The unique, bright colors of some specialty items, like gooseberries, help draw consumer attention to new products, says Doug Perkins, chief executive officer of HBF International.
The unique, bright colors of some specialty items, like gooseberries, help draw consumer attention to new products, says Doug Perkins, chief executive officer of HBF International.

Working with retailers to grow interest in the specialty produce category is a top goal for shippers.

“One neat thing is offering a new item as a weekly highlighted item on weekly fliers and loyalty cards,” said Robert Schueller, director of public relations for World Variety Produce Inc., Los Angeles, which markets under the Melissa’s brand.

Education is also important, others suggest.

“We need to help them be proficient in talking to customers about how to cook these items and how to eat them,” Overdorf said.
Charlie Eagle, vice president of business development, Southern Specialties, Pompano Beach, Fla., agreed education is important.

“You want to make sure the produce manager and clerks are fluent on the product — where it’s grown, how it’s used, and what it tastes like,” he said.

It’s a challenge specialty providers are willing to tackle, though, because without knowledge of a particular product it’s unlikely consumers will bring it home with them from the store.

Eagle also said that no matter how much companies put effort into designed educational packaging, it might not be enough.

“You really have to drive the point home. We try to do that with POS materials, website support, just trying to get them the information however we can,” he said.

Sometimes the fruit itself can be used for promotional support.

Doug Perkins, chief executive officer of HBF International LLC, McMinnville, Ore., said demand for specialty berries has mirrored the interest consumers have in more traditional berries.

“I think the health benefits of berries are really driving demand. Consumers, particularly the younger generation, wants to try something new that will still give them those benefits,” Perkins said.

HBF International is the sales and packing organization for Hurst’s Berry Farm

In terms of packaging, Perkins said the unique look of some specialty items can be helpful in attracting consumers.

“The gooseberries are really bright green, and the red currants are bright red, so people gravitate towards that on the shelf,” he said.


Mike Contreras, director of marketing for Houston-based Mex-Flores Produce, said he has seen a lot of progress in the way retailers handle specialty items, particularly offerings for ethnic minorities.

“We did have challenges with those special items at first, but retailers have really come on board,” he said.

Some stores have really committed, even looking for employees that have an existing knowledge of items like corn husks, used for making tamales.

“They did a great job of looking for produce managers with an ethnic background, which really helps us,” Contreras said.

Other stores demonstrated their willingness to embrace the category by simply having an open mind and being willing to try new things while learning about the new items.

“We used to do a lot of in-store demos, although they are a lot more familiar with those items now. They’ve just been very willing to participate with these new items,” Contreras said.

Karen Caplan, president and chief executive officer of Frieda’s Inc., Los Alamitos, Calif., said she also has seen success with retailers.

“We’ve seen explosive growth in the category. I think that’s because for many years, specialty produce was seen as a necessary evil, and retailers often equated the category with shrink,” Caplan said. “But they’ve recognized that those items can actually attract customers into the store.”

One product in particular, cherimoya, recently demonstrated the effectiveness of this trend, she said.

When retailers decide they want to feature an item, consumers usually respond by buying it, she said.

“We couldn’t keep it in stock any week of the year. We could not get enough fruit. Whatever growers had sold out immediately. They were fighting over it,” Caplan said.


Sampling is the best way to get consumers to try something new and to educate them on new items, said Jill Overdorf, director of business and culinary development at Coosemans L.A. Shipping, Vernon, Calif.

“We just have to get the food in their mouths,” she said.

Eagle agreed sampling is a great way to promote specialty items.

He has seen retailers use this with success, but he knows it’s sometimes cost-prohibitive.

“I don’t think there’s anything more effective than allowing customers to see what the food tastes like, but it’s just not always financially feasible for all retailers,” he said.

Higher-end retailers are often the more likely locations to see sampling, but Eagle said Costco also samples a lot of items.

“You don’t really see anyone sampling more than Costco, although they don’t do as much with produce,” he said.