The specialty produce category is fluid, since some items seem to reach a critical mass of customers that move them into the mainstream each year, marketing agents say.
“Asian pears and jicama are two specialty items that have the most potential,” said Karen Caplan, chief executive officer of San Juan Bautista, Calif.-based Frieda’s Inc.
She said the two items’ mildness and adaptability make them prime candidates to move up.
“They can be consumed everyday, and consumers relate to the crunchy sweet flavor,” she said.
She said kiwifruit, once considered a specialty fruit, has set an example the other products can follow.
Sometimes, deciding the distinction between specialty and mainstream is blurry, said James Macek, president of Coosemans Denver Inc.
“There’s always a great debate of the chicken or the egg, but in most cases I think the specialty items used on the foodservice levels and in restaurants sort of kick off the specialty food interest,” he said.
Mesclun, a relatively new item 20 years ago, has made it into the mainstream and is now found regularly in salads, Macek noted.
There are other items that have found similar success, he said.
“Portabellas and radicchio are now mainstream, and I think we’ll see lychee nuts, rambutan and a host of fruits and vegetables moving their way into the mainstream,” he said.
There probably are limits on what items will make the jump, said Charlie Eagle, vice president of business development with Pompano Beach, Fla.-based Southern Specialties.
“I don’t think the French bean or sugar snap pea or ever going to become something people are buying large bulk quantities as a substitute for a mainstream vegetable,” he said.
But those and many other specialty items are widely available and, therefore, have the potential for more sales, he said.
“We’re seeing growth in all of our categories, and to a certain extent that’s because they’re easy to purchase,” he said.
The focus on nutrition likely will give all specialty items a boost, as it has more common products, said Marc Marchini, sales and marketing manager for Le Grand, Calif.-based J. Marchini & Sons Inc.
“People are starting to realize they don’t have to eat a just lettuce-based salad anymore. They see all the leafy vegetables out there,” he said.
Saturn peaches have become a standard fruit, after only about a decade on the market, and plumcots have made big gains, as well, said Robert Schueller, public relations director with Vernon, Calif.-based World Variety Produce Inc., which ships its produce under the Melissa’s label.
“During the season, it’s actually easier to find plumcots than it is to find plums,” he said.
Mangoes and papayas have crossed over, as well, said Jessie Capote, partner in Miami-based J&C Tropicals.