July, 2002

Fruits of Thought

Are We Doing Enough

In wrestling with issues of taste, the accepted mantra is that the industry has bred flavor out of produce since the priorities of seed companies and growers were yield, shelf life and easy transportability. There is certainly something here, and we need to make taste a priority in breeding programs. However, there also are structural barriers that serve obstacles to increasing per capita consumption.

One of the obstacles is that all too often our product, whether at foodservice or retail, just doesn’t taste very good. If it is the wrong time of year or the weather goes a certain way, it is easy to buy oranges that are dry, apples that are mealy, melons that are not sweet and stone fruit that is tasteless.

In too many cases, retailers are anxious to be the first in their market with a product, even though it may not be ready, and they keep buying it long after it is past its prime. Shippers are willing accomplices to this act of disappointing consumers.

Many a commodity promotion group, under tremendous pressure to produce short term movement, encourage retailers to create large displays on unrefrigerated tables, even though they know it will mean moving product that ought to never leave refrigeration. Think about how much money goes into keeping many produce items perfectly refrigerated and then how often they are put in unrefrigerated retail displays, virtually certain to cause product deterioration that will lead to disappointed consumers.

In foodservice the issue is confused. When chefs claim they buy for flavor or are looking for more tasty items and are willing to pay for them, very often they mean that they are looking for different produce items that have richer flavor profiles. So, they are not looking for more flavorful iceberg lettuce; they are looking to make their salads with arugula instead.

Growers and shippers also may be too quick to dismiss the claims of foodservice buyers that they are willing to pay up for flavor. It often isn’t obvious to sellers because the buyers keep buying the cheapest product within their specifications. This masks the fact that the specs were often set at a level already dictated where the buyer would be paying up for taste.

In other words, if a restaurant chain specs a super sweet variety, it has already precluded the cheap competition with inferior taste from even being a factor in the negotiations. Though the day-to-day focus may be on price, this is only because the big value decision was already made.

Although it is easy to focus attention on the product and hope that one day breeding will produce better product that will attract more consumer purchase, another approach may be more practical: Focus on changing the systems that preclude the industry from doing a good job with the good products that are out there.

The truth is that neither the distribution, the menu-planning or merchandising and marketing systems at either retail or foodservice are really conducive to moving great product when it is available.

Foodservice is completely inaccessible here. Pick up a phone and call the top ten restaurant chains and let them know you have limitless trailers of the most delicious ripe peaches ever, and at a bargain price to boot. You probably won’t sell a box. It is just not the way chain foodservice has been structured.

But if chain restaurants care about giving consumers the best product at the best price, they will focus on figuring out how to deal with these kinds of opportunities. And the grower/shipper segment should be actively encouraging this. Maybe advance plans could be drawn up for several possibilities. Then, when it becomes clear there is an opportunity for good quality and good price, the contingency plan is activated. Suddenly everyone knows how to use, distribute and market those great peaches.

Chain retailers, though a bit more flexible than chain foodservice, could also better serve consumers by being more flexible.

A Namibian shipper had sent to the United States some absolutely delicious and beautiful grapes. Unfortunately the grapes were packed in a non-traditional package size. I can count on one hand the number of retail chains willing to wrestle with the problems this caused to give consumers this great product, which was available at a great price. Most were content to let the computer dictate the merchandising strategy.

Putting consumers first means being willing to wrestle with difficulties to get the best tasting product out there at a value price. It is not a commonplace attitude.

There are many logistical barriers that are holding back produce sales. Our distribution system just isn’t working to get produce into venues where competitive products are sold – gas station mini-marts, coffee shops, drugstores, discount stores and more. Our industry marketing is excessively focused on health, but we don’t do a good job of reaching a very fragmented and ethnically diverse consumer base.

Whatever the justifications of this complacency for an individual company, for the industry as a whole it is a disaster. We have to dedicate the industry to getting great produce in front of consumers when it is at the peak of flavor and appeal. Anything less will mean we are not being all we can be and not selling all we can sell.  pb