Cavendish remains king in the banana category, but demand for specialty bananas is in increasing at a rapid pace.

“In the last five years, we’ve experienced double-digit growth with plantains, close to 40 percent,” said Robert Schueller, director of public relations for Melissa’s World Variety Produce Inc., Los Angeles. “The most popular specialty, by far, is plantains because they are a staple for Hispanics.”

Schueller said many retailers are expanding their bananas offerings because of the growth of the Hispanic population in the United States. He said Melissa’s has seen growth of roughly 20 percent in the other specialty bananas it sells: baby bananas, burros, reds and manzanos.

Frieda’s Inc., Los Alamitos, Calif., started selling plantains and red bananas about 40 years ago and later added manzanos, burros and baby bananas, said president and chief executive officer Karen Caplan. Frieda’s initially experienced slow, steady growth in demand for all the items, she said, but sales have surged in the past five to 10 years.

Caplan said that although the growing Hispanic population explains some of the story about increased demand, it doesn’t tell the whole story.

“Over the years, a lesson I’ve learned is that if you don’t put it out there, you don’t know if you have demand,” she said. “We were working with one Midwestern retailer that was stocking regular cavndish bananas. They were focused on promoting tropicals and subtropicals, so we suggested they put specialty bananas next to the bananas. What they found is that they sold. If you put anything next to bananas it will sell because bananas are the No. 1 item in the produce department. Specialty bananas sell in every market where they’re made available.”

While Melissa’s and Frieda’s are known for specialty produce, bigger banana marketers also are seeing growth in specialty bananas.

Marion Tabard, marketing director for Coral Gables, Fla.-based Turbana Corp., said informing consumers about the fruits’ characteristics and uses is critical.

“Turbana offers its retail partners videos and other in-store tools, such as recipe cards and signs, to educate consumers about specialty products,” she said. “These tools give the basic info consumers need to know to feel comfortable to buy them and cook with them, all in a fun way. Additionally, Turbana educates consumers through its social media channels with recipes, quick tips, fun facts and videos.”

Dole Fresh Fruit, Westlake Village, Calif., is the nation’s largest distributor of Cavendish bananas, but the company also sees growth in its other bananas products.

“These types of bananas are becoming more prevalent not just at specialty and ethnic retailers, but at mainstream supermarkets alongside the conventional cavendish bananas, which still remain the most popular variety,” said Bil Goldfield, director of corporate communications for Dole. “As these specialty varieties become more mainstream, we are starting to fold them into our consumer-facing and retailer programs in the form of web content, PR outreach and consumer and retailer collateral. These specialty products are also a big hit at our media and blogger events attended by foodies, culinary experts, chefs, registered dietitians and other ambassadors. Often, it is this audience that is the catalyst for new food trends.”

Dennis Christou, vice president of marketing for Del Monte Fresh Produce, Coral Gables, Fla., said other factors contributing to the growth of specialty bananas are consumers developing more sophisticated taste profiles, trends in healthy eating and increasing interest in exotic foods.

Schueller said one added benefit of specialty bananas for retailers is longer shelf life because they don’t ripen as quickly as the Cavendish.