Grower-shippers say U.S. consumers might buy more chili peppers if they knew more about their flavors, heat and uses.

There’s still a lot of confusion among some consumers about chili peppers, said Mike Aiton, marketing director for Prime Time International, Coachella, Calif.

He recommended placing signs near pepper displays to inform shoppers which ones are hot or mild, and whether they’re best for particular recipes or to serve fresh in salads.

“Something saying it’s hot or spicy, or this is what you get when you order chili rellenos in a restaurant,” he said.

Many consumers are still afraid to try chili peppers because they think all of them are hot, said Javier Gonzalez, director of category management for Edinburg, Texas-based Frontera Produce LLC. Providing recipes and options for their use might eliminate some concerns.

“Educating consumers and showing them simple recipes … that don’t require them to have a master’s degree in Mexican cooking” will add sales, he said.

It’s important to keep convenience in mind, Gonzalez said. Some chilies require only washing and slicing before being put on salads or sandwiches. Others can simply be washed and grilled. Or retailers might suggest that shoppers pick up a few ingredients, such as chili peppers, tomatoes, tomatillos and cilantro, to put in the blender for salsa.

“If it requires five steps before you eat it, that’s a problem,” Gonzalez said.

Frontera markets a core mix of anaheim, poblano, serrano and jalapeño peppers, most of which are grown in Mexico. As of April 21, Frontera’s growers were waiting for some areas to start production. Some that would normally have started by then had been delayed by a couple weeks because of a relatively cold and wet winter, Gonzalez said.

Prices for 1 1/9-bushel cartons of jalapeño peppers through McAllen, Texas, sold for $24-25 in late April, Gonzalez said. A typical price at that time of year would be $18-20, but volumes were lower than normal.

On May7, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported prices of Mexican large jalapeno peppers, crossing at Nogales, Ariz., a 35-40 cents a pound for 1 1/9-bushel cartons; large anaheims were 38-40 cents a pound and large serranos were 65-70 cents a pound.

Chilies are a major commodity in Mexico, and dynamics in the wholesale market there strongly influence the markets in the U.S., Gonzalez said.

Prime Time started picking anaheim, jalapeño and yellow chilies in Coachella on April 29, Aiton said. It’s a small and seasonal deal that is expected to last through June.

Raleigh, N.C.-based L&M Cos. Inc. markets jalapeño, anaheim, serrano and hungarian wax peppers grown in Georgia. Harvest is expected to begin in early June, said Greg Cardamone, general manager of the vegetable division. In late April, the crop looked good and June production was expected to be strong, he said.

Getting the right mix

L&M offers chili peppers as part of its broad mix of vegetables, Cardamone said.

“Our customers that are ordering standard vegetables like to make as few picks as possible,” he said.

Offering chilies is a way to offer more to its customers and to get the most out of transportation dollars, Cardamone said. Most of the customers who buy chili peppers from L&M are in the southern part of the U.S., although there is good demand in New York City and Boston, and some demand in the Midwest.

In the past, Frontera carried cubanelles and other varieties of hot peppers, but found that those four work best in its product mix.

The easiest way to pack and price chilies is by the 1 1/9-bushel carton, but Frontera also packs half-bushels and 5-, 10- and 20-pound boxes.

Gonzalez said the company might eventually offer some display-ready packages, such as clamshells, but the idea was still in development.

Packaging preferences vary by geography. In Mexico and Texas, retailers have displays of bulk chilies, Gonzalez said, but some supermarkets in Florida display chilies in half-pound to 3/4-pound boxes with overwrap.

A lot of Frontera’s buyers are in markets with fairly low concentrations of consumers from cultures where chilies are traditionally eaten, Gonzalez said.

U.S. consumers are increasing their purchases of chili peppers, he said. With Southwestern cuisine and Tex-Mex spreading throughout the country through quick-serve restaurants such as Chipotle and Baja Fresh, chili peppers are almost mainstream. Media and high-profile chefs, such as Bobby Flay and Rick Bayless, also help promote the use of chili peppers.

“When you see them, they’re talking about super simple things, not recipes with 15 steps,” Gonzalez said. “Them saying, ‘This is easy, you can do it too’ — that’s what we need.”