Exotic produce makes headway in U.S. market

Featured Top Stories Most Read Today's Headline
Exotic produce makes headway in U.S. market

From the finger lime's caviar-esque bubbles to coconuts as "natural energy drinks", the aroma of Buddha's Hand citrus to juicy mangosteen cloves served up in a a purple rind bowl, exotic produce items not only capture the imagination but are winning the palates of consumers across the United States.

California-based Melissa's Produce is the largest supplier of produce items in the country with around 1,400 different products - conventional, organic, value-adding, exotic, 'ethnic', the list goes on.


Spokesperson Robert Schueller tells www.freshfruitportal.com the company aims to introduce around 20 new products each year.

"It is a logistical headache, but we have our core customers - whether it be in the major metropolitan areas, or it could be coastal because of an Asian clientele, we follow where they are," he says.

"They find their way across the United States because of family or jobs. Migration and immigration into the United States allows us to have such a large product line; nothing is impossible, not yet, as we continue to introduce new fruits and vegetables.

"Our company is overwhelming itself but there is a market for all of our items and we find that core market."

Melissa's has come a long way since its inception 28 years ago as a provider of 'ethnic' produce, tailoring to the Hispanic market with goods like jicamas (Mexican yams), chayotes and different chiles.

"We came to a point where retailers were coming to us and saying, "since you have such weird ethnic fruits and vegetables, maybe you could have Asian produce", and we started introducing all these other different varieties and that's how you end up with a product line like ours," he says.

What's hot

Bouncing between Melissa's fruit and veggie stands at this year's Produce Marketing Association (PMA) Fresh Summit, Schueller was animated about the various success stories that have come out of bringing something new to the table.

"For example, we introduced the mangosteens to the United States for the first time four years ago, which are touted as the best tasting fruit in the world.

"We have access to them year-round but they are hard to come by. We get them from Thailand and they are grown elsewhere in South East Asia too.

"They're also grown in Central and South America but they’re not legally admissible into the United States. We got our first crop actually from Puerto Rico from August."

He said the fruit was popular with people who had tried it on holiday in far-fledged lands, and wanted to try it at home. However, there is a financial barrier for many people as air freight costs drive up mangosteen prices, often to around US$2-3 a piece.

This year Melissa's has introduced variegated calamondin grown, which is a cross between a mandarin and a kumquat with a tart acidic taste.

"It's a new fruit to the United States that is very big with people from the Philippines, used in drinks and on seafood, salads; it's going to take a while before the average American will even find it or even know about it, maybe 10 years."

He said dragonfruit were now available year-round with the Vietnamese product accepted for U.S. market entry, while from August to December Melissa’s would continue to source it from Fallbrook, San Diego. The company sells both the white and magenta flesh varieties.

Finger limes have been another hit in the U.S., originating from Australia but now grown in California.

Finger limes. Photo: Melissa's Produce

“When you break them open, they have little beads of citrus in them. The chefs and mixologists at the restaurants have been big on that.”

The cactus pear, or prickly pear, has also been a big hit in the U.S. with Hispanic populations.

"The 'tunas' as they are known in Spanish are known as a staple ingredient, especially the red ones, but we also get the green ones in from Chile as well during the season for about five or six months.

"It's a great seller for us. The average American is not that familiar with it, but the Hispanic markets are very familiar with it and we try to stock it on a year-round basis."

Schueller highlighted another trend in the U.S. was coconuts with the "natural energy drink" of their fresh water.

"This particular one is called the sweet young coconut; it’s one of the three major varieties. It's not the shape of a regular coconut because they’re picked young and actually shaved down.

"There's a machine in Thailand that shaves them down, so they sit flat and upright. Then we have this new tool, the coconut opener, so you flick it open and put a straw in it."

Schueller said South African baby pineapples had also been a hit

And on the topic of what's hot, Schueller emphasizes the demand for very spicy chiles has been high. In 2010 the company introduced the Bhut Jolokia chile, which was in the Guinness Book of Records as the world's hottest chile pepper, with one million scoville heat units.

But that record has been surpassed by the Trinidad scorpion chile which has 1.4 million scoville heat units. Melissa's stocks it too.

"There’s been this chile head phenomenon here in the United States that people have been really into getting the heat. We have varieties like Habaneros and another one we’re just unveiling called the Savina, that won't be available in the supermarkets for another year.

Other exotic introductions

One article could not possibly do justic to the variety of products Melissa's has on tap, but some other strange specimens include the Buddha's Hand citron which comes from the lower Himalayas, which can be used ornamentally or for its lemon zest.

Another interesting product is the kiwano, also known as a horned melon, which is in the cucumber family, looks like a blowfish and is thought to be the ancestor of all melons. Melissa's sources kiwanos from California and New Zealand.


Subscribe to our newsletter