Marketers of tropical produce say that while demand in ethnic markets remains strong, mainstream consumers also are gaining new interest.

“We are starting to penetrate mainstream America,” said Chris Ciruli, partner in Ciruli Bros. LLC, Nogales, Ariz. “There is definitely a heavier following with Asians and Hispanics, but there is still a bit of market share to gain.”

Luis Diaz, salesman for Diazteca Co., Nogales, Ariz., agreed that tropicals, especially fresh-cut mangoes at club stores, are expanding their reach.

“The fresh-cut is a good influence for the industry because they give the mangoes ready to eat to the people,” he said.

Diaz said allowing unfamiliar consumers to get a first taste of tropicals through fresh-cut will create the hook and prompt them to select and cut the fruit themselves.

Jeff Shilling, vice president of procurement for RLB Food Distributors, West Caldwell, N.J., said his customer base is not an ethnic-based one.

“Our consumers that are buying the product are not buying the product because of ethnic recognition, but they are buying it because the have had it and they like it,” he said, reinforcing several supplier claims that more Americans are gaining a familiarity with tropical items.

Not a staple

For many Asian and Hispanic cultures, tropical fruit and vegetables are a staple part of their diet. Even when prices rise, they will still buy the foods they are accustomed to eating, suppliers said.

That’s not so for Americans in a recession, said Doria Potts-Blonder, sales and marketing director for New Limeco LLC, Princeton, Fla.

“They are not a staple now because of the economy. They are not running out to buy this,” she said. “They are more in demand for the Hispanics who have moved into the country as opposed to the people that watched the Food Network and said, ‘I’m going to go out and buy that.’”
Dorian Gallegos, director of procurement for Frieda’s Inc., Los Alamitos, Calif., said the question of whether tropicals are ethnic or mainstream is a difficult one, and she also pointed to the increased popularity of the Food Network.

“With the gaining popularity of the Food Network and other cooking-type channels, we have seen an explosion of people that consider themselves foodies,” he said. “Consumers across the board are open to trying new things.”

Gallegos also said that more consumers are thinking of tropical items as commodities subject to price wars.

“When you see specialty produce, there is kind of a negative connotation to that. Immediately people think that I’m going to be paying more,” he said. “I don’t think that that is the case any more because competition is so fierce out there.”

Gallegos said there is no one approach that works for every demographic when it comes to attracting interest in a category. Instead, she said, growers have to think more like shoppers.

“‘What price would I have to see this at — not knowing anything about it — to try it?’” he said is the question they must ask. “If you ask that question enough and (determine) what retail has to make for their market, and then factor in the freight and everything else, then you can figure out what to sell it for.”

Loyal consumer base

Suppliers agree that the core markets for many tropicals are still ethnic communities. They say with significant ethnic populations in every major metropolitan area, focusing on the ethnic market remains a winning strategy.

“The core markets are a lot of the ethnic markets,” said Robert Schueller, director of public relations for World Variety Produce Inc., Los Angeles, which distributes to 20 retailers across the country in what he said includes every major metropolitan area. “By education, media, cookbooks and stuff that is available to people — food sections of the newspaper, foodie magazines — all influence these exotic fruits to cross over to mainstream customers.”

Schueller said that means the priority is still to cater to the core customers, but there is an increasing trend for crossover stores who want to be a “one-stop shop” that includes exotic produce items.

“If the store does a decent job of selling mangoes … there is a potential for a lot of these exotic fruits to have potential,” he said. “Look how far we have come in the last 10 years with mangoes. Before you couldn’t find them outside of stores that catered to ethnic consumers.”

Mary Ostlund, marketing director for Brooks Tropicals Inc., Homestead, Fla., said that a produce section must have variety and address the demographics of a particular store’s community to be successful.

“If you are not addressing every single part of your community — ethnic Hispanic, Asian or folks who are wanting to try something new and different — then you are losing those sales to someone else,” she said. “It’s not what do you carry, but how do you carry it.”

Ostlund said knowing how to carry tropicals means understanding what the right mix is for your store to address the needs of its consumers. She added that Brooks works with buyers to design a specialized produce mix.

(Note on correction: The original article incorrectly identified Dorian Gallegos.)