The excitement, flavor and cultural connection to the tropical fruit category are all reasons that grower-shippers say the category will continue to grow despite a down economy.

"Tropicals are a great opportunity to pick up some of those negative sales trends that stores are experiencing," said Jeff Shilling, vice president of procurement for RLB Food Distributors, West Caldwell, N.J.

Shilling said a proper display and price are the difference that will motivate consumers to make a tropicals impulse buy.

Charlie Eagle, vice president of business development for Southern Specialties Inc., Pompano Beach, Fla., said it is much more than a search for something different that draws consumers to the category.

"Tropicals create a great palette for retailers to market the product or to put the product out on the shelf," he said. "The fact that it has good flavor translates to excitement when it's gray and dreary outside."

Robert Schueller, director of public relations for World Variety Produce, Los Angeles, said he believes the category will not suffer because of the economy through the remainder of the spring and into the summer as ethnic-minority buyers buoy demand.

"Here in the United States, with our global ethnicities, many of the exotic fruits that we offer are staples," he said. "We don't lose those customers."

"Hispanics and Asians do cook at home more," agreed Mark Vertrees, marketing manager at M&M Farms, Miami, who sources tropicals from Costa Rica, Panama, Nicaragua and the Caribbean. "They take time to prepare meals and they cook a lot more than Americans do."

Although Vertrees admitted a drop in demand for some items, he said others have seen an up tick and overall M&M is "holding steady."

"The economy is very delicate, we see that," said Luis Diaz, West Coast salesman for Diazteca Co., Nogales, Ariz. "When a fruit is not very well-known, it is going to suffer a little."

Diaz said because many tropicals are still unfamiliar to mainstream Americans the economic pinch is hampering taste buds.

"They are not exploring fruits and new flavors," he said.

Shilling agreed that the "so-called staples" of tropicals - such as pineapples, mangoes, avocados and kiwifruit - will continue to sell, but people will buy less of them.

However, the exotic tropicals like mangosteen, dragonfruit, sapote and others in the specialty category will suffer.

Adding value

Mary Ostlund, marketing director of Brooks Tropicals Inc., Miami, thanks the Food Network for its valuable source of information and said it will have the effect of kick-starting tropical fruits and vegetables, but retailers also will have to do their part and provide value to consumers.

"We're hearing people are very much interested in what kind of bang for the buck does your produce give us," she said. "Sometimes they think, 'tropicals are exotic and they might be more expensive,' but in actuality, they deliver a lot of fruit, a lot of vegetable for the dollar."

Vertrees agreed customers seek value.

"They see tropicals as a value - where a lot of the other items in the produce department, like packaged salads, I know, are struggling or have a higher price point," he said. "If anything, I think tropicals are increasing in category space versus many of the other things in the produce departments."

Mark Falkner, director of sales of limes and tropicals at L&M Cos., Raleigh, N.C., said one way retailers can provide value to consumers and increase profit is with sizing.

"You've got different sizes that you can promote," he said.

An example he gave was of mangoes that have good shelf life at a smaller size.

Category growth

Jessie Capote, vice president of operations and co-owner of J&C Tropicals Inc., Miami, said the ice was broken for the tropicals category by mangoes and papayas and now that consumers are familiar with the items, they are willing to try new products.

"I think for the most part the trend is gravitating towards tropicals in general," he said. "You start looking for others simply because it has gone well, and you want to know more about the line."

Capote said coupled with more restaurants offering tropicals as appetizers and side dishes, the category has grown about 20% a year for the last couple of years.

"It's certainly an exciting category," agreed Ricardo Crisantes, general manager at Cris-P Produce Inc., Nogales. "We have a lot of room to grow in tropicals."

Crisantes cited Cris-P's mango deal, which grew from five or six loads in 2001 to an estimated 80 to 100 loads.

World Variety's Schueller disagreed with many of the suppliers who see expansion of the category during tough economic times.

"The exotic tropical fruit category has during this economy right now kind of peaked at the moment, and you can assume that some people are buying down or going back to their staples," he said.