With demand for tropical fruit rising, growers and shippers are turning to the value-added category to grow the market for traditional items and introduce lesser-known fruits and vegetables.
Jose Rossignoli, general manager of the tropical category for distributor Robinson Fresh, a division of Eden Prairie, Minn.-based C.H. Robinson, said value-added accounts for more than half of pineapple sales, with growth in cut and chunk segments.
"That creates a certain dynamic within the industry," said Rossignoli, "determining how much fruit goes into juice and how much is being imported as crownless for foodservice."
Merchandising whole and cut pineapple side by side in the produce department drives sales by appealing to different consumers, he said, one more cost-oriented and the other seeking convenience.
In Miami, meanwhile, grower-shipper J&C Tropicals is looking for ways to expand the market for its 2,000 acres of tropical fruit and vegetables in South Florida, from guava to passionfruit, mangoes to Malanga, and chayote from a Costa Rica farm.
To encourage retailers to add tropical fruit salad to their grab-and-go line, J&C is sending boxes of whole dragonfruit, starfruit and guava to stores and encouraging them to experiment, said Luis Cintron, J&C director of sales and procurement.
"We've also sent samples of fruit to the main citrus juicers to see how we can incorporate the juice of dragon fruit and other local fruits into orange juice blends," Cintron said, "especially fruit with blemished skin."
With fall around the corner, he said the demand for tropical root vegetables is set to take off as home cooks think about hearty soups, stews and mashes.
While J&C isn't interested in the frozen market, which Cintron says destroys the flavour of tropical roots, it is talking to companies in the U.S. and a grower in Costa Rica about preparing the roots for easy cooking in a refrigerated format, similar to cubed butternut squash.
Yucca, malanga blanca and calabaza pumpkin are all prime candidates for processing, he said.
"We're all about making it easier for the consumer," Cintron said. "I grew up watching my Puerto Rican grandmother cutting and peeling roots. If you don't do it correctly you can lose a lot of product."
Chips are another hot item, he said, thanks to large companies such as Terra, which already includes boniato (Cuban sweet potato), yucca and taro in its bags of colorful snack chips.
Cintron said half of J&C's tropicals go to retail and half to wholesalers nationwide.