Defining specialty produce isn’t always a simple task, according to growers and shippers.

Some categories of specialty produce are actually subcategories of more traditional items, according to Charlie Eagle, vice president of business development, Southern Specialties, Pompano Beach, Fla.

“A specialty category within a broader category is still a specialty item. You can look at a lot of mainstream items and find a lingering specialty item within that category that will likely someday gain greater attention of its own,” Eagle said.

Examples include purple asparagus and heirloom tomatoes, he said.

The special in specialties

Jill Overdorf, director of business and culinary development at Coosemans L.A. Shipping, Vernon, Calif., said it’s harder to find items that can truly be considered special.

“The term specialty produce is really becoming more of a misnomer, because of the growth of certain trends within the category. We’re really talking about things that are more uncommon rather than truly special,” she said.

For example, the ghost pepper, once considered a new specialty item, is becoming much better known. Other chili peppers are following that path.

“Those items were once relegated to the Latin market, but things like pimiento de padron and shishitos are pretty common on a lot of appetizer lists. We have a very sophisticated multiethnic pallet that has developed in food centers around the country,” she said.

Overdorf said one reason behind this is the increase in demand for produce favorites of various ethnic minorities.

“After immigrating, people want the food from their homes, which is really changing the way we eat as Americans. It’s no longer just about meat and potatoes,” she said.


Wes Hamilton, executive chef for Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, Teton Village, Wyo., said he doesn’t believe we’ll run out of true specialty produce items. He thinks chefs and other food industry influences will keep finding more unique items to feature.

“The food we eat is ever-evolving,” he said.

Chefs at top restaurants around the world have started to explore naturally growing greens that were once considered just a weed, he said.

No matter what qualifies as true specialty produce, shippers agree that demand is rising. However, higher demand doesn’t always mean that the category is seeing explosive growth.

“The price of these items have tended to keep demand a little lower, although it’s neat to see the availability and demand grow,” said Robert Schueller, director of public relations for World Variety Produce Inc., Los Angeles, which markets under the Melissa’s brand.