Armand Lobato, The Produce Aisle
Armand Lobato, The Produce Aisle

Depending on which science journal a person reads, there are 10,000 to 15,000 plants in the world that produce food, food in the form of roots, foliage, or the fruit the plant produces.

Of this amazing number, even the most accomplished produce professionals among us can identify (at most) a few hundred. Of this amount, I propose that 10% account for, say, 90% or more of fresh produce sales.

It isn’t that customers aren’t adventurous or there’s some world-conspiracy to limit what crops consumers do or don’t eat. I don’t believe it’s all that complicated. As humans, we’re creatures of habit. We work all day, run errands on the way home, and then duck into the grocery store to pick up dinner.

We’re tired. We’re hungry. We gravitate to the 10% of the foods we’re familiar with.

No surprises. That’s the shopping pattern for most of us. So what makes us change? What makes a consumer take the culinary road less traveled?

For one thing, I think it’s our other human nature to seek a little diversity. If a consumer was recently at a restaurant and they were served a salad topped with fresh pomegranate arils and tangerine segments, it could just compel them to duplicate the effort at home.

Ah, that’s just the trick, isn’t it, a good restaurant experience?

So many times, our foodservice brethren are leading the way to introduce exotic items in menus, which many times end up as a mainstay in the retail produce aisle.

It wasn’t that long ago that items such as jicama, tomatillo and cilantro weren’t common. It was only after customers tried them at restaurants that they started asking retailers to stock these items. Think how shredded fennel and candy-striped or golden beets began adorning salads and are now retail mainstays. Same thing with mini squashes, ginger and spring mix.

We can also thank the Food Network chefs who Bammed!, Yum-Oh’d and otherwise wooed consumers into seeking out specialty produce. Consider how fresh herbs, for example, are a favorite of self-proclaimed home chefs. An entire category born, thanks to culinary influence.

So what is the next kiwifruit, which is used by many as a yardstick to gauge an item’s success.

It could be a yet-to-be discovered berry. Perhaps a more-tender kale variety (anyone believe how that humble green shot to the front of the class?). Coming on strong are new apple varieties, heirloom tomatoes and fingerling potatoes.

Although consumers tend to shop in a set pattern, it just takes a slight ripple in the culinary pool to generate appetites that crave something new. The good produce manager will recognize this and seize the opportunity.

Armand Lobato works for the Idaho Potato Commission. His 30 years of experience in the produce business span a range of foodservice and retail positions.

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