The Produce Aisle with Armand Lobato ( Photo by The Packer staff )

Gung hay fat choy.

This is how Cantonese speakers express “Happy New Year.” More specifically, it translates to “Wishing you great happiness and prosperity,” according to the National Geographic Society. 

In my experience, this mid- to late January Chinese holiday translates into calling attention to specialty produce.

Our produce director arranged for several pallets to each store, of all sorts of specialty produce, shipped mostly from the pioneer in the business, Frieda’s Inc. Our chain used the otherwise slow winter, post-holiday period to promote variety. 

Marketing variety was a great way to call attention to the unusual, the immense range of fresh but little-known flavors, the not-so-boring. And Chinese New Year’s was a great vehicle to do so.

It took some remerchandising to get it all stocked. This coincided with several weeks that specialty products and Chinese New Year were highlighted in our ads. At the time, items such as starfruit, dumpling squash, even jicama were relatively unknown in the produce department.

Some produce managers grumbled about this promotion. 

“There goes my gross profit,” one would say. “This stuff doesn’t sell,” said another. “This is a ‘regular sales’ kind of store. If shoppers can’t pronounce something, they aren’t going to buy it either.” Oh, ye of little faith.

These negative myths have been dispelled. An impromptu analysis shared with me a few years ago by Karen Caplan, CEO of Frieda’s, is the first example. She said a produce director of a large chain tracked its shrink over a year and found that less than 1% was attributed to specialty produce.

Second (and this is my personal analysis) is that when you stock a modest-to-impressive array of specialty produce especially in several destination displays (i.e. vegetable, herbs, mushroom, or tropical sets), overall produce sales increase. 

Customers are naturally more interested when shopping in a variety-loaded produce department. Their perceptions are awakened, especially with visuals, education-based signing, and of course, sampling.

Customers may not buy specialty produce in volume, but specialty can be the trigger for everything else.

Third, there are plenty of adventurous souls out there willing to try a specialty produce item. I get chastised by my wife for dismantling my salad at restaurants to point out some of the gems hidden within. 

“Look, this is frisee. Try this, it’s a sliver of fennel. Here’s a slice of heirloom tomato. See those little red pearl-looking things? Those are pomegranate arils.”

Specialty produce adds interest, colors, textures and — absolutely — flavor. Which translates to increased sales and gross profit. I’ll take that over boring any day.

Armand Lobato works for the Idaho Potato Commission. His 40 years’ experience in the produce business span a range of foodservice and retail positions. E-mail him at [email protected].