KANSAS CITY - Fruit shippers expect strong demand for high-quality product this spring, though bad growing weather in some regions could affect volumes and pricing.

Nearly all of the fresh fruit products shipped by Charlotte, N.C.-based Dole Food Co. ship year-round. But this spring, the company will be focusing primarily on bananas, pineapples and plantains, with a secondary emphasis on baby bananas, red bananas and other specialty bananas, said Bil Goldfield, the company’s director of corporate communications.

Dole will also work with select retailers to supply papayas, mangos, kiwifruit, grapes, apples and other tree and stone fruits, Goldfield said.

The biggest change in Dole’s program, Goldfield said, has been the emergence of specialty fruits beyond its traditional cavendish banana and pineapple core.

“It’s a trend that mirrors Americans’ growing interest in more exotic foods and cuisines, especially from Central and South America,” he said. 

A good example of that is plantains, which are starting to move to mainstream as Dole and others work to educate the public about their taste, use as a recipe ingredient and other advantages. Plantains are now landing on North American tables as a substitute for potatoes and other starches.  

Dole has stepped up its promotion of plantains in recent years, Goldfield said, including a fall 2020 campaign that positioned plantains not just as a reprieve from COVID-19 potato-recipe fatigue, but also as a great back-to-school companion to bananas and even as a part of Thanksgiving and holiday menus.  

In addition to plantains, specialty bananas are also continuing to surge in popularity as consumers look for new and adventurous alternatives to old favorites.

“Their growth in popularity can be attributed not just to increased promotion from Dole and other growers but also a commitment by retailers to stock baby and red bananas next to conventional cavendish bananas to establish a more regular consumer purchase cadence,” Goldfield said. 

Bountiful citrus harvest

As Valencia, Calif.-based Sunkist Growers transitions to its spring deals, the company expects strong performances from its navel, cara cara and blood orange programs, said Christina Ward, the company’s director of global brand marketing.

“Quality, size and flavor are excellent, and consumer demand for citrus overall is strong,” Ward said.

Sunkist will also have minneola tangelos, a cross between a grapefruit and a tangerine, available through April. Also shipping now are its seedless, easy-peel Delite mandarins.

Available through May, meanwhile, will be Sunkist’s Gold Nugget mandarins and Ojai Pixie tangerines.

Gold Nuggets are named for their beautiful, bright and bumpy rind and are considered one of the best-tasting citrus varieties, Ward said. Sunkist began shipping the variety in mid-February.

Ojai Pixies, which are small, seedless and intensely sweet, began shipping in March.

Following in April will be the beginning of Sunkist’s star ruby grapefruit deal.

Hurricane impact

Hurricanes Eta and Iota, which hit back-to-back in November, have impacted supplies of bananas in North America, a trend that will continue through the spring. Consumers could see a small price increase as both growers and retailers work to restore supplies, Goldfield said, though there will be no changes in quality during this period.  

Sales of fresh fruit were up in the earliest months of COVID-19 in 2020 as shoppers stocked up in anticipation of bare supermarket shelves. As Dole has been able to work with its growers, retailers and other partners to ensure a continuous supply of fresh produce throughout the pandemic, demand has returned to normal, although public feedback and engagement in the topic remains high, Goldfield said.   

Health-minded consumers stoke demand

COVID has made consumers more conscious than ever of healthful foods and, in particular, healthful foods that have long shelf lives. Citrus, Ward said, is a perfect fit.

“Consumers are looking for foods with vitamin C content, shelf stability and versatility, which is citrus in a nutshell. Overall, we continue to see strong momentum across the category.”

Gearing up for the spring programs, Mother Nature has been “reasonably kind to us,” Ward said. Quality and size structure have been good, and crop volumes are up this year across most varieties.

“Heading into spring, we continue to see double-digit navel and grapefruit dollar sales growth, which is an indicator that the demand for citrus is still strong as shoppers look for vitamin C-enriched fresh produce.”

Sunkist recently commissioned a study to understand who was buying citrus and why, and recipes were among the top three reasons, Ward said.

“Citrus shoppers continue to look for inspiration online, so we are thrilled to share our new recipe page on sunkist.com and the citrus calendar revealing daily recipe inspiration to consumers in North America,” she said.

Retailers have an excellent opportunity to promote their favorite varieties with several different merchandising and shopper marketing vehicles offered by Sunkist for all of its varieties, Ward added.

As the co-op gets ready to welcome back its delicious Gold Nuggets, for instance, it has a new packaging option for larger-sized fruit—a 4-pound carton that delicately holds ten pieces.

And with California grapefruit season just around the corner, Sunkist has bright, fruit-forward packaging to support the increased demand for bagged grapefruit. One of the co-op’s 5-pound bag options features a vitamin C callout on the front and recipe inspiration on the back to speak to primary drivers in grapefruit sales. 

Also new at Sunkist, the co-op is building its organic lime program to expand its already robust organic citrus portfolio, Ward said.

Also notable on the organic front is the beginning of Sunkist’s organic California Star Ruby grapefruit in May.

“We’re excited to debut our new organic packaging in 2021 that features the Sunkist lollipop, and the design extends to cartons, giro bags, secondary display bins, and headers.”