HLB Specialties LLC added mangoes, avocados and rambutan to its lineup all within the past year, intent on repeating a strategy it developed during 20 years of marketing papayas.
For Homero Levy de Barros, president and chief executive officer of Pompano Beach, Fla.-based HLB Specialties, shepherding fruit through the supply chain is comparable to minding someone else’s children.
“My main concern with papayas is to fulfill orders with the quality standards the clients expect,” he said.
“With the other products we are learning how to improve the eating quality, appearance and logistics. We can make a difference by babysitting these for our customers.”
“When we visit a grower, I say I want fruit in this color and so much percentage of brix for a client in a cold region,” Levy de Barros said.
“Now we are using the same custom service on new products.”
For retailers, that approach can also mean receipt of limited or mixed pallet quantities. Such shipments have been available since September 2011, when HLB Specialties started operations as a partnership between Southern Specialties Inc. and HLB Tropical Food.
“Instead of moving volumes, we try to partner with growers who understand the concept of giving flavor than just moving price, price, price,” Levy de Barros said.
“There are clients for both. The new products are almost like a commodity, but I’m trying to do something different, almost like a boutique product. Not necessarily more expensive, just a better eating quality.”
Some new packaging was still under development in late November.
At the time, mango production was in Ecuador. HLB’s supply of that fruit rotates in turn to Peru, Guatemala, Mexico, Haiti and then Brazil.
Its Guatemalan-grown rambutan hit stores in June. The season ended in early November and resumes in March. Avocados are year-round.
“Where at one point (HLB’s) strength was papaya, now they’re really transitioning to become our tropicals marketing arm,” said Charlie Eagle, vice president for business development for Pompano Beach-based Southern Specialties.
Breaking tommy atkins’ grip
The quality of mangoes on the U.S. market is a pet peeve for Levy de Barros, who’d like to turn the issue into an opportunity.
“I get a mango hard as a rock,” he said of a less than memorable shopping trip. “Tommy atkins travels well but is one of the least desirable in quality. There are 350 varieties of mango. I can bring one of those into the U.S. As a Brazilian I would never eat a tommy.”
Any mango subject to import standards requiring fruit be cooked 75-90 minutes loses something in the process, but the fibrous tommy starts out at a disadvantage, as Levy de Barros sees it.
“It’s incredible that we cook a mango,” he said. “But otherwise you have to look for fruit grown in fly-free areas.”
The best-tasting mango he ever had was the sindhri from Pakistan.
“You want to cry when you eat that mango, it’s so absolutely fantastic,” he said.
The sindhri is not available in the U.S., but there’s plenty to choose from among the varieties.
“The market here is still very much fixated on the tommy,” Levy de Barros said. “I’m trying to open this up. You cannot sell a tommy in France anymore. People just refuse it. They want kent, a green mango that’s much better. Europe is moving to kents and palmers.”
HLB does about 40% of its produce business in Europe.
But does mango diversification really have a chance in the U.S.?
“There are clients, even supermarkets, who say ‘OK, I want to give my customers something different,’” he said.
“That’s the type of work we do. But it takes a long time to talk to and educate the receivers. Maybe the mango is going to be a little soft and you have to taste it in the supermarket so people can see the difference.”