U.S.: Sun Pacific "always looking for more" mandarins

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U.S.: Sun Pacific

The company behind easy peeler brand Cuties is expecting a market gap between Chilean and Californian supply, and also has some new initiatives in specialty citrus and table grapes.

California-based fruit grower and marketer Sun Pacific has been on a roll lately. Whether it's through increased resonance with parents for Cuties or a fast-growing grape deal, the company is making all efforts to hold consumer attention. 

Howard Nager

"Cuties of course are a major part of what it is that we do – there are very few brands in the produce industry that a three-year-old can recognize without a label on it and say “that’s a Cutie”," said VP of business development Howard Nager.

"A lot of work has been done. We were the first to come to market here and the category has just exploded. It has really driven the citrus category," he told Fresh Fruit Portal during the Produce Marketing Association (PMA) Fresh Summit last week.

It is a double-digit growth trend that has run in parallel with, and perhaps been partly responsible for, a fairly flat market in the U.S. for Navel oranges. This is no small issue given Sun Pacific is the largest independent Navel grower in the country.

That's not to say Navels haven't been a successful crop. Nager says they remains a "big item", particularly in the cold and flu season, and Sun Pacific utilizes a range of packaging sizes and merchandising options to boost rotation.

The group has also seen good demand for its Vintage Sweet Navel oranges, bringing heirloom branding to fruit from 100-year-old trees with higher Brix (sweetness) content than standard Navels in the earlier part of the season, and has also introduced six-count overwrapped trays.

"Also this year we’re going to be shipping Cara Caras which we’ve been growing but we have not been selling – a Cara Cara is a Navel orange with higher Vitamin C and higher Vitamin A than a regular Navel - it’s a bit sweeter," Nager said.

These introductions bring the diversity that shoppers crave to the produce aisle but they remain niche. Cuties however are well and truly mainstream, and Sun Pacific's task now is to secure more volume.

"From a sourcing standpoint, our California Cuties will be harvesting and shipping the 1st of November – that will go through about April, beginning of May. We then bring product in from Chile so we have a full-year, 52-week supply for our customers," Nager said. 

"There’s going to be a gap of a few weeks and sometimes that gap is good. It cleans out the pipeline, number one, then also two it creates that thirst and demand not only from the consumer but the retailers as well. 

"They are really chomping at the bit to start promoting the mandarins – everybody wants to do a Thanksgiving ad which typically will be the first blast in the marketplace."

He said this gap had partly to do with the weather, with a lack of cool nights meaning the fruit has had to stay on the trees for longer to get the right sugar levels and coloring.

The company had the last of the Chilean product on the show floor at the event in New Orleans, and is making moves to get more supply from the Southern Hemisphere in general over the coming years.

"We’re always looking for more. I think there’s a lot more opportunity for counter-seasonal product during the summertime – retailers now are looking for products they can carry in their store and offer to the consumers 52 weeks out of the year," he said.

"Typically for our Chilean Cuties we call them Summer Cuties, and the little zipper character has sunglasses that he wears - it's very friendly and keeps that brand in front of the consumer.

He added it was important to note Chile was supplying a world market, so fruit could often be diverted elsewhere when it was financially advantageous.

"We obviously are trying to contract as much product as we can and not be on the spot market, so that does not impact us. But as a category and an industry, that’s still happening," Nager said.

"We want to drive category growth. Sure we’d love to grow Cuties as much as we can, but there are so many people now that are selling mandarins; we're all helping one another to continue to grow that category.

"We have brought some product in from Peru, we are looking at some infrastructure in Chile, growing it ourselves. We are looking at infrastructure in South Africa to grow citrus ourselves – through the business model that we have with the family ownership, they tend to want to control from field to fork."

He emphasized it could be four or five years before those overseas initiatives bring product to the market in reasonable volumes. 

Mighties kiwifruit and potential new table grape brand 

Nager said that like in Cuties, the key to driving success for Mighties-branded kiwifruit was supply consistency. 

"We just started shipping from California at the beginning of this month. Prior to that we were importing from Chile," he said.

"It’s been a real eye-opener and successful. I was on a six-week roadshow these past few months selling in our products for the coming year, and more people wanted to talk about the Mighties program and kiwi - they see a missed opportunity.

"It’s not a huge category for them but they’re finding out that it's much like avocados 15 years ago where people didn’t know how to pick them out or what to do with them."

He said many consumers weren't sure about how to eat a kiwifruit, sometimes thinking you need to peel all the skin off or, conversely, eating the fruit with the skin; both methods that are to the taste of some but not overly conducive to category growth.

"What we’re trying to do is tell consumers it’s pretty easy. We include a spife in there and you just cut it and scoop," Nager said.

"The fruit needs to be ripe; if it’s not ripe you’re going to lose a customer, because it’s going to be hard, taste green and starchy, so our value proposition is we pre-condition and ripen the fruit before we ship it." 

He said while the program began with one-pound clamshells, the two-pounder has become the packaging of choice.

"You're trading up to a customer. You're getting the same frequency of purchase but you’re trading up on the ring of the register. We’ve also got a Christmas promotion going on with fuzzy (the kiwifruit character) in the Santa hat."

Speaking of fruity cartoon characters, especially for PMA Fresh Summit the company put a new one on display - Sunnies.

"So we have Mighties, Cuties and Sunnies," Nager said.

"We’re just trying to gather some intel from retailers as to how they think a branded grape may be in the marketplace. 

"Also we’re trying to tie it in a little bit with the Mighties character Fuzzy, and Zippy the Cutie, to start a family of fun character that certainly kids can relate to.

"This packaging was produced just for the show. We’re just gauging a response."



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