Q&A: Alex Jackson Berkley of Frieda’s talks all things specialty produce

November 16 , 2017

The Frieda’s Specialty Produce stand is usually decked out with exotic fruits and vegetables during the Produce Marketing Association (PMA) Fresh Summit. This year the company went for more of a minimalist approach, but there was no shortage of issues to discuss with the company’s senior account manager Alex Jackson Berkley. Fresh Fruit Portal editor Matt Ogg caught up with her to discuss how changing store formats could affect product introductions, gearing items around holidays, and what growers need to do to adapt to the changing environment

I’m going to put the ball in your court. What are some of the products or initiatives around products that are the most exciting for you at the moment? 

Right now watching how our Stokes Purple Sweet Potatoes are growing in demand and popularity is really exciting for us. We’ve seen more processing; as it as it becomes more popular for retail and where the growth is, we’re seeing our products become processed as well. We’re also seeing dragon fruit being used at the retail level for value-added and fresh-cut. 

This is going to be the first season we’re going to see a veggie noodle Stoke Purple Sweet Potato. We sell it to the processor and they create the product, so it’s not national distribution yet, but it’s something super exciting to see how our products are resonating in different applications.

What we’re seeing is there are always going to be new products but there’s not always space for the products at the retail level with the traditional retailer. A lot of traditional retailers are looking to make their stores smaller – they want the smaller format – so that’s going to pose a very interesting challenge for growers around the world who want to introduce new products, because where’s the space for it? 

That’s where I think online is going to be very interesting, and how you can bring specialty to the online format.

That ties into the trend of convenience as well and it might address some of the issues consumers have around ‘fearing the fruit’, as you say, because if you see a dragon fruit or a jackfruit a lot of consumers will think, ‘how do I get around that’?

It’s been fun especially with the jackfruit to hear about the people who find it completely terrifying who bring it home and figure it out, and then also the retailers who love the product,have had success with it and just want to make it easier.

So we’re seeing great applications and execution of fresh-cut jackfruit, whether it’s just the physically pods or just halved, quartered or sliced jackfruit – it works differently for every customer that we have. But they all figure it out based on what their shopper wants.

Based on the big trend around plant proteins in jackfruit, are you finding it harder to get supply now?

Demand hasn’t exceeded supply quite yet but I think we’re going to get there quite soon when people are going to start wanting smaller-sized jackfruit. Right now you have your typical two or three-count jackfruit, which is still a 20-30lbs fruit.

That’s a big fruit and that’s a high ring, so I think there’s room for more suppliers in the different sizes, and we have superb quality fruit from our grower and are definitely focused on maintaining that quality and not compromising that. We’re seeing more jackfruit growers wanting to come around and we’re focused on the quality.

You mentioned dragon fruit earlier and we’ve been following the development of Ecuadorian dragon fruit entry into the market quite closely. Is that something you’re involved in?

Absolutely. We had our first shipment come in on Monday (Oct. 16) – we wanted to see how it arrived and we wanted to taste it, to see if there’s consistency and there is. I hear the flavor is amazing. I heard it’s one of the two best tasting dragon fruit varieties we’ve ever had.

We started with yellow pitahaya out of Israel and are still really focused on that, and it’s going really well. We just can’t get enough, so it’s really exciting to see the yellow dragon fruit out of Ecuador. I think that will complement the program very nicely.

And hopefully Colombia in the future as well because they have the yellow dragon fruit too, which currently needs hot vapor treatment to enter the United States. I haven’t tasted the Ecuadorian one yet but I’ve had the Colombian pitahaya and it’s top notch. So sweet. Before that I’d only had the pink dragon fruit and my perception was always that if it’s white-fleshed it’s not so good and if it’s magenta-fleshed, fantastic. But the South American fruit changed my perspective on that.


Yes. So what’s the Israeli one like?

There are many different varieties out of Israel – they mostly have red-fleshed varieties. They have some white-flesh and the one with yellow skin which is also white-flesh. It’s a very fruity flavor; one of the varieties I remember tasted like litchi which was really cool. It has that floral sweet note.

