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Prime Time assures buyers that it is always time for bell peppers

by Keith Rosenblum | May 16, 2010
If there is one key to winning over another bell pepper customer according to Mike Aiton, it is a good recipe, an explanation about chili rellenos, a chart showing nutritional content or anything written that educates.

Mr. Aiton, who heads Coachella, CA-based Prime Time International's marketing, new business development and new product development, said that bell peppers -- more than other products -- convince customers once they grasp their nutritional content and status as a staple in diets worldwide.

These days, Mr. Aiton is an optimistic "pepper person," and his upbeat nature gets a boost each time he pays a visit to supermarket produce sections. There, he sees more shelf space devoted to peppers generally, and a greater variety of bell pepper offerings in particular. Just as exciting, he sees peppers "demonstrating their versatility, straddling the aisles between cooking vegetables and salad vegetables."

Depending on the data considered, bell pepper consumption is up 9-13 percent in the last two years alone. "Peppers have earned their mark," he said.

Much of the growth in bell peppers has come from the ethnic niche of the U.S. market, specifically immigrants from Mexico and the Pacific Rim, he said. "But we're seeing penetration as well from mainstay, traditional shoppers." One of the industry's challenges, is "overcoming the perception that peppers are spicy," he said.

"That perception was one of the big obstacles the red pepper had to overcome in its infancy," he said. "I compare this to grapes. When they first came on the market, growers had to convince buyers that they had no seeds. An industrywide campaign touting peppers as 'sweet and mild' has been very successful" and needs to be reiterated constantly.

"Red growth has been nothing short of phenomenal," Mr. Aiton said. "When the sweet and mild thing got going and we got retailers on board, it gave them such incremental sales that red moved from being a specialty item to one featured on the front page. It was through merchandising and pricing promotions across the U.S. Red wasn't sold by the pallet any longer but by the truckload."

Prime Time plants, grows, harvests and packs bell peppers from hothouses and open-field production. It also grows green beans, eggplants and sweet corn. The firm does not do private labeling and is one of the few companies to make bell peppers available year round, Mr. Aiton said. "Nothing against seasonal providers, but we have product 365 days a year -- we're a buyer's best friend."

Making bells available every day of the year involves hopping around. After Coachella, the company grows in California in Oxnard and Bakersfield, and returns to Coachella in November. It then relies on Mexico for production from December through April. The company has two seasons in Mexico in Baja California Sur, La Paz and Vizcaino, which Mr. Aiton called "two excellent windows."

The first, just in time for the holidays, is November and December, and the second is April and May, when U.S. production is minimal. The Baja produce comes through California and is shipped from San Diego. Bells from Mexico's Culiacán Valley come through Nogales, AZ.

Mr. Aiton predicted May 6 that this year's harvest in Coachella would start May 20, go into full swing June 1-25, and conclude a week later. Production then shifts to Bakersfield and, in August, September and October, to the California coast.

Prime Time has expanded its packing capacity in response to a slew of requests. It also created a new position, packinghouse manager, and named Bryan Nickerson, who will split his time between Coachella and Oxnard, to the post.

The company's packinghouse assures a level of quality control beyond industry standards, Mr. Aiton said. "Grading is more consistent and sizing is truer when your product passes before 40 pairs of eyes."

How bells leave the plant is changing as well. Increased demand means "everyone has a different idea of how to market," he said. "We have bagged greens, bagged reds, stoplights, four-packs and six-packs," he said. One of the undecided issues of the day: Should peppers be sold by the piece or by weight? "We have seen retailers bounce back and forth," he said. It did not matter how peppers were sold -- by piece or weight -- earlier this year, however, when three Florida freezes created havoc in the market and sent prices skyrocketing. As a result, many red peppers were picked early and were sold as greens.

Following "ridiculously high prices in February, March and April," peppers are now settling into "a more normal, healthy level," he said. "I think growing conditions are good, so is quality, and generally speaking, we're producing the same varieties."

At the retail level, Mr. Aiton said that the product "will have great results at $1.99 a pound and, if you get it to $1.29 or 99 cents, you're going to have an explosion [of sales]."

In descending order, Prime Time produces bells of red, green, yellow and orange color. "I doubt most people, if blindfolded, could distinguish in the taste, but they certainly have their preferences," he said.