SPARTA, Mich. — Mark Wise, who oversees fruit and vegetable sales for a Chicago-area supermarket chain, prefers an automobile analogy when describing one of his favorite products, the Honeycrisp apple.

The Honeycrisp, Wise said, is the Rolls Royce of Michigan apples. It’s “probably the best apple” grown in the state, according to Wise, who is director of produce for Strack & Van Til, which operates 16 stores, mostly in Northwest Indiana.

Retailers such as Wise say the Honeycrisp, despite its higher price compared with other varieties, continues to rapidly gain popularity among consumers. Michigan growers said they expect to harvest more this year, but still are having trouble keeping up with demand.

“It’s one variety that’s built its own momentum” among consumers, said Damon Glei, who helps run Glei’s Inc., a Hillsdale grower.

“As a consumer, it’s what I want in an apple.”

A relatively recent arrival on the U.S. market, the Honeycrisp is among a handful of apple varieties posting sharp sales increases in recent years while traditional versions, such as red delicious, sagged. The Honeycrisp “combines unusual color and excellent sweet flavor with a great bite,” according to the Michigan Apple Committee’s website.

During the 52 weeks ended June 25, U.S. retail Honeycrisp sales rose nearly 25% in dollar terms and rose 18% in volume, according to Perishables Group, a market researcher. Other expanding apple varieties include Pink Lady and Jazz, with dollar sales surging 36% and 29%, respectively, during the same period.

By comparison, dollar sales of red delicious fell 5.2% and volume dropped 11%, Perishables Group said.

The Honeycrisp was among varieties that Michigan growers planted heavily during the past six to eight years, said Pat Chase, field representative and salesman for Sparta-based Jack Brown Produce, Inc. “There’s a lot of buzz for Honeycrisp,” Chase said. “Demand exceeds supply.”

Despite consumers’ expanding appetite, the Honeycrisp faces hurdles. It’s a difficult apple to produce, store and ship, growers say. The apple typically yields lower than other varieties, and its thin skin makes it susceptible to puncture and rot, Glei said.

“It’s not really grower friendly,” he said.

So far, the Honeycrisp comprises just a fraction of the overall U.S. apple market.
The U.S. Apple Association doesn’t provide a specific production figure for the Honeycrisp, but rather includes it in an “all others” category. That category accounts for 11% of estimated 2011 production totaling 226.5 million bushels, the association said in a recent report.

The apple association estimated 2011 red delicious production at 54.4 million bushels, or 24% of the U.S. total.

Wise, the retailer, hopes Michigan growers can figure out ways to get him more Honeycrisp, which he said is a “well-recognized” apple among consumers. In Michigan, “they grow it right,” Wise said. “They just don’t grow enough.”