But marketers see a bright future for tropicals with strong imports and increased consumption.
While bananas and pineapples — with per capita consumption of 29.2 and 3.3 pounds per person respectively in 2000 — have seen respectable increases, shippers say mangoes, papayas and lesser-known fruits such as lychees and mangoesteen are ripe for consumption explosions.
“I’d say there is a lot of interest in a number of different things,” said Bill Vogel, general manager of Tavilla Sales Co., Los Angeles. “We’ve seen large increases in the Mexican papaya, the maridol, and we’re seeing a lot of interest in the specialty items, such as star fruit from Taiwan.”
At the same time, retailers are cautious with specialty items, preferring to boost sales of items they already offer before banking on lesser-known — and often riskier — fruit that has a short season and limited availability, said Neal Brooks, director of sales and marketing for Brooks Tropicals Inc., Homestead, Fla.
“Ten years ago, there was a real push for new things in the supermarket,” Brooks said. “Now they want to go with tried and proven items. ... It used to be back in the ’80s every supermarket wanted something exotic, something different from what the guy down the street had, whether it would sell or not.”
Low temperatures, wind and wildfires earlier this year cut the California Avocado Commission’s annual forecast from 397 million pounds to 375 million pounds, but the commission’s vice president of merchandising, Jan DeLyser, said the season is back on track.
California avocados are generally smaller because of the light rainfall amounts, with many fruit in the 70-84 count range, she said.
“As far as the production for the rest of the season, it’s really a steady-as-she-goes outlook,” DeLyser said. “It should be consistent through the summer and to the early fall.”
In Florida, avocados will be ripe for picking at the end of June, after a three-month gap. Brooks of Brooks Tropicals said July Fourth provides a good kickoff for the avocado season.
“It’s early to say, but the fruit is set on the trees and a lot of fruit,” Brooks said in late April. “It looks like a fantastic crop so far. Avocados are an alternate crop, with one year up and one year down. This is supposed to be an up year.”
The 800-pound gorilla of the tropical fruit category, banana supplies should remain steady over the summer, said Marta Maitles, director of communications for Dole Fresh Fruit Co., Westlake Village, Calif.
“Banana supplies, as far as we can tell, should be fairly normal over the summer and reflect what we had last year,” Maitles said. “We’re in a time where supply and demand have evened out. We had a good summer last year, and we’re looking to have another one this year.”
Costa Rica and Ecuador continued to be the leading exporters of bananas, even though Costa Rica dropped from 322.2 million pounds in 2000 to 307.4 million pounds in 2001. In the same time, Ecuador’s exports rose from 236.6 million pounds to 245.8 million pounds, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce. Costa Rica’s banana exports rose slightly in January and February, compared to the same time last year, but Ecuador’s exports dropped more than 3% during the same time period.
Florida’s production of carambola, also known as starfruit, peaks in August and September, and again in February and March, said Brooks of Brooks Tropicals. Taiwan, which has larger sizes, has two distinct seasons, from January through April and August through December.
Brooks Tropicals is trying to expand the Florida season.
“We’re trying to do some cutting-edge horticultural things to our trees,” Brooks said. “We’re trying to get to 52 weeks out of the year, but we’re not quite there yet, maybe 85% of the year.”
By hedging and “topping” trees, horticulturists are stimulating off-season blooms. All of Brooks Tropical’s starfruit acreage is at Pine Island, Fla., except 15 acres in a greenhouse in Dade County.
“We’re trying to even out our production through the year,” Brooks said.
Mike Vanderbeek, vice president of C-Brand Tropicals Inc., Goulds, Fla., said Florida star fruit are generally available June through mid-April.
“The window is being close to where it’s a year-round product,” Vanderbeek said. “I think it’s definitely increasing in acceptance and consumer awareness, but we certainly haven’t saturated the market.”
If you blink, you might miss the monthlong domestic season for lychee, but many shippers source from outside the U.S. to expand their availability.
“I remember it was only available two weeks out of the year, now it’s seven months,” said Robert Schueller, assistant marketing director of Melissa’s/World Variety Produce Inc., Los Angeles. “We’ve seen the specialty category grow. It starts in Mexico, goes to Taiwan, then there’s a little domestically, then to Israel, and the season ends. Out of Mexico, the season begins in May and continues through October.”
Lychees, as well as their cousins, longans and rambutans, are poised for growth, said Bill Vogel, president and general manager of Tavilla Sales Co., Los Angeles.
“Ten years ago, nobody cared about the lychee,” Vogel said. “We’re growing some. We just got our feet wet. It gives the old seasonality to the fruit category. People look forward to it, and it’s an impulse buy, because they know it’s not going to be there in two weeks.”
Mango imports, lagging over the Cinco De Mayo holiday because of lighter harvests in Michoacan, Mexico, are picking up as the harvest moves to Nayarit, Mexico, said Chris Ciruli, salesman for Ciruli Bros., Nogales, Ariz. The Nayarit harvest began the second week of May, but the region won’t begin full production until May 20, Ciruli said.
“In Michoacan, we haven’t seen the heavy volume we’ve seen in recent years, with over 2 million boxes a week shipped,” he said. “Right now, we’re ahead of schedule from the Mexican production last year, but you have to remember last year was a small production year.”
A lack of rain will translate to smaller sizes on the Nayarit crop, Ciruli said.
The gold variety continues to drive sales, and more marketers are offering their own version, with Dublin-based Fyffes Inc. offering its Fyffestar this year, to compete against Dole’s Premium Select and the Del Monte Gold Extra Sweet. Others companies, including Dallas-based Maui Pineapple Co. Ltd. and Newark, N.J.-based Ekostar Inc., have gold pineapples.
John Loughridge, Del Monte’s vice president of marketing, said the Gold Extra Sweet pineapple has helped lift consumer demand by more than 72% in three years. Over the next 18 months, Del Monte expects to double capacity of fresh-cut pineapples, he said.
“For the retailer, it normally has a ring anywhere from 25% to 100% more than traditional pineapples,” Loughridge said.
Dole’s Maitles said the company’s Premium Select has helped both whole and fresh-cut categories for pineapples.
“It’s obvious the sweeter pineapples have generated interest among consumers,” Maitles said.