As cooler weather nears, produce departments will be stocked with the latest, most popular specialty items that retailers can use to boost sales and make the holiday season more festive.

However, many of these fruits and vegetables won’t be the traditional holiday fare that shoppers are used to.

Miami-based J&C Tropicals' biggest increase in available volume and demand for a tropical item has been for its Dragon Fuel-branded dragon fruit, says executive vice president and partner Jessie Capote.

Still sourced from Florida through the end of October or early November, dragon fruit has been trending strongly for J&C Tropicals, Capote says.

There are three varieties of dragon fruit: red skinned/cut white, red skin/cut red and yellow skin/cut white. The latter, sourced from Ecuador, is the newest variety.

"The yellow-skin, cut-white dragon fruit is sweeter and is getting more attention as a result," he says. "We cannot keep up with demand on any of the dragon fruit varieties."

Next, Capote says rambutan is taking off now, with J&C Tropicals regularly shipping clamshells to Walmart and Publix stores.

Like a lychee, Guatemala had a good crop of rambutan this summer, he says. The company will now source rambutan from Honduras through January. Displayed loose or in clamshells, Capote says most retailers request 6 oz or 12 oz clamshells in their orders.

Another item that has drawn a fair amount of business at J&C Tropicals is turmeric, which ships in a 30 lb bulk box. Similar to ginger root and currently sourced from Jamaica, the company has offered it for a couple of years.

"This is becoming popular with health-conscious customers," Capote says. "People use it to cook and in juices. Fresh turmeric is getting more attention."


A spin on spuds

Alex Berkley, director of sales for Frieda's Specialty Produce, Los Alamitos, California, says the company anticipates Stokes Purple sweet potatoes being the largest selling item this fall for Frieda's, and a top variety seller for its retail customers.

"This sweet potato variety is rich, creamy, colorful and provides more antioxidants than orange sweet potatoes," she says. "Shoppers are looking to have new food experiences, to wow their guests when entertaining and to add more color to their plate; Stokes Purple sweet potatoes are a perfect fit. The new crop is strong and ample volume is available. We will be in season through Easter 2020."

Along with Stokes Purple sweet potatoes, Berkley says Frieda's colorful cauliflower, Meyer lemons and a line of specialty onions are must-haves for fall and winter cooking. She adds that retailers should be on the lookout for a new related promotion as they prepare for the upcoming holidays.

Los Angeles-based World Variety Produce Inc., which produces the Melissa's brand, says its top 10 year-round bestseller list of specialty items are: Dutch yellow potatoes, red creamer potatoes, ginger, organic ginger, steamed lentils, steamed beets, dragon fruit, ruby gold potatoes, chayote squash and jalapeno peppers.

Seasonally, Robert Schueller, director of public relations for World Variety Produce Inc., says that from September through November, the top specialty items are: Dutch yellow potatoes, red creamers, dragon fruit, cherimoya, passion fruit, jackfruit, kiwano melon, steamed chestnuts and California Christmas Crunch grapes.

For winter — November through February — the top specialty items are: black-eyed peas, ginger and organic ginger, steamed lentils, steamed beets, young coconuts, eggroll wrappers and crepes.

Charlie Eagle, vice president of business development for Southern Specialties, Pompano Beach, Florida, says the company's best-selling specialty items are heirloom tomatoes, French beans, sugar snaps, snow peas, radicchio and baby rainbow carrots.

"For years, our Southern Selects brand French beans, sugar snaps and snow peas have been sought after during this time of year," he says.

Three of Princeton, Florida-based New Limeco's top specialty sellers are chayote squash, plantains and yucca root, says Eddie Caram, general manager of procurement and sales.

The company's chayote squash is sourced from Costa Rica and is available in a 24-count, single-layer flat box. Caram says there is more consumption of this squash in the fall and it's most popular with people from tropical countries.

Next, New Limeco gets its plantains from Guatemala, which are available year-round, and ship to customers in 50 lb boxes.

"Plantains are used more in the fall and winter in soups, to make chips and for flan," he says. "These are popular with customers in Caribbean, South American, Central American and Asian communities."

Finally, New Limeco sources its yucca root from Costa Rica and Central America and ships it to customers in a 37 lb box.

