Specialty produce sector shows gains

06/16/2011 03:02:00 PM
Dan Gailbraith

Specialty produce is in growth mode, marketers say. One indication of that growth is that the category is becoming more difficult to define, said James Macek, president of Coosemans Denver Inc. and Coosemans Phoenix LLC.

“That’s becoming a more narrow field to try to quantify,” he said. “At one time, it was spring mix or mesclun lettuce and things that kind of sold under the specialty umbrella, but with each passing year, more and more products move from the specialty category into the mainstream. Portabellas are one example, in the retail and foodservice sectors.”

He cited fresh herbs as another example.

“They fell under that specialty umbrella, but obviously, fresh herbs have been embraced on the foodservice and retail sides, and off we go,” he said. “It’s already a small world, but it becomes smaller and smaller with each passing year.”

Quick transport by airplane brings erstwhile exotic produce items to every corner of the U.S., Macek said.

“With shipping overnight and packaging and getting across the world quickly in a plane, it makes the world even smaller,” he said. “You have items in the specialty fruit and vegetable side, maybe rambutan, mangosteens. I think those are a couple of exotic items that would fall under the specialty umbrella, but I suspect in five to 10 years, those, too, will be busting into the mainstream.”

New items establish footholds and take off, Macek noted.

“The rambutan has certainly gotten a lot of enthusiasm,” he said. “We still have a lot of interest in fresh morel mushrooms, fortini mushrooms. The fiddlehead fern comes on at springtime, as well. The wild asparagus. Those are more foodservice seasonal favorites.”

Jaysen Weidner, salesman, Hurst’s Berry Farm, Sheridan, Ore., said the kiwiberry has shown noticeable growth.

“I think we’re right on the edge of making that next big step,” he said. “You can have them in a four- to five-week window. It makes it easier to get new consumers. All in all, we’ve developed a pretty good following and have good support with them.”

Many, if not all, specialty items get their start on the foodservice side of the business, Macek said.

“As with most in the specialty category, the incubation begins on the foodservice side, where chefs use them in their menus and introduce them to people,” he said. “Now, that whole chain of events has been sped up tenfold with the revolution of food shows.

“It used to be chefs would be in Miami or New York and reminding people of these exotic items. There was a trickle up about it, and before you know it, other places were bringing these items in and they’d appear in retail stores, where people would try and serve these things at home.”

Networks such as the Food Channel are speeding up that process, Macek noted.

“All sorts of chefs are out there, and they have all sorts of avenues for recipes and uses for these specialty items,” he said. “The food world has been exploding with interest, that’s for sure.”

Growth has rendered the specialty category itself with almost a blasé connotation, said Peter Schnebly, chief executive officer of Homestead, Fla.-based Fresh King Inc.

“I think the word ‘specialties’ has almost changed; the word ‘specialty’ is commonplace now,” he said. “There’s more planting, so there’s more product available.”

Mark Vertrees, marketing director with Miami-based M&M Farms Inc., agreed.

“We really don’t think of them as specialties,” he said. “For our Hispanic demographics, for the most part, those specialties are mainstream items.”

Retail has shown the most dramatic growth in the specialty category, Vertrees said.

“As the Hispanic demographic has gotten larger and larger and more diverse, these products have found their way to retail, and there are a lot of sub-demographics in the Hispanic culture,” he said. “For example, Mexicans don’t necessarily eat the same things as Puerto Ricans.”

However, growth in the specialty category has transcended demographics, said Mary Ostlund, marketing director with Homestead, Fla.-based Brooks Tropicals LLC.

“With specialties overall, there have been surveys of the American consumer that show they actively look for new and exciting taste to include in their menus – different spices, different meats and definitely different produce,” she said.



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