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(Updated story) Sunkist Growers Inc. in Sherman Oaks, CA, which has been a leading marketer of citrus for more than 117 years, will now be expanding into another fresh produce commodity. "This year, we will also be providing premium ‘Sunkist’-branded table grapes," Sunkist President and Chief Executive Officer Russ Hanlin said in a March 15 press release.

According to the release, Richard Bagdasarian Inc. in Mecca, CA, and Bravante Produce in Reedley, CA, "two fully integrated grape growers, packers and shippers both of whom are Sunkist-affiliated grower-shippers [for citrus], are pioneering the introduction."

The release quoted Nick Bozick, president of Bagdasarian, as saying, "Sunkist is one of the best known and most trusted brands in fresh produce. This expansion of the Sunkist produce line is a marriage between high-quality growers and a world-class brand. I'm looking forward to using Sunkist's innovative industry-leading promotion for table grapes." Bagdasarian has been a Sunkist member since 1988.

"The Sunkist name helps open doors in new markets," George Bravante, managing partner of Bravante Produce, said in the release. "We've been extremely pleased with the benefits we've enjoyed from becoming a part of Sunkist and are looking forward to adding grapes to the Sunkist family of produce." Bravante joined Sunkist in 2009.

Under the marketing agreement, Sunkist will handle the marketing of the grapes from Bagdasarian and Bravante, and sales will continue to be handled "by the same staff that is handling it now in those two operations," Claire Smith, director of corporate communications for Sunkist, told The Produce News March 16.

According to Ms. Smith, "We are expecting to begin shipping in early May, depending, of course, on maturity. The grapes will be coming initially from the California desert, and "we'll also have grapes from the San Joaquin Valley." All of the grapes will be from California.

"We have been in business for nearly 120 years and will build our grape business on a strong foundation with the right growers who, above all, meet Sunkist’s criteria for quality," Kevin Fiori, vice president of sales and marketing at Sunkist, said in a written statement to The Produce News March 17. "We’re not going to force growth, but we’ll grow through carefully executed programs and partnerships.”

In produce, "the value of a brand rests on the quality you put in the pack,” Mr. Fiori said in the statement. “Our quality control experts are intimately involved with any product that bears the Sunkist name to ensure that we provide a consistently high-quality product.”

Sunkist believe that "there are synergies between grapes and citrus, in North America and internationally, which we will put into play from both a sales and a marketing standpoint,” he continued. “We would not undertake this portfolio expansion unless we were convinced that it will add value for our growers, customers and brand.”

Sunkist's line of table grapes will include "a dozen varieties of popular red, green and black seedless grapes as well as the Red Globe seeded variety," the press release said. "Having members from two distinct growing areas enables Sunkist to provide customers with continuous supplies throughout the table grape season," starting about May in the California desert, then moving up into the San Joaquin Valley and continuing through December. Sunkist expects to bring about 2 million cartons of grapes to market during the first year.

"We are beginning this expansion with a base of high-quality fruit and two well-respected organizations," Mr. Hanlin said in the release. "The synergies created by combining Sunkist's marketing expertise and the experienced sales networks within the two grape operations adds value to both." Sunkist's "expanded portfolio of products enhances the value we offer both our customers and consumers," he added. "We spent a great deal of time looking at the best possible produce match. We chose grapes because, like citrus, they are a great-tasting, convenient, healthy product that everyone loves."