Produce items coming out of Central America and the Caribbean are numerous and several are gaining in popularity.
Robert Schueller, director of public relations for World Variety Produce in Los Angeles, which markets under the Melissa"s label, said his company is having success with red Caribbean papaya from Belize, okra from Honduras and snow peas, sugar snaps and rambutan from Guatemala.
"Red Caribbean papaya has shown the most growth potential over the last four to five years, especially," Schueller said.
There"s growing demand for "a sweeter large papaya variety," as compared with the maradol papaya, he said.
Jessie Capote, owner of Miami-based J& C Tropicals, said mangoes and green-skin avocados are among his company"s biggest-selling items.
"There"s more variety coming from those countries, and there are more distribution points. There"s just a lot growth in that category all the way around," Capote said.
Mangoes have entered the mainstream with other staple fruits, he said.
"Mango is an easy fruit to eat and as tasty and you can put mangoes in salads, in smoothies or as garnish for seafood, so I think people have discovered it and learned to like it and now are learning to use it in different things that"s your growth," he said.
Green-skin avocados out of the Dominican Republic are gaining popularity, as well, said Alvaro Perpuly, owner of Redlands Best Inc., a Homestead, Fla.-based grower-shipper.
"It"s more a niche item, compared to the hass," he said.
Green-skin avocados don"t have to compete with the hass, which is the dominant variety grown in California, Mexico, Peru and Chile, Perpuly said.
Consumers with Caribbean backgrounds prefer the green skin, which has more than 60 varieties, Perpuly said.
"They all have a little different flavor, and it takes somebody to notice the variety to obviously buy it," he said.
Demand for the green-skin fruit has been steady for decades, and that won"t change, Perpuly said.
"We have the supplies to cover the demand," he said.
Perpuly said he also is bringing coconuts and habanero peppers from the Dominican Republic.
Pompano Beach, Fla.-based HLB Specialties LLC sources product in Central America, primarily Guatemala, said Lorenz Hartmann de Barros, sales director.
"Mostly, we bring large papayas out of Central America," he said, referring to the formosa variety.
The formosa offers a wider window for sales than its chief rival, the maradol, de Barros said.
"It has a higher brix, a longer shelf life, a better aroma and better eating quality, and it"s ready to eat when it"s 50% color," he said.
East Coast customers are strong supporters of the formosa, which is striped and also more elongated than the rounder maradol, de Barros said.
"The West Coast is more used to the maradol out of Mexico," he said.
Getting customers accustomed to some products out of the Caribbean and Central America requires some educational work, said Mary Ostlund, marketing director with Brooks Tropicals LLC, based in Homestead, Fla.
"For tropicals and any unfamiliar produce, you have to take an extra step," she said.
Accessible information on how to use and prepare some tropical items is essential to success, Ostlund said.
"It"s the how, when, what and where of produce: how to pick, how it ripens, when to eat, how to eat, and what are the benefits," she said.
It also helps to show fruits and vegetables cut open, peeled or "just one step closer to eating," Ostlund said.
"Show them what the product"s made of," she said.
"Starfruit"s just carambola until you slice it. Coconut"s just kind of the produce aisle"s teddy bear until it"s shown cracked open. And who"d guess that you"d have to let gorgeous passion fruit wither before scooping out the insides for an exotic treat?"
Pompano Beach-based Southern Selects Inc. has grown, processed, packaged and distributed numerous items from Central America for more than 25 years, including snow peas, sugar snap peas and French beans, said Charlie Eagle, vice president of business development.
"For us, it"s predominantly Guatemala, Honduras and Belize," Eagle said.
The company also has investment in a lime program from Guatemala, as well as heirloom and baby heirloom tomatoes, Eagle said.
Quality on products is good this year, said Denisse Serge, co-owner and sales manager with Homestead, Fla.-based Fresh King Inc., which has a strong focus in Guatemala.
"We have the most items in the winter, so we"re getting better quality after the rainy seasons," she said.