"People are using more of these roots who haven't used them before and I think that's because cooking shows on the Food Channel and others are using them now," Caram says.


Tropical trends

Mary Ostlund, director of marketing for Brooks Tropicals Inc., Homestead, Florida, says some popular specialties the company carries are starfruit, passion fruit and papaya.

"Florida starfruit's sweet and tangy taste is well-known as the garnish that gets immediately eaten," she says. "It's perfect for fruit salads but can star in leafy salads. Enjoy it raw, cooked or grilled. Add some starfruit to your ready-to-go selections for added sales. Slice up starfruit for in-store tastings."

Next, Ostlund says passion fruit's name hints at what's inside.

"A tropically tart taste that adds a burst of flavor across the menu from drinks to dessert," she says. "You can strain the seeds or leave them be for some added crunch. Grown in Florida, this fruit tempts the consumers with its vivid reds, purples and greens. Make sure they know that this fruit is ripen when wrinkled. Make a consumer reach for one by showing POS with passion fruit scooped on top on the dressing on a salad."

And the papaya that delivers a big bang for your buck, Ostlund says, is the Caribbean red papaya.

"Going into fall, this gorgeous red fruit benefits from all the reds and oranges in the produce aisle. Just slice, scoop and blend or chop to your heart's and tummy's content," she adds.

Berkley of Frieda's says we are lucky to live in a world where we can access exotic fruit year-round due to different growing patterns in the northern and southern hemispheres.

"This allows Frieda's the ability to offer items such as red dragon fruit, kumquats and jackfruit during fall months," she says. "We find people are drawn to tropics year-round."

The only difference is in how people prepare the items seasonally.

"For example, jackfruit is an awesome summer-grilling item, but is also a great meat substitute for tacos and is great for slow cooking in a crock-pot," Berkley says. "There are also more fall-centric tropical items like quince and fuyu persimmons that lend themselves well to fall and winter baking trends."

Additionally, according to a recent survey by Frieda's and C + R Research, 52% of shoppers are likely to trade up to Stokes Purple sweet potatoes versus regular sweet potatoes this holiday season.

"While orange sweet potatoes are often a loss leader for retailers during the holidays, Stokes Purple sweet potatoes offer incremental sales that can help keep the sweet potato category positive during the competitive holiday months," Berkley says.

Eagle of Southern Specialties says one of the biggest sales drivers for the company has been moving to value-added packaging.

"Our Southern Selects specialties are available in different pack sizes and styles," he says. "That makes it easier to tailor a product to specific customers."


Creative merchandising

In September, J&C Tropicals launched a program with Publix to feature stand-alone bins in 300 of its stores for its Dragon Fuel dragon fruit, says Capote.

"We've helped get Publix's dragon fruit offering to a different level, working closely to figure out better price points and display options for the past six to seven years," he says.

Displays have been moved to endcaps to draw traffic and impulse buys. POP materials include a label with an elastic tag that explains when dragon fruit are ripe and how consumers should eat them.

Berkley of Frieda's adds that displaying specialty produce with other more conventional items is usually the best way to merchandise.

"For example, putting jackfruit next to other tropical items like bananas and pineapples," she says. "People are already looking for staple tropic items, but specialty items like jackfruit will make them linger."

Schueller says Melissa's is offering Freaky Fruit promotion materials leading up to Halloween with exotic fruits: dragon fruit, cherimoya, passion fruit, jackfruit and kiwano melon.

"Bundle these category items for a themed display of freaky fruits, as Halloween through Thanksgiving is the best promotional time for specialty produce," he says.

Capote of J&C Tropicals says the company works closely with dragon fruit growers to get a good read on when the peaks and valleys of supply will happen. Promotions can boost sales during these times to get shoppers to take home two to three pieces of fruit.

An average volume price for its Dragon Fuel fruit is from around $2 to $2.49, he says. But during a sale, it can run from $1.75 to $1.99 to sell well.

"Small-count dragon fruit that traditionally didn't have a market can now be sold in BOGO-type promotions," Capote says.

Finally, this year, Frieda's will be offering limited-time holiday packaging for several of its alliums.

"The bright packaging will grab consumers' attention on the shelf, as well as offer a festive package that consumers will want to keep out on the counter in their kitchen during the holidays," Berkley says.