According to suppliers, the bell and hot pepper growing seasons have been good with favorable weather, and expectations are for steady supplies this year.
These industry experts describe what they see as the latest trends, including the popularity of the shishito pepper, and best practices for productive pepper promotions.
Lance Jungmeyer, president of Nogales, Arizona-based Fresh Produce Association of the Americas, says he continues to see increased acreage in protected agriculture for sweet bell peppers and hot peppers grown in Mexico.
"This has led to an earlier start to the bell pepper harvest and extended the Mexican season too, smoothing out gaps," he says. "So far, the weather has been good with good water availability."
Many pepper producers from the U.S. and Canada have diversified their supply lines in Mexico using protected growing, Jungmeyer says. The greenhouse environment lets the peppers change color but with pest control and without sun damage.
One of these companies is Vancouver, Canada-based The Oppenheimer Group, which exclusively markets greenhouse peppers from Mexico-based Divemex.
"We are very excited that fruit quality at the start of the season has been excellent," says Aaron Quon, executive director of the greenhouse category for Oppy. "That will continue as we begin to ramp up production from other growing areas in Mexico. We are now producing year-round out of Mexico with our newest facility growing organic peppers in the summer period."
"We'll be promoting red, orange and yellow sweet bell peppers in bulk and value-added packs heavily this winter along with mini sweet peppers — all in both conventional and organic," he adds.
Ray Wowryk, director of business development for Leamington, Ontario-based Nature Fresh Farms, says sweet bell peppers remain the workhorse of the pepper category.
"For the bell pepper season coming up, we will have good supply over the winter months, with increased acreage in Mexico and offshore from Spain and Israel — everything subject to weather," he says.
Some pepper variety supplies get tight during the winter due to less product coming out of the fields. But Alex Berkley, director of sales for Frieda's Specialty Produce, Los Alamitos, California, says she sees steady supplies this season. Frieda's offers shishito and Thai peppers year-round.
Prime Time International, Coachella, California, has bulk red, yellow, green and orange bell peppers and 1-pound and 2-pound sweet mini peppers available in promotable volume this season, with both field-grown and hothouse varieties.
"Our winter program is just beginning for the season. So far, everything is on track for a successful year," says Katy Johnson, marketing assistant for Prime Time International. "To date, the weather for winter plantings has been good and nothing drastic has altered the harvesting forecast."
Shishitos make their mark
A very trendy category option this season is the shishito pepper, which Wowryk of Nature Fresh Farms describes as hot, but not too hot (one in 10 are likely to be hot).
"From a culinary standpoint, we're seeing a lot of restaurants introducing shishito peppers as appetizers — for example, roasted and accompanied by flavors such as bacon, prosciutto or sprinkled with cheese," he says. "This has been going on for about four or five years — we didn't anticipate shishito peppers reaching the level of popularity they have. But the younger generations like a spicier, flavorful dish, and the shishito pepper fits right in."
Nature Fresh Farms offers an 8-ounce pouch of fresh shishito peppers, currently out of Mexico, with a suggested retail price around $3 to $4.
Berkley of Frieda's recommends the company's shishito peppers for holiday dishes including for New Year's Eve.
"As consumers look for healthy snacks for the new year and ideas to entertain through the Super Bowl, shishito peppers are a great option, as you can sauté them and top them with anything, from lemon and parmesan cheese to garlic and Asian sauces," she says.
"Frieda's focuses on promoting the top-selling peppers that consumers are looking to incorporate weekly in their home-cooking, as they crave more international and unique flavors," Berkley adds. "Shishitos, Thai, Fresno, ghost and reapers are our top-selling varieties."
In August and September, hatch peppers are the "shining star," she says. "We are excited that we can offer hatch peppers year-round with our shelf-stable chopped hatch chilis that bring the smoky heat to chili lovers year-round," Berkley says.
Super-hot and seasonal peppers will continue to be of interest to consumers as they are more prevalent in restaurants of all kinds, including fast food and quick-service restaurants, she says.
"You can find items in many aisles of the grocery store that have ghost, Carolina reaper or hatch peppers as an ingredient," Berkley says. "We continue to encourage retailers to carry at least one to two varieties of these, when available, to attract that shopper."
