When the CEO of Alamitos, Calif.-based Freida's Inc. spoke to growers at a recent dragon fruit (pitahaya) festival in Escondido, Calif., she brought a grim message.
Though the prehistoric-looking cactus is growing in popularity, Karen Caplan said the pretty, expensive Vietnamese fruit most consumers take home year-round "tastes like a supermild, flavorless kiwifruit."
Caplan urged growers to "get the good varieties out there."
Tasty dragon fruit do exist, she's discovered. In a recent tasting of new varietals, she found one "unbelievable" white-fleshed fruit with a hint of lichi.
"We also have gorgeous pitahaya from Nicaragua that's deep red inside, sweet and earthy," she said, "and we're the exclusive importers of sweet, white-fleshed yellow pitahaya from Israel."
Robert Schueller, director of public relations at Los Angeles-based World Variety Produce Inc., which markets under the Melissa's brand, said white and magenta-flesh dragon fruit from the U.S. and overseas has seen an increase of 15% from last year.
Luis Cintron, director of sales and procurement, Miami-based J&C tropical, said Florida dragon fruit is hot and growers are planting another 200 acres this year around Homestead.
After a tough start to the season, Cintron said he's expecting normal volumes in September.
"Retailers are loving it, and the volume keeps rising," said Cintron, who sold 800,000 pounds last year and expects to break a million pounds this year.
"We just came back from an H-E-B produce show and our dragon fruit display drew the most questions from store managers," he said.
"Even at $3.98, it's blowing out of the stores, but the price will come down as more volume comes in."
Mary Ostlund, marketing director of Homestead-based Brooks Tropicals, which grows dragon fruit in Florida, said consumer demand is increasing annually.
"We're able to grow some great-tasting varieties in South Florida," Ostlund said, "and we harvest them quickly so they can be on your shelves within a week."
She said dragon fruit's refreshing taste works well in tropical fruit salads, and Brooks is reaching out with recipes and how-to-cut information to demystify the strange-looking fruit.
Procacci Bros. Sales Corp., Philadelphia, distributing red- and white-flesh dragon fruit from Nicaragua, Florida, Israel and Vietnam.
"All these items have been available year-round in the tropics," said vice president of sales Rick Feighery.
"With the increased demand there may not be enough dragon fruit to fill a container," he said, "but if you add six to eight other items, all of a sudden it works."