Consumers of California asparagus may be pretty savvy about the long, green spears, but they still need a little encouragement to buy a bunch.
“My challenge is to get consumers to put it on their grocery list and try it in different applications,” said Cherie Watte Angulo, executive director of the El Centro-based California Asparagus Commission.
“It’s extremely versatile,” she said.
Angulo’s other challenge is to dispel the myth that skinny spears are “baby asparagus.”
In fact, skinny spears come from older plants later in the season that have run out of energy.
The thicker spears, which are from younger, more energetic plants, actually have more carbohydrates and less fiber, she said.
But each has a niche. The skinnier spears may be better for stir-frying because they don’t take long to cook, while the thicker spears may be better for grilling.
For retailers, having both the standard and extra large or jumbo sizes helps increase overall category sales more than having just one, Angulo said.
“When we talk to retailers, we try to convince them to supply at least two sizes so the consumer has a choice,” she said.
Angulo works with recipe developers every year to come up with new ways to use asparagus that also follow food trends.
California asparagus is seasonal, typically in the market about 90 days beginning in early March.
The seasonality in itself can create a buzz, as does the commission’s social media efforts, Angulo said.
As the season approaches, Angulo receives an increasing number of e-mails inquiring about the actual start of harvest, she said.
“People really seek out California asparagus during the season, and they know the seasonality,” Angulo said. “We don’t get those e-mails in September.”
The asparagus commission is part of the California Grown program, which features promotional and point-of-sale materials built around a blue and gold license plate that says “CA Grown.”
“The commission really emphasizes bunch tags with a clear marking of a California origin,” she said. “The commission encourages all shippers to mark very clearly the state of origin because we believe that’s our biggest marketing tool.”
That’s because consumers think California asparagus is fresher than imports, Angulo said.
“I don’t think the retailers really appreciate consumers’ awareness of the seasonality and their preference for California asparagus, so (using the logo) does help us move the product,” she said.
“Even if it’s not on ad, we feel that it goes a long way to move the product.”
Jacobs Malcolm & Burtt, San Francisco, affixes California-grown bunch tags to all of its product, said Leo Rolandelli, president.
“I think it’s really important,” he said, adding it helps promote the product to shoppers seeking locally grown or domestically produced items.
James Paul, director of sales and marketing for Greg Paul Produce Sales Inc., Stockton, Calif., said his firm tries to sell to retailers who value locally grown produce.
Most of Greg Paul Produce’s product is marketed throughout the West, from Southern California through Canada, under the Delta King or Clements Ranch labels.
Greg Paul Produce exports very little, instead focusing on marketing a quality domestic product.
“The reason why we don’t export is it really takes away from the appearance of the product you have for your domestic market,” he said. “We’ve put our effort and focus on the product we have for U.S. sales.”
Easter and Mother’s Day are traditionally big promotional times for California asparagus.
But Angulo said retailers may want to think about other holidays, such as the wearing of the green spears for St. Patrick’s Day, asparagus guacamole for Cinco de Mayo or larger-sized spears for grilling during Memorial Day weekend.
Cross-merchandising also helps boost sales. Pairing asparagus with mayonnaise or hollandaise sauce is traditional, but Angulo said selling the green spears alongside lemons or scallions puts a fresh twist on it.