When miniature watermelon first hit the market, some were worried it might cannibalize the business of normal-sized melons.
So far, though, the traditional watermelon’s “Mini-Me” has been able to build up its own following without stealing any stomach from its master.
Gordon Hunt, marketing director for the Orlando, Fla.-based National Watermelon Promotion Board said 26% of mini watermelon consumption happens during the winter, when people’s watermelon consumption turns away from full-sized melons and toward the smaller or fresh-cut options.
“I don’t think it’ll ever reach the level of a regular seedless watermelon,” said Lou Kertesz, vice president of Pompano Beach, Fla.-based Fresh Quest Produce Inc.
“Minis we’ll offer as a variety, but I don’t see demand increasing that much on that variety.”
Personal-sized melons serve their purpose in the industry through being a value-added product to consumers, he said.
Woodland, Calif.-based Timco Worldwide Inc. has seen success in pushing mini watermelons in bins instead of cartons, said Rex Lawrence, vice president of operations.
“A few years ago we started putting minis in bins, and it validated a suspicion I had that if you can put a great product in a bin, you’re going to attract consumers’ attention because they can see it,” Lawrence said.
“Our retailers are selling more mini melons. We think it’s going to be bigger than ever.”
Lawrence said part of the success of the program, from the retailer’s perspective, is that the small melons can be sold per unit, instead of per pound. He said it benefits retailers to follow the same guidelines for regular-sized watermelons.
“We have found that when retailers sell seedless by the unit, it’s easier for the consumer,” Lawrence said.
He recalled visiting a retailer and watching a woman try to lift a full-sized watermelon onto a scale, and then trying to watch the dial as it circled the 10-pound circle more than once, to figure out the weight of the watermelon.
“She bought it, but I don’t think she knew how much she was going to pay for it until she got to check-out,” Lawrence said.
Allan Girvin, business development manager for L&M Cos. Inc., Raleigh, N.C., said his company has actually seen some changes to cartons over bins in the retail and foodservice sectors. The size of the actual melons ordered, however, has stayed the same.
Fresh-cut steps up
Fresh-cut melons also seem to be on the rise, according to some shippers.
“This year we actually see it increasing a little bit from last year,” said Michael Warren, president of Central American Produce, Pompano Beach.
“That’s a good market segment to have some volume in.”
Girvin said L&M is constantly working on finding the best melon variety for the fresh-cut sector, although it doesn’t sell fresh-cut melons itself.
“We have varieties that when cut and merchandised in the convenience case at retail, the color is more vivid than some traditional varieties, presenting a more colorful and exciting appearance,” Girvin said.
In addition to its cantaloupe, honeydew and watermelon programs, Coral Gables, Fla.-based Del Monte Fresh Produce also ships specialty melons and fresh-cut melon products.
“Purchases are up, however, consumers continue to look for a first-class taste experience that has simply not been there in many of the melon varieties now being sold,” said Dennis Christou, vice president of marketing.
Retailers embrace specialty melons
Retailers are trying new varieties and are carrying more SKUs, a trend Del Monte has embraced by putting resources into research and development to bring new melon varieties into the pipeline, Christou said.
Nogales, Ariz.-based Al Harrison Produce Co. also ships specialty melons, including a yellow-flesh seedless watermelon.
Melon growers are constantly looking for new seed varieties and growing methods that can improve their products.
“There are seeds we’ve used 15 years plus, but we’re constantly doing trials with our growers,” said Brent Harrison, president of Al Harrison Produce.
“If a seed company has something they’re ready to test, we’ll put in a few rows in our field.”
The ideal watermelon is in the 13- to 18-pound weight range and is consistent on quality, Harrison said.
“If they have a great melon, they’re going to come back,” Harrison said.
“If they have one that’s just so-so, they’ll switch to another commodity, won’t be back for a week or two, maybe longer.”
Lawrence said Timco Worldwide is continuing its relationship with Israel-based Origine, a seed company, to develop exclusive melon varieties.
One of its goals is to develop a seedless watermelon that has the flavor qualities of a seeded variety.
“A lot of people will tell you seeded tastes better than a seedless,” Lawrence said. “So we’re working on developing a seedless watermelon with the seeded experience.”
Lawrence said the company’s focus is really on flavor, and that it sees the melon itself as just a container.
Central American Produce is growing super-sweet varieties of cantaloupe, Warren said. The company also concentrates on harvesting more frequently to make sure the fruit provides a consistent flavor, he said.
Midwest Marketing Co. is testing a new variety of cantaloupe in Indiana, but is sticking with athena and aphrodite varieties, traditional Eastern cantaloupes, for its volume production.
All the options the watermelon category has developed over the last 20 years have helped bring it out of a slump, Hunt said.
“I think we’re coming up on a golden age,” Hunt said.
“Twenty years ago it was archaic and declining. Now value is increasing. I think we’re ideally suited for at least the next 10 years.”
Fresh Quest Produce switched its honeydew variety of choice to harper a few years ago, and others are following suit this season, Kertesz said. Since the company developed the harper melon with a seed company, it plans to implement the same development technique during the next few seasons to develop an even sweeter, more consistent variety.
“We’re looking for a honeydew that’s super sweet with a long shelf life,” Kertesz said.
“Honeydew doesn’t usually sell as much as cantaloupe, but if it’s really sweet and has good flavor, it would.”