When miniature watermelons started popping up in retail stores about 10 years ago, Ed Odron wasn’t impressed.
“I thought, ‘Who is going to get excited about these?’” said Odron, owner of Odron Produce Marketing & Consulting, Stockton, Calif.
“Boy, was I wrong. The personal watermelon has really come on. I can pick up the newspaper every week during the summer and somebody is advertising those personal melons.”
Atomic Torosian, partner in Crown Jewels Produce Co., Fresno, Calif., said the mini melon category continues to grow because the tiny melons are “easier to ship than a regular-sized melon, eat well and are much easier to handle at all levels of the supply chain.”
The U.S. Department of Agriculture reported Jan. 18 that cartons of red-flesh seedless mini watermelons arriving in south Florida from Guatemala were $11-12 for cartons of 6s and $12-13 for 8s. The agency reported good quality.
Marketing director Monique McLaws said Ladera Ranch, Calif.-based Dulcinea Farms LLC is sourcing its PureHeart mini watermelons from southern Mexico through April before shifting production to northern Mexico.
McLaws said demand for mini melons increases from January to April and September to December when the full-size watermelon market is not at peak production.
“We see an increase in demand for minis during the shoulder seasons due to the convenience of a mini watermelon and product quality,” she said.
“During the peak melon season, consumers like to have the option of both the full size and mini depending on their usage and for different occasions.”
Not everyone is on the mini bandwagon. Miky Suarez, manager of MAS Melons & Grapes LLC, Nogales, Ariz., said mini watermelons have “great potential,” but MAS does not handle them because the high costs of production and marketing have made it difficult for his growers to make money on a consistent basis.
Vice president of sales Lou Kertesz said Fresh Quest Inc., Plantation, Fla., got out of the mini melon deal because of low margins.
“There’s too much product, and production is increasing,” he said.
Fresh Quest is working on other niche items instead, offering specialty melons such as Melorange, the small, dark orange-flesh melon developed by Creve Coeur, Mo.-based seed giant Monsanto Co.
Fresh Quest also offers galias, the cantaloupe-honeydew hybrid, and canary melons, which have bright yellow rinds and white flesh.
Kertesz said the specialty melons fare well in areas with large ethnic populations.
“They’re not going to be successful in a place like Des Moines, compared to, say, Toronto,” he said.
Odron said cantaloupe, honeydew and watermelon still account for the vast majority of melon category sales, but added that “consumers like seeing these other varieties, and they like trying new varieties.”
Of course, another staple of the melon category is fresh-cut product.
“I think that at the beginning of the recession back in 2008, the cut fruit was greatly affected,” Suarez said.
“But I think that it has been recuperating little by little. I think that if we manage to offer cut fruit with consistently good taste, the cut fruit business will recuperate even faster.”
Odron said fresh-cut sales have been flat, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
“If you’re not losing and you’re holding your own, that’s pretty good in this economy,” he said.
“We all want to grow, but at least it’s not dipping. I’m sure there are pockets of the country where sales are down. But there is a perception that if it’s packaged and sealed it’s better and safer.”
Odron said fresh-cut is a good alternative for the many consumers who don’t know how to pick a good melon.
“When they see it already cut, they gravitate to that. It’s grab and go,” he said.