Flavor guides Russell family's melon business

06/11/2013 03:21:00 PM
Vicky Boyd

In its advertisements, winemaker Paul Masson used to boast, “We’ll sell no wine before its time.”

The Russell family behind Sandstone Marketing Inc., Yuma, Ariz., has put a slightly different spin on the motto and will pick no melon before its time.

“Flavor is our mantra — it’s burned into each employee that works for us,” said Milas Russell, director of marketing. “We tell them, ‘pick the melons that you’d pick for your families.’”

Equally important is the company’s food safety program, headed by Russell’s mother, Diana Russell, who’s in the field each day alongside the harvest crews. The company complies with the new mandatory food safety program at the California Cantaloupe Advisory Board.

“We’re well ahead of the pack,” he said.

The operation begins harvesting in the desert Southwest in May, then transitions to the Westside for about two months before moving to other locations, ending the season in late October.

Sandstone Marketing has continued to reduce plantings of traditional Western shipper cantaloupe hybrids and doesn’t even produce honeydews.

In their place is the growing line of specialty melons marketed under the Kiss brand that includes Honey Kiss, Sugar Kiss, Golden Kiss and Summer Kiss.

The specialty melon focus was an offshoot of a fresh-cut endeavor begun in the early 2000s, Russell said.

The operation conducted field trials to find hybrids that were the best suited in terms of flavor and texture for fresh-cut.

Some of the ones that didn’t make it for fresh-cut nevertheless had wonderful flavors and wound up in the Kiss line.

The operation continues to conduct field trials to find hybrids that have desirable and consistent flavor and can be grown in all of its production areas.

The Honey Kiss, for example, is a hami type (a type of muskmelon from China)of melon from Syngenta vegetable seeds division to which Sandstone has exclusive marketing rights, said Mark Jirak, portfolio manager for melons, squash and cucumbers.

Originally from China, hami types of melon have an oval shape, light netting, light salmon-colored flesh and a honey-like aroma.

“There’s keen interest in those kinds of niche-differentiated melons,” Jirak said.

Sandstone Marketing works with select independent retailers and a few large ones that share Sandstone’s philosophy that flavor is paramount.

“We make sure the program works from customer to customer,” he said. “We develop our own point-of-sale materials, and we’re active on social media.”

An integral part is the “meet the growers” program where growers and their families visit retailers and interact with customers.

“It’s been a huge driver of the partnerships with our customers,” Russell said.

Samplings at retailers also are an important part of the program.

Russell said he didn’t view other melons in the category as competitors. Instead, he sees other sweet snacks as their rivals.

If he can provide a child with a treat as tasty as a Lemonheads hard candy but with much better nutrition, Russell said he knows he has a winning combination.

“When we do meet the growers, we see children as the driving force,” he said.



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