The top five year-round peppers for Los Angeles-based World Variety Produce Inc., which produces the Melissa's brand, are serrano, jalapeno, shishito, pasilla and Anaheim, says Robert Schueller, director of public relations for the company. Serrano is the best-seller of this group with hatch chilis as best-sellers August through September.
Schueller recommends retailers offer these peppers in stores with ethnic shoppers, especially Latin/Hispanic and Asian customers.
Melissa's offers 36 different variety of chili peppers commercially available seasonal or year-round (with the majority available year-round).
Johnson at Prime Time International says red peppers are the company's signature item but green, red, yellow and orange bell peppers have all become staple items in the produce section.
"Demand is good all year round," she says. "In the fall, however, 'local' supplies dry up and many retailers begin to lean on the larger suppliers like Prime Time for their holiday pepper needs."
And although they aren't new, Johnson says Prime Time International has had increased requests for mixed packs, known as "stoplight packs," with a red, yellow and green pepper packaged together.
Wowryk agrees, saying many retail locations are now placing more emphasis on value-added packs of bell peppers such as stoplight packs.
"Consumers want more bell peppers and are looking for the convenience of multi-packs to introduce them into more meals," he says. "Retailers use multi-packs to obtain a higher ring and capture consumer attention with perceived value."
Wowryk points out that although multi-packs add packaging to a pepper purchase, they reduce food waste, which leads to less shrink, greater control at retail and faster turns.
Organic sweet bell pepper sales continue to grow year-over-year, says Quon at Oppy.
"While sales show that sweet bell peppers are a year-round purchase, Google Trends say they've had a notable increase in interest, meaning consumers are paying more attention to the vegetable," he says. "A recent Fresh Trends survey showed that stuffed peppers and grilling are top of mind — retailers could use merchandising and in-store messaging for these types of usage occasions to drive purchase."
The healthy snacking trend also has been driving pepper sales, Wowryk says.
"Consumers are looking at ways to introduce fresh bell peppers and sweet mini peppers into their diets," he adds. "Bell peppers are easy to prepare and snack-friendly — cubed, diced or speared."
"At the store level, retailers can prepare value-added, pre-cut peppers for veggie platters or stir-frys, accommodating customers who might not have as much prep time," he says.
For promos, think color
There is still a major opportunity for increased sales from promotional displays, says Quon at Oppy.
"Thirty-nine percent of produce sales are sold on merchandising, according to the Food Marketing Association's Power of Produce 2019 report," he says. "Demonstrating instore presence matters and drives sales."
While digital marketing continues to grow, Quon says merchandising is still the best way to reach consumers — including through artistic and attractive displays and POS materials.
Green, red and multi-colored packs of peppers continue to grow the most in sales in recent years, he says.
"On average, between 2014 and 2018, bell peppers grew overall by 5%, which has outpaced produce growth, which was 4%," Quon says.
"Mini sweet peppers, while representing a smaller portion of the category, have grown 4% on average each year since 2014, showing they are resonating with some consumers — likely for a specific usage occasion like stuffed peppers or snacking," he continues.
Berkley of Frieda's says with the Lunar New Year approaching on Jan. 25, Thai chilis are the featured pepper in traditional and new-age Asian dishes.
"Our Napa cabbage wrap, found on our website, is a perfect recipe to ring in the New Year," she says.
Schueller of Melissa's says good pepper promotions can be wrapped around these events:
· Feliz Navidad (Dec. 25),
· Cinco de Mayo (May 5),
· Easter (spring event),
· Hatch chili season (mid-August to mid-to-late September) and
· Mexican Independence Day (Sept. 15).
Other good promotional times for peppers include:
· tamale season (late-November to December),
· peak salsa season (May to September) and
· roasting season: (August to September).
Large cross-promotional displays with color breaks should feature bell peppers, sweet peppers, super-hot peppers, red Fresnos, yellow chilis and habaneros, Schueller says.
"Cross-promotions can also feature tamale ingredients: dried chilis, corn husks, avocados, limes and tomatoes," he adds.
Quon recommends cross-promoting peppers with other greenhouse items like tomatoes and cucumbers.
And Wowryk of Nature Fresh Farms recommends cross-promoting bell peppers with stuffing recipe items or with dips and dressings.
"You can also promote peppers in an island of other vegetables for snacking, such as carrots, broccoli and celery — especially at holiday time," he says.