It has way more flavor than what you’re seeing out of Vietnam. Someone yesterday tasted it and said it tastes kind of earthy, versus any kind of sweetness.

That’s not what you want to hear.

I know. But we did a taste test last year of all the Israeli varieties and we see the fruity, floral litchi flavor. It’s really exciting.

Over the course of the last few months you’ve sent through some interesting releases from Frieda’s, whether it’s about the chile pepper trend or promotions around the Jewish holiday Rosh Hashanah. How did those different promotions go?

This was probably one of our best Hatch chile seasons we’ve had. We had a new grower on board and it was the first time selling with someone through the retail channel so that was really exciting, and for Rosh Hashana it was a very successful season, probably our most successful season yet. We just had so many orders for all the different varieties of fruit. 

So do you think that could be part of the future for specialty fruit items, identifying holidays when people are going to consume more?

Absolutely and I think we’ve found that’s a good way to get it introduced at the retail level, and at the foodservice level. For the fall you’re looking for more cooking veg, so if there’s a new variety of a root vegetable or a leafy green that can be cooked, let’s introduce it at a time when people are looking for it.

It’s like our purple sweet potatoes – we still have new customers coming on and they want to try it on for Thanksgiving. When people have tried it for Thanksgiving, and they see success, they hold it in the store, they keep carrying it and it becomes a year-round item.

It’s a proven way linking it to a holiday. With Rosh Hashana, regular fruit customers will buy the more exotic fruit at that time and sometimes they stick and they become a regular item.

Are there other holidays or occasion where that’s happening or you are considering it as a strategy?

I would say for Easter in the springtime we’re seeing more opportunities to try new varieties of fruit and veg. I think in the summertime, which is usually a slow time of year for retail, we’re seeing more opportunities to create events. If it’s a slow time, let’s create some excitement around it. What can we try that’s new that can increase our sales at a time when they’re usually slower? Retailers are coming to us with that interest and that’s what we’re doing.

I think those are the two biggest opportunities for sure.

Definitely. Another insight I’d like from you is what’s the message here for growers who are producing exotic fruits and vegetables or considering doing so, particularly in the context of what you said about declining store space and the fact they might be growing something that doesn’t coincide with the right timing for these events.

I would of course encourage them to make sure they have all their ducks in a row for food safety, ship-ability and freight, and preferably GlobalG.A.P –  that way when it is the right time of year or there is an opportunity and people are looking for a new fruit, there’s a quicker timeline for execution.

We’ve noticed it takes about 18 years for a trend going from us or the market learning about it to becoming an everyday item. Something like turmeric  – we’ve been selling turmeric for 18 years, and on the 18th year it hit big and now everyone carries turmeric. The kiwifruit took 18 years. So we’re finding the 18-20 year mark is when things are really hitting big.

Right now we’re working with our growers on soursop, or guanabana, which is a tropical fruit that finally has food safety, but it’s really hard to ship. It doesn’t have ship-ability so it involves a lot of planning. We’ve been talking about this fruit for years – it’s probably been five or six years that we’ve been talking about it, so we know it’s probably going to take a bit more time until it’s an everyday item.

We’re encouraging our growers to, especially from out of the country, develop a domestic market for themselves. Like our cumquat grower out of Chile – Chileans don’t eat cumquats, they don’t know what it is. But they also grow plenty of them. So it’s about developing their local market so that when the U.S. is able to accommodate such an awesome product, they’re not stuck.

Soursop’s a really interesting one because the pest risk analysis has been done for Mexican soursops. Will you be monitoring how that goes, and hopefully bringing that in?

We’re going to bring it in from other countries outside of Mexico. We’re starting to work on it just to see how the execution works and what the timeline is. It needs to be a pre-sold item before you bring it in because it is so highly perishable. People are looking for it – the number one consumers of cherimoya are Asians. I think people would have never realized that, so I think something like soursop is going to resonate with that same market – we’re making sure we’re getting ahead of it and planning.


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