The growth of the specialty category is readily apparent, said Jessie Capote, a partner in Miami-based distributor J&C Tropicals.

Most noticeable, he said, is “more and more retailers that want to carry the full line, as opposed to just a few tropical items.”

Retailers are looking to explore the category with wider offerings and bigger displays.

Other markets note certain ethnic communities — Hispanics and Asians, in particular — have set the pace for the entire specialty category.

“Many specialty items had their start in Asian cuisine, and as the North American Asian population grew retailers stocked this community’s favorites,” said Mary Ostlund, marketing director at Homestead, Fla.-based Brooks Tropicals Inc.

Availability has expanded the produce aisle, which other consumers noticed, Ostlund said.

“Many Latinos embraced Asian equivalents of their favorites, such as guava and starfruit, which often has degrees of tartness or sweetness,” she said.

Media exposure also has helped spread the word about specialty products, Ostlund said.

“Outside Asian and Latino communities, specialty produce found eager early adopters with cooking channels and new media food writers,” she said.

Suppliers have been able to accelerate the growth of specialties through value-added packaging, as well as information on how to use the items, said Charlie Eagle, vice president of business development with Pompano Beach, Fla.-based Southern Specialties Inc.

“We’re seeing significant growth in our value-added programs,” he said, adding that the company’s Southern Selects line combines longer shelf life and easy preparation through packaging technology.

“We’re responsive to what consumers want, and what we’re finding is that a large segment of today’s consumer is interested in a size that feeds two to four people,” he said, noting that Southern Specialties has an extensive line of specialty items in 6- to 8-ounce packs.

“We also have a larger format for larger families or for folks that are having parties,” he said.

The Southern Selects line and several of our private-label lines might include French beans, snow peas, sugar snap peas, hand-peeled baby carrots with tops, rainbow baby carrots with tops, trimmed brussels sprouts, asparagus tips and other products.

Italian cuisine is central to Le Grand, Calif.-based J. Marchini & Sons Inc., said Marc Marchini, sales and marketing director.

“I don’t think the specialty market is growing tremendously, but I think it’s a niche item, and it’s not going to follow the same path as your bigger items,” he said.

The company carries an array of specialty items, including several varieties of radicchio; fennel; kale; punatarelle, a chicory; cardone, a relative of the artichoke; romanesco, a cauliflower varietal; two varieties of figs; Marzano tomatoes; organic sweet corn; Romano beans; and almonds.

“Specialty crops take advantage of a niche with low-demand and control over supply,” Marchini said.

Summer is a time for specialty fruits to flourish, said Robert Schueller, public relations director with Vernon, Calif.-based World Variety Produce Inc., which ships under the Melissa’s label.

“For the upcoming summer season, I would definitely say a variety of tree fruits — not just your typical peach, nectarine and plum — are going to find their way to the customers,” Schueller said.

He added the company is seeing “great distribution for its red velvet and black velvet apricots, as well as Saturn peaches, royale nectarines and several plumcot varieties.

Demand for herbs has picked up, said Camilo Penalosa, vice president of business development with Miami-based Infinite Herbs & Specialties LLC.

“Lately, as the economy has improved some, we’ve noticed there’s been some increase in demand on herbs in higher-end restaurants, which are starting to ask for new products again,” he said.

Among the most popular items are lemongrass, Thai basil and ginger, he said.