Consumers love blueberries, and the industry is only too happy to support this love affair.
A 2014 study commissioned by the U.S. Highbush Blueberry Commission provides a detailed explanation about the exploding growth of the blueberry industry.
“As consumer interest in healthy dining options continues to rise, so does the presence of fruit on U.S. menus, and new research from Technomic shows blueberries — a fruit renowned for its nutritional profile — gaining major traction among the top 500 chain restaurants,” the commission stated. “Overall blueberry mentions on American menus have increased 97 percent since 2007 — a stronger growth rate than that of strawberries, raspberries or blackberries — with fresh blueberry mentions up more than 176 percent in the same time period.”
This growth was attributed to changing consumer preferences and “an evolution in the way foodservice professionals view blueberries,” the commission commented.
“Today’s consumers see blueberries as one of the little choices they can make in pursuit of a healthy lifestyle, and savvy restaurants are picking up on that,” said Mark Villata, executive director of the commission. “Our research shows that the health halo affiliated with blueberries extends all the way to dining establishments that feature them — so, restaurants looking to capture consumers’ interests should consider adding more blueberry options to their menus.”
Blueberries are being incorporated into offerings such as non-alcoholic beverages and smoothies, entrees including salads and dessert dishes. “As smoothie fever sweeps the nation, many chain restaurants have begun offering blueberry as a flavor that appeals to customers, particularly younger millenials,” the commission noted.
Snacking habits have been expanded to include consumption of fresh fruit. “By providing a variety of snack options featuring fruit, restaurants can position themselves to increase traffic and sales — particularly among a younger customer base,” the report noted.
A nationwide survey conducted by the commission in 2013 noted that new research shows strides made since 2004 are guiding future marketing strategies. “New research from the U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council shows Americans are nearly twice as likely as they were nine years ago to buy blueberries in the coming year, and the number of households saying they’ve purchased blueberries within the past month (69 percent) has nearly doubled since 2008. In alignment with the industry’s goals of continuing to grow consumption, today’s blueberry consumers are also trending younger and more diverse; they’re more likely to be 35- to 44-year-olds (often parents with kids at home) and minorities than they were in 2004.
“With the mom market representing $2.7 trillion in annual spending in the U.S. and the Hispanic market expected to hit $1.5 trillion in buying power by 2015, this shift represents a step in the right direction for the blueberry industry,” said Parm Bains, commission chairman.
Alex Ott, executive director of the California Blueberry Commission, told The Produce News, “Those trends are absolutely correct.” California is the nation’s sixth-largest producer of blueberries, and the season is in full swing. “Our peak is just around the corner,” he stated. California’s production will be roughly 55 million pounds, a crop that is 10 percent larger than 2014. California’s harvest is running approximately 10 days ahead of typical timetables.
According to Ott, the industry continues to research new blueberry varieties that will result in higher bush yields and at the same time require less irrigation.
As production levels increase to meet market demand, Ott said California’s producers continue to explore export opportunities to move blues. Three key emerging markets are South Korea, China and Australia.
The first shipments of sweet Northwest cherries from Oneonta Starr Ranch Growers are set to hit retail, though not quite as early as first expected. The season should kick off in late May or early June, with fruit shipping through the first week of August, a much earlier finish than in years past.
Rainier cherries will start earlier than normal, also about June 8. Oneonta Marketing Director Scott Marboe said a warm spring initially accelerated the much-anticipated cherry season, but May weather patterns have adjusted the start date to a “little closer to normal, but still much earlier than previous years.
“Cooler weather the last few weeks and much needed rain showers have moved harvest dates back a few days," he said. "We are now looking for our first pickings to be May 29. That is still an early start date, but it’s not the record pre-Memorial Day we thought might happen.”
The crop is showing great quality, and fruit is sizing well. Marboe said that the first fruit from early orchards will be smaller in size, but bigger fruit will be more prevalent after the first few days of the shipping season.
“We anticipate another excellent year, barring any incidents Mother Nature might throw at us,” he said.
A variety of pack options are available for Oneonta Starr Ranch Growers cherries, including the popular Euro 12/2.25-pound pouch bags for domestic markets. Loose clamshells and 5-kilogram packaging are the preferred packages for offshore receivers, with exports to Korea, China and Australia on the rise while traditional outlets in Japan and Taiwan remain strong.
Of note this year at Oneonta Starr Ranch Growers’ Wenatchee packing facility is a 100 percent optical sorting and packingline.
“Another new Unitec line with Vision II technology is going to provide an exceptional piece of fruit to the industry,” Marboe said.
