Fifty years ago, U.S. banana importers were facing difficult business prospects. Disease and poor quality were ruining the Gros Michel banana crops and demand was falling. But Standard Fruit and Steamship Co., now known as Dole Food Co., then based in New Orleans, started experimenting with a different variety and new packaging.

After more than nine years and the introduction of the cavendish banana, the company started shipping its “plantation packed” bananas in cartons by the 1960s, doing away with the cumbersome stem-form shipping that often led to bruised fruit.

Bruce Paschal, who was vice president of marketing at Standard Fruit Co. when the cartons were introduced, said the company needed to sell its customers on the idea of boxed bananas, which were more expensive and required different handling and ripening methods.

Paschal is organizing a reunion for the Standard Fruit and Dole employees who helped introduce boxed bananas to the American consumers.

The reunion is set for March 19-21 at the Omni Royal Orleans Hotel in New Orleans.

“We thought it would work because we saw it work,” Paschal said.

The boxed bananas, packed at the company’s Latin American plantations and handled only when the fruit arrived at the retail store or wholesaler, changed the industry standard and helped drive up banana consumption in the U.S., Paschal said.

Banana box pioneers meet for 50-year reunion
Banana box pioneers meet for 50-year reunion

Photos courtesy Dole Food Co. 

Before cavendish bananas were the norm, bananas were shipped by the stalk instead of in corrugated cartons. Standard Fruit and Steamship Co., the precursor to Dole Food Co., was instrumental in leading the industry shift to new packaging 50 years ago.

It was a tough sell to customers and the industry, who were skeptical boxed and water-cooled bananas would provide a permanent solution to all the problems bananas growers and importers faced for so long, Paschal said.

A 1960 press release from Standard Fruit announcing its new innovation heralds the “uniform ripening” of boxed bananas and the “superb quality” of the fruit at retail, promising fruit free from pests, blemishes and scarring.

“As you would imagine the development of the banana box had a monumental impact on our industry,” said William Goldfield, communications manager for Dole Food Co., Westlake Village, Calif.

“It brought about much better fruit selection than before, improved quality of the portions of fruit being shipped, it made transportation significantly more efficient” in terms of weight.

After working out the kinks of transition to a different ripening and cooling system, Paul Yoder, who was part of Standard Fruit’s marketing team, said that’s exactly what consumers got.

Yoder started with Standard Fruit in the early 1960s and said it was a complicated project to undertake but gave the company the lead in bananas.

“We were the only ones shipping cavendish in boxes,” said Yoder, who plans to attend the reunion.

Paschal said the occasion of the 50th anniversary meant the timing was right to get the group back together, many of whom retired decades ago.

More than 100 people expect to attend, Paschal said, to see each other after more than 30 years and remember what is like to change the banana industry.