couple of years we’ve had it on display, and everybody is excited about how plantains taste.

“That’s really the biggest thing with that item – educating people and doing as many demos as you can to help promote that. You really have to go out there and educate them on what ( are, their nutritional benefit and how you prepare them.”

Miami-based Turbana Corp. uses the exotic varieties to enhance its overall banana category, said Marion Tabard, marketing director.

“All (specialty varieties) offer excellent ways to expand and grow the category for retailers,” Tabard said. “Education to the consumer about preparation, storage and taste are all key facilitators to having success at the retail level.”

Tabard said plantain imports into the U.S. have grown by 90% over the last 20 years.

“It’s one of the fastest growing categories in the produce department, a staple among ethnic communities that has crossed over and become mainstream,” Tabard said.

Specialties, such as plantains, are about 20% of banana category sales at Jessup, Md.-based Lancaster Foods Inc., said Jason Sigg, a buyer and ripener with the wholesale distributor, which has customers from New England to North Carolina.

“It’s gotten better,” he said. “In this area, it’s a big item. In fact, it’s hard to show them. They’re not moving at the rate of bananas, but it’s a big improvement.”

As for red bananas, Sigg said, “We have a few, if people ask.”

Smart retailers keep a regular stock of specialties because the category is growing, said Ed Odron, a consultant with Stockton, Calif.-based Produce Marketing Services.

“A few years ago, you sold 25-30 loads of bananas and 1,000 cases of plantains,” he said. “Now, they’re doing quite well in the stores. You get into the Central American and Hispanic customers, and they’re really becoming a real item for us.”

“Organics and plantains continue to be a growing part of our volume,” said Craig Stephen, vice president of North American bananas for Cincinnati-based Chiquita Brands International Inc.