FirstFruits Marketing of Washington ends its fifth annual Take a Bite Out of Hunger program at select retailers with a collective donation of 330,000 pounds of apples to local food banks. This brings the total program donation to approximately 1.25 million pounds over five seasons.
FirstFruits created Take a Bite Out of Hunger with the goal of helping feed the underserved while bringing attention to the problem of food insecurity in the United States. In its fifth year, FirstFruits continues to partner with retailers and wholesalers to make fresh apple donations. Donations are made in a retailer’s name to local food banks with the retailer contributing the cost of freight. This year’s participating retailers and wholesalers included Ahold, A&P/Pathmark, Dave’s Marketplace, C&S, Charlie’s Produce, Grocery Outlet, Haggen, Harvey’s, Super1 Foods, Roundy’s, Stater Brothers, The Grocery People and United Supermarkets.
“The Take a Bite Out of Hunger program continues to grow every year thanks to the continuous support and dedication from our partners,” Keith Mathews, chief executive officer of FirstFruits Marketing of Washington, said in a press release. “Their participation is not only about the donation but also about getting people educated and engaged about the issues surrounding hunger.”
According to Feeding America, food insecurity exists in every county in America. In 2013, 14 percent of all U.S. households were food-insecure. Of those, 32 percent of people were children.
The Take a Bite Out of Hunger program provided full retail support with campaign-themed polybags and merchandisers, point-of-sale cards and ad slicks. A quick response code on collateral links to a video about hunger. At the conclusion of the program, local press is also invited to cover the food bank donations.
Trader Joe’s continues to build a loyal following with its diverse grocery selection and exceptionally friendly service. A study of more than 7,200 consumers by Market Force Information, a worldwide leader in customer intelligence solutions, found that Trader Joe’s is the favorite U.S. grocery retailer for the third year in a row. Publix ranked a close second and ALDI was third.
In addition to Trader Joe’s, Publix and ALDI, Hy-Vee and H-E-B rounded out the top five spots This is the third straight year that Trader Joe’s and Publix led the rankings. Brands such as WinCo Foods, Albertsons and Sam’s Club made this year’s list, after failing to garner enough mentions in 2014.
With its neighborhood feel, zealous customer service, and an array of exotic and affordable food items, Trader Joe’s has built a following of devoted customers. The Greater Los Angeles-based chain has outlined an aggressive growth plan that calls for opening more than two-dozen stores in the next year.
Market Force looked at the operational and service attributes that set leading grocery brands apart, and found Publix and Trader Joe’s led in many key areas, including cashier courtesy, speedy checkouts and cleanliness. ALDI, WinCo Foods and Costco led in the value category, while ShopRite was rated highest for sales and promotions. H-E-B, Hy-Vee and Kroger also performed well in most areas.
“In the fiercely competitive grocery industry, customer satisfaction is the one measure that can tell you if you’re delivering on your brand promise or falling short,” Cheryl Flink, chief strategy officer for Market Force, said in a press release. “Our research revealed that one in eight shoppers were disappointed with their most recent visit to their primary grocer, leaving ample room for improvement. This is especially impactful when you consider that delighted customers are 2.4 times more likely to recommend their grocer to others.”
As consumers adopt more healthy eating habits, organic and locally sourced products grow in importance. The study found that 48 percent prefer to buy organic products when given a choice. Produce is by far the most popular organic item — 90 percent said they had purchased it in the previous 30 days.
Familiar names in the Walla Walla Sweets onion deal are again providing retail and wholesale markets with the famed sweet onion this season, with mature onions starting mid-June and running into August.
Fernando Enriquez Sr. and his son, Fernando Enriquez Jr., of Enriquez Farms in Walla Walla, WA, have approximately 100 acres in production, and sales are being handled exclusively by Pat Brownfield and his father, Bill (Sweet Willie) Brownfield.
Describing the families as “sweet onion professionals,” Bill Brownfield said the two generations of both families have a longtime working relationship in Walla Walla deal and have started the past several seasons with Walla Walla Sweet salad onions.
Pat Brownfield said May 12 that this year’s bunched salad onions began shipping in 40-pound cartons the first week of May and were expected to run through mid-month.
“Growing conditions have been good this spring,” Brownfield said, adding that the onions are sizing up well.
Bill Brownfield said the crop is trending heavily to jumbos and colossal, and shipments will be direct to retail in all pack options.
“Quality now looks excellent,” the Bill Brownfield said.
Pat Brownfield added that he and his father, along with Enriquez Farms, continue to provide customers with the same integrated service of grower-packer-shipper that they have been known for, with packing handled at South Basin Packing in Umatilla, OR.