Q&A with Honeybear Brands: 'We're probably experiencing our busiest year in four decades'

June 06 , 2019

With the North American apply import season now underway, here at FreshFruitPortal.com we caught up with Don Roper, vice president of sales and marketing at U.S.-based apple developer, supplier and grower Honeybear Brands, to hear this year's plans for the varieties the company works with, current retail and consumer trends, and what can be expected from the company in the future.

Q: To begin with, could you provide some background about Honeybear Brands and how the business operations in terms of introducing new varieties into the market?

A: Honeybear brings new varieties to market in two ways. Firstly, through our own proprietary varietal development program, we have close to 100 varieties in various stages of development and commercial testing is being done at over 25 sites throughout North and South America at any one time. We’ve been doing this for about twenty years now in some of the best apple growing regions of the country. Pazazz and RiverBelle are the most well-known of our owned varieties.

Then secondly, we have a long relationship with the University of Minnesota. Honeybear Brands pioneered the introduction and marketing of the Honeycrisp and was the first to plant Honeycrisp and lead the commercialization efforts in both Washington State and Chilean. Most recently, we have started marketing and commercialization efforts with First Kiss, another University of Minnesota variety.

Q: Could you elaborate on your history of importing Honeycrisp apples from Chile?

A: We have been importing Honeycrisp from Chile for over ten years now. This has been a long-term investment with our Chilean grower partners that jointly took the risk to find the best suited growing region for this very site-specific apple. We have been fortunate to have partnered with perhaps some of the best growers in Chile on this program that has been an unparalleled success. Through vision and collaboration, Honeybear and Frusan brought the “first year-round supply” of conventional and organic Honeycrisp to the North American marketplace.

Our Chilean Honeycrisp is the first fresh Honeycrisp to arrive stateside in 2019 and just landed at retail stores this past month. It’s our largest crop to date, and the investment we made allows us to provide year round premium Honeycrisp to all of our retail partners. We’re the largest importer of Honeycrisp but unlike other importer, our product is packed to order inside the United States. This coupled with the fact that we’re growing in the very best possible growing region, affords an opportunity for quality control excellence and ensures only the very best fruit available get packed in Honeybear boxes. You can taste the difference.

Q: What is your outlook in general for the 2019 apple import season to North America?

A: We are expecting a strong import apple season this year. While domestic stocks are up for certain varieties, there definitely will be gaps that will need to be filled in with better fresher product from the Southern Hemisphere. In addition to Honeycrisp, we will import significant volume of Galas, Fujis, Granny Smith, Pink Lady, and pears both conventional and organic lines.

Q: How has this import season been in terms of timings and fruit quality?

A: We have been very pleased with all of the fruit that we have received. Our first Gala and Honeycrisp shipments came in late April and now we are packing non-stop on Honeycrisp, Galas and Granny Smith. Pink Ladies and Fujis will be arriving later this week. We are experiencing the same consistent feedback from all of our retail partners on our Honeycrisp. Beautiful color, great condition, exceptional flavor really creating a difference compared to domestic production at this point in the season. Again, this is all by design and Honeycrisp are not a strong storage apple, perhaps its weakest attribute.

Q: How do you expect North American market conditions to be for imported Honeycrisp apples over the coming months?

A: We expect Honeycrisp sales to remain strong throughout the summer months. Early sales have been outstanding, and we only expect them to increase. Consumers continue to become savvier about flavor, texture and the overall experience of eating premium fruit. We intend to provide only exceptional experiences for them whenever they pick up and bite into a Honeycrisp. Consumers are paying a lot of money for this variety, so let’s make sure they have the right experience, so we keep sell through at retail moving briskly.

Q: How has market development been for Pazazz apples and what plans do you have for this season?

A: We have had strong success with Pazazz introduction into the North American market. While there are many new varieties on the retail deck, we know we have a fantastic eating apple with a wonderful flavor profile and strong storage abilities. When consumers try it, they love it, and they come back for more. It is important for us to continue to differentiate Pazazz at store door to help our retail partners grow market share with Pazazz.

We launched some aggressive, integrated marketing efforts this year to drive even more brand awareness for Pazazz, including a social media campaign that generated more than 33 million impressions and drove thousands of customers to our retail partner websites. Pazazz also partnered with handpicked chefs, nutritionists and foodie influencers across the country to create new recipes to show how Pazazz can be added to fresh salads, warm winter desserts and even be part of Keto diet recipes.

We are committed to building the Pazazz brand and focused in on the opportunity to create new fans of the fruit at the local level. Our events team has been working with all kinds of 5ks, family fun events and fundraisers all over North America to get Pazazz into the hands of apple lovers and support good causes where we can. Pazazz is selling now in more than 60 markets with market leading retail banners who report repeat purchase from consumers. People are asking for Pazazz by name.

Q: And what can we expect to see from RiverBelle apples this year?

A: RiverBelle is an exceptional flavored variety with good sales momentum and is a perfect Midwest regional variety. As a descendent of the Honeycrisp, it has shared characteristics like that delicate snappy crunch and has become a consumer favorite in the upper Midwest. We will be bringing RiverBelle to regional retail in early fall as it continues to provide our partners with a strong point of differentiation on their retail deck.

Q: What trends are you seeing on the consumer and retail side of the apple industry?

A: For consumers it’s always been about flavor and a guaranteed excellent apple eating experience. So that’s the point of entry. You have to deliver on flavor, texture, crunch, and juiciness for consumers because there are so many choices that they can go elsewhere very easily and quickly. When we’re refining our varieties each year we keep this firmly in mind. It drives everything we do, every decision we make. Consumers are also continuing to look for things like sustainable growing practices, which we employ across all of our varieties, and locally produced is always a preference depending on season.

The retail market is very competitive and cluttered. Buyers are asking for varieties and brands that can really differentiate themselves on flavor in the minds of consumers and drive sales in the produce aisles. That's why Pazazz has been so successful. Produce managers and their teams don’t have a lot of time to merchandise varieties in store, however, so we’re seeing more demand for things like high visibility packaging and boxes that can quickly double as eye-catching displays to stop consumers in their tracks. They’re also interested in what marketing support you can bring to them to help engage customers and drive them to the store. We’ve been running a highly successful program of retailer support that includes social media ads and promotions geo-targeted within a few miles of our retail partners’ store locations. Our community team has also been sampling Pazazz at community events from festivals to fun runs in multiple markets across the country to spread the word about Pazazz – as well as the love.

Q: What plans does Honeybear brands have for the near-future?

A: We’re probably experiencing our busiest year in our 40-year history. In many of our orchards, including in Chile, we’re increasing organic production of some of our varieties including retail favorites Pazazz and Chilean Honeycrisp. Plus we’re at work on a couple of new varieties within our development program that will launch soon.

In the short term, we’re readying the introduction of this year’s Minnesota-grown First Kiss, and expect this to grow in volume and retail demand in the coming years. It received fantastic response from both retailers and consumers during its inaugural season in 2018.

Honeybear is also at work on things like new packaging design, new cartons for retail, improved POS for consumer engagement. We’re already planning the 2019-2020 launch for Pazazz, including retailer marketing support campaigns and community engagement through events, sponsorships and partnerships based on our successful trials in market right now.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Don Roper was the company's CEO when in fact he is the vice president of sales and marketing.

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