Deciding whether a produce item is a specialty item can be tricky because there’s no universally accepted definition for the category. Geography, clientele, availability and handling requirements can all play into whether an item is considered a specialty.

Some shippers said that although the category can include tropical produce, some types of tropical produce are not specialties in certain parts of the U.S.

“Many of the items we handle are commodities in different parts of the country,” said John Vena, president of specialty produce house John Vena Inc., Philadelphia.

“Fresh herbs, tropical fruits and vegetables — those are bigger volume items, but for some they are still considered specialties.”

John Vena Inc., located on the Philadelphia Regional Produce Market, handles more than 2,000 specialty stock-keeping units, Vena said. He said ethnic produce items should be grouped under specialties because they require special attention.

“Our products fall into a couple of categories,” said Karen Caplan, president and chief executive officer of specialty produce company Frieda’s Inc., Los Alamitos, Calif.

The first category is items that used to be specialties but now are more accurately called specialty commodities, she said. The second is what Caplan called “true specialties,” such as gourmet items.

Eddie Caram, general manager for tropical produce shipper New Limeco LLC, Princeton, Fla., said he thinks the label “specialty” sends a message that an item is either expensive or not consistently available.

New Limeco carries about 40 items, many of which are associated with particular ethnic cuisines and might be called specialties, but they are available year-round.

The company’s products include mangoes, papayas, Persian limes, tropical root vegetables, yuca and chayote. Its top selling items are limes, Florida avocados and papayas.

New Limeco items that Caram said he thinks of as true specialties are guava, lychee, kumquat, mamey, habanero and cachucha peppers, and starfruit.

Brooks Tropicals Inc., Homestead, Fla., sells more than 28 tropical stock-keeping units, said Mary Ostlund, marketing director. The Caribbean Red papaya is the company’s top seller, followed by its SlimCado-brand avocado, starfruit, Uniq fruit and Caribbean Sunrise solo papaya. Ostlund said she sees papayas as being mainstream items now.

“There are certain markets where I think it’s a highly prized staple,” she said.

Ostlund said having papayas viewed as specialty items can be good.

“In a way, I hate to give up (the label of) ‘specialties,’” she said. “It’s a way of saying, ‘Hey, try this!’”

Some shippers said fresh herbs are part of the specialty category, but Camilo Penalosa, vice president of business development for Miami-based Infinite Herbs, said he wouldn’t say all fresh herbs are specialties.

Cilantro, mint and parsley are some of what he calls mainstream herbs, while fresh rosemary, chives and thyme are specialties, he said. And there’s another category of “super specialties” that includes lavender, lovage, summer savory, chocolate mint and other herbs that might be used occasionally or primarily by chefs, Penalosa said.

Infinite Herbs’ top selling item is fresh basil, which accounts for 40% to 60% of its sales, Penalosa said. The company sells other specialty items, including baby bok choy, tomatillos, sugar cane, rosemary skewers, organic ginger, baby carrots and squash blossoms.

Charlie Eagle, vice president of business development for Southern Specialties Inc., Pompano Beach, Fla., said some people might consider asparagus a specialty, but he doesn’t. It is the largest commodity handled by the company. He said he would, however, consider the company’s white asparagus, pre-trimmed asparagus and value-added microwaveable asparagus packages to be specialty items.

Eagle said he defines a specialty as a low-volume item that customers order in a single pallet or less.

“We like to transition from products that are actually very low volume and bring them along to something with mass appeal,” Eagle said. “I think all of our items would be considered specialties by some people.”

Robert Schueller, public relations director for World Variety Produce Inc., Los Angeles, said specialty items are those that cannot be found in every produce department in the U.S. They might appeal to certain demographics or be highly seasonal. Rambutans, for example, are specialties, he said.

World Variety handles about 800 varieties of specialty produce. Melissa’s Baby Dutch Yellow potatoes are one of the best known specialties items it sells, Schueller said.

Los Angeles-based Harvest Sensations’ high volume specialties are baby vegetables, fresh herbs and asparagus, said Gwen Kvavli Gulliksen, vice president of marketing. The company handles hundreds of specialty produce items and new ones are added frequently.

Kvavli Gulliksen said she envisions the specialty produce category as a pyramid with three tiers.

The pyramid’s base represents specialties such as baby vegetables, fresh herbs, some asparagus varieties, snow peas and other items that are somewhat common but not yet in every U.S. kitchen.

The second tier is items that consumers still are learning about, including Harvest Sensations’ hand-cut Circus cauliflower (green, orange and purple florets) and tri-colored baby beets.

The pyramid’s peak represents items that are rare in supermarkets, such as shucked English peas, some wild mushrooms, wild strawberries and ramps. Availability of top-tier items is limited by seasonality and perishability.

“There’s a lot of opportunity in the second tier,” Kvavli Gulliksen said. “That’s where the growth is.”