( File photos by The Packer staff )

Thanks to year-round availability, tastier varieties and improved growing practices, summer citrus seems to be more popular than ever at neighborhood supermarkets.

“Summer used to be a bastion for stone fruit, grapes and melons,” said Daniel Bell, senior produce and floral buyer for Grocery Outlet Inc., an Emeryville, Calif.-based chain of 246 stores.

“Now, with globalization and everything that’s happened in the produce industry, non-traditional items are becoming more traditional in the summertime.”

Mandarins, once primarily a winter/early-spring staple, now are available 12 months of the year, he said, and were a “huge part” of Grocery Outlet’s summer produce program in 2019.

They probably will drive even higher numbers this summer in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, he said.

“Demand for vitamin C-rich food is huge,” Bell said.

The citrus display during the summer is even larger than the winter display at Palmer’s Market in Darien, Conn., said produce manager Mike Manginelli.

“Whatever is available, we carry,” he said.

The store saw a big sales boost in November when the produce department started squeezing its own orange juice and grapefruit juice.

Manginelli displays bottles of fresh juice next to the citrus table and has seen a positive customer response.

“It tastes amazing,” he said.

During the summer, the store carries imported navel oranges, cara caras, heirloom navels, clementines, mandarins and several sizes of red and white grapefruit.

Palmer’s summer navel orange display is triple the size of the winter display, he said.

Sales are up “big time,” Manginelli said.

Shoppers don’t seem to mind if citrus items are imported rather than domestic.

“As long as they taste good, they’ll buy them,” he said.

Bell of Grocery Outlet said that imported citrus was not always the high-quality, good-tasting product it is today.

As with any new entry into the produce department, there was “a big learning curve” that offshore citrus growers went through to determine the right varieties to grow, the stages at which to pick and pack and the proper timing to get the fruit to the U.S., he said.

“The quality of the navel oranges has drastically improved,” he said. 

“The quality of the mandarins is really, really strong,” he added.

But year-round availability of all the citrus varieties also has a bit of a downside.

“You don’t get that kind of ‘Wow!’ excitement anymore,” he said, when fruit is available year-round rather than seasonal.

And the popularity of citrus cannibalizes some other categories, Bell said. Like when parents pick up a package of mandarins for their kids rather than a bag of table grapes or some stone fruit or watermelon.

“It’s great, but it’s kind of a double-edged sword,” he said.

At Palmer’s, Manginelli makes sure his customers capture the full summer citrus experience.

Besides whole citrus and juice, shoppers like cups of cut-up oranges and citrus bowls.

“And we’ve been selling a ton of limes,” Manginelli said, though he’s not sure what brought on the sudden surge in popularity.

Palmer’s also offers organic navels, clementines, grapefruit and lemons and limes.

“They love citrus over here,” he said.

And Manginelli encourages customers to taste the fruit before they buy.

“We’re a big sample store,” he said.

Palmer’s keeps customers abreast of the latest citrus news with posts on Instagram and Facebook and sends out e-mail blasts when new items arrive.

“We take full advantage of social media when it comes to bringing in new products,” he said.

“And we always have citrus on ad.”

The high quality the store offers, the reasonable prices and the friendly employees attract customers from as far away as New York, he said.

“When you come to our store, it feels like home.” 

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