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Grower-packer-shipper of Medjool and Deglet Noor dates, SunDate is vertically integrated

SunDate in Coachella, CA, is vertically integrated in the sense that the majority of the dates the company packs and markets are “our own fruit,” according to D.J. Ryan, sales manager.

“We are involved in every step of the growing and harvesting and — cone it is brought into the packinghouse — the sorting, processing, packing and shipping. So w control every aspect of it, which allows us to maintain a level of quality control” that would be more difficult if they were “dealing with a lot of outside growers.”

Founded by Sunar “Sunny” Chechian in 1977, SunDate “grew quickly,” and in 1996 “formed a partnership with the Bianco family of Anthony Vineyards,” which is headquartered in Bakersfield, CA., according to the SunDate web site. The company is one of the larger growers, packers, shippers and marketers of Medjool and Deglet Noor dates combined in the United States, if not the largest.

“We have our own date gardens that are jointly owned in the partnership,” Mr. Ryan said. “Then each side of the partnership has their own date gardens.” Anthony Vineyards has been “one of the more aggressive … planters of dates in the [Coachella] Valley. They’ve got several hundred acres of dates in the ground, of which less than half are in production. They’ve got a lot of young trees that aren’t producing yet.”

There has been “a ramp up in demand” for dates over the last five years or so, Mr. Ryan said. Particularly in the last three years, “we have seen dates in general catch on as a healthy food, a healthy snack.” As an industry, “we have been singing about the benefits of the product for all of these years. We are finally seeing some traction in that.”

The Muslim observance of Ramadan has become a major demand period for dates, he said. That has become increasingly evident as Ramadan, which comes about 11 days earlier each year on the Gregorian calendar, has “pulled away from the November-December period,” Mr. Ryan said. This year, Ramadan was from Aug. 1 to Aug. 30, so it becomes easy to see the effect of the observance on date demand, distinct from the Thanksgiving-to-Christmas period holiday pull.

Demand has grown both for “the pitted Neglet Noor variety and also the Medjool,” and much of that “can be traced directly to Ramadan consumption,” he said.

“We’ve seen our Medjool business grow much more rapidly than the Deglet,” he added.

Currently, SunDate’s production, by variety, is “a little higher on the Deglets” by volume, “but the value is higher on the Medjools,” he said.

The 2011 harvest was about to begin when The Produce News talked to Mr. Ryan Aug. 30. Some Medjool gardens may be “ready to go to first pick as early as next week.” That is a little later than normal. “The valley has been, across all commodities, a little bit behind a traditional year,” he said. The Medjool harvest “will last through probably the second week of November,” Mr. Ryan said. Meanwhile, the Deglet Noor harvest “will start sometime round the 10th of October.” The harvest of that variety will continue through the end of the year.

“On the Medjool side, our biggest item is the club store pack, which is the two-pound tub,” he said. “That comprises our biggest single item that we run through here.” For traditional retailers, the most popular pack sizes for Medjools are a 12-ounce pack, an 8-ounce pack and a 1-pound pack, “probably in that order of demand,” all in either tubs or clamshells, he said.

For Deglet Noors, popular club store packs are a 3-pound tub and a 2.5-pound gusseted “stand-up” bag, he continued. This is the first year that the company has been selling the gusseted bag to club stores, “and we have had good success with that.

Traditional retail packaging for Deglet Noors are a 10-ounce cub and a one-pound cup, both pitted, a 10-ounce cup of chopped dates, and a 10-ounce pack of whole dates. But “you are seeing, I think, on the Deglet Noor side, a shift away from the traditional packages … to either a clamshell or a re-sealable bag.” Still, the 10-ounce cup remains the mainstay of the industry, he said. That is still where “the bulk of the business is done.”