Spearheading asparagus marketing innovation
Most main asparagus regions that supply U.S. retailers are cutting back production of the labor-intensive crop, but demand is strong in the market itself, piggybacking off higher use of the ingredient in restaurants and moving into households. Many asparagus distributors and marketers are taking full advantage of this opportunity, diversifying their varieties, pack sizes, promotions and labels to push the category further. At www.freshfruitportal.com we take a look at initiatives underway with market leader Gourmet Trading Company, and another player Mission Produce that is lifting its game and presence.
Gourmet Trading marketing director Julia Inestroza is a self-confessed 'asparagus nerd', and has traveled thousands of miles in recent years researching the ways the product is sold in U.S. retail stores.
At a time when Caborca in northern Mexico is the only key asparagus region that is raising production, and with a vegetable that is variable both in size and price over time, she says it is important to find appropriate outlets for such a diverse range.
"I've been seeing what's on the shelves and asking produce managers what size their customers prefer, and it's fascinating to see the difference," she says.
"For example in the southeast people want smaller asparagus, and the smaller the asparagus the better they think it is; it's their perception and what they've been raised with.
"We said to retailers 'we know if you transition out of the standard spec to a small spec, your sales are going to increase and your shrink is going to decrease'. Sure enough we made the transition and sales went through the roof."
She cites another example of one retailer whose produce department weren't taking good care of the asparagus, and had a demographic that didn't know how to handle the vegetable. To respond to this issue, she worked with the packaging department of Cal Poly University, San Luis Obispo to develop a display ready case, that was to win them an AmeriStar Packaging Competition award this year.
"Instead of taking all the asparagus, opening the box and taking it out, throwing it on the shelf at a 50 degree angle, which is quite a big incline, with the university we developed a box that is easily packable in Peru, and in all packing regions, so we didn’t interfere with production.
"The bottom of asparagus always remained in contact with the diaper pad which retained moisture, so shrink levels went down, and overall sales increased just because of the change of box."
"I think in any commodity you always need to be innovating, because it comes down to competition; we feel like we’re leaders in the lot of the innovative things we’re doing with asparagus marketing, and we want it to stay that way because we want to bring the asparagus category up a notch."
For decades food manufacturers have used the association of fruit taste sweetness to attract consumption of artifical products, so why shouldn't a fresh produce marketer leverage off another popular food?
Mission Produce is doing something similar with its new Steakhouse Asparagus, which is jumbo-sized green asparagus sold in a one pound extended life bag to make the most of the grilling summer season.The company's director of marketing communications William Tarleton says the product is being sold by Wegmans, while samples have been sent to other retailers who have expressed interest.
Marketing the experience more than just the product, he says the idea was born from years of taking sales staff on the road and eating in popular steakhouses like Morton’s, Ruth Chris and Smith and Wollensky.
"You can get a nice big rib eye and a fillet mignon, and usually you would order your beef, a baked potato and then you could order a big plate of vegetables to the table; one of those prime vegetables was asparagus, and it seemed like those fine steak house restaurants would serve the jumbo-sized spears of asparagus and that’s pretty much how the word 'steakhouse' came to be on our product.
"We started talking about it maybe a year ago with our sourcing from Peru, Mexico and California that we could dedicate the jumbo-sized spears, to try packaging under the Mission brand as Steakhouse Asparagus, and it has worked out really well.
"You have these beautiful spears that are perfect for grilling on a barbeque grill - add a little bit of olive oil or balsamic vinegar, a bit of lemon and they’re wonderful, and they fit in with the summer grilling season."
He says once people enjoy that experience they will likely come back to purchase steakhouse asparagus again, and Tarleton is a convert himself.
"Personally before the steakhouse launch, I was a fan of the pencil size asparagus because they were crisp and crunchy and easy to eat, and I shied away from the large jumbos until we finally tried them, cooked them, and enjoyed them at the major steakhouses around the country.
"We’re in the infancy of launching the product, but all signs indicate that it’s going to be accepted well and it’ll probably be a long term product for Mission."
Inestroza says Gourmet Trading has been marketing grilling asparagus for the last six years and it has been wildly popular.
"Obviously right now in the U.S. it’s perfect for grilling, everybody’s getting out their barbeques, and then in the fall we transition to roasting asparagus," she says.
"We've also marketed the smaller sizes as baby asparagus with a more gourmet angle; it's smaller than a pencil, almost spaghetti asparagus, and we have suggestions so that people can prepare these.
"For example people can use it instead of pasta if they are on low carb diets. There are all kinds of interesting things."
Just as Tarleton was inspired by restaurant experiences to launch the steakhouse range, Inestroza says food service has been a strong driver of purchases, introducing asparagus to menus either to differentiate from competitors, or to value-add on meals.
"When you get into situations where asparagus is already being served in restaurants you’re hitting a new demographic, a new clientele that maybe had never had asparagus before.
"They’re trying it and maybe next time they see it at the grocery story they’re buying it; demand is increasing."
Gourmet Trading has leveraged off this to boost sales of white and purple variety asparagus for the more experimental type of consumer.
"Another success we’ve had is our peeled white asparagus; we came out with a pre-peeled fresh white asparagus out of Peru this season, and we had several retailers take it out for easter, and we have one retailer that’s taking it ongoing.
"It’s phenomenal because white asparagus in the U.S. is kind of a foreign item; people don’t know what to do with it necessarily - the main complaint we get from customers is ‘I cooked it and it was bitter’ but if you read the instructions it says to peel it first, and then you'd know it's not bitter but sweet.
"So the pre-peeling in Peru, the bagging that extends the shelf life, and the instruction that you can use it in place of any green asparagus without any additional prep in any recipe, the response has been phenomenal."
Inestroza highlights that you can't walk into any U.S. grocery store these days without seeing eye-catching displays of multi-colored peppers. From the holiday season of September through to December, Gourmet Trading imitates this concept with the use of purple asparagus.
"We had several suppliers take these packs this last year. It's a one pound bag, a third of each color, and the presentation is such that it is absolutely stunning.
"It’s not aimed at the consumer that wants to buy asparagus at US$1.89 a pound, but the home chef type of person who wants something really interesting they can serve at dinner parties, or they can serve their family."
"They do the coupons on the necks of wine bottles, with recipe suggestions, and when you open the coupon book, last season it had a recipe of turkey with cranberries and Gourmet Trading Company green, white and purple asparagus.
"We fund that coupon, and they put it on 25,000 bottles of wine that are distributed nationally, so we’re getting exposure, and trying to show people there is in fact purple, white and green asparagus; we are getting some coupon redemption too which is great."
Inestroza highlights the success of the Box Tops for Education program, which traditionally has been used with grocery items but has recently expanded into fresh produce.
"We also market asparagus under the Green Giant Fresh label, they’re a licensee, and they have signed on to do the Box Tops program, which is a funding program through General Mills.
"Kids and moms cut these labels out, and General Mills gives them 10 cents for every label they collect, so a lot of schools in the U.S. are lacking funding and really turn to these box tops programs for funding.
"Mothers are much more likely to buy a product with box tops, and it’s kind of interesting; we’re pioneers because we’re there in the fresh produce aisle, and a lot of these mothers are thankful that they no longer have to buy granola bars but can buy fresh asparagus, can buy cauliflower, carrots and other products with the box top."
She believes CPG (consumer packaged goods) will be the future of fresh produce, and programs like Box Tops are key for that transition.
Both companies source their asparagus from the U.S., Mexico and Peru, supplying all year.