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Ecoripe Tropicals bringing Asian products to American consumers

Ecoripe Tropicals’ Asian vegetable program was in full swing in late November.

The company, in Medley, FL, is an importer and distributor of a full line of quality tropical, Asian and specialty produce. It sources from Central American countries, including Guatemala, Honduras, Belize and Costa Rica, according to Marc Holbik, vice president.

“For Asian produce we work with growers in the Comayagua Valley, a beautiful valley in central Honduras,” said Mr. Holbik. “We also have growers in Estanzuela in the eastern part of Guatemala. Combined, the two programs total about 200 acres of fresh Japanese, Indian and Thai produce items.”

All of its Asian items are produced in both growing regions year round.

Ecoripe Tropicals’ Asian line includes Chinese, Japanese, Indian and Thai varieties of eggplant, Chinese and Indian varieties of bitter melon, Chinese and Thai okra and chive flower, the delicate flower of the chive plant, which renders an onion-garlic flavor.

In late November the firm was moving about 10,000 boxes of Asian produce items weekly.

“The strongest import season starts in November and runs through May,” said Mr. Holbik. “This is when we double our volumes. The strategy behind growing the same items in both Honduras and Guatemala offers us some backup in case one of the regions has weather issues that delay the crops. Our growing area in Honduras is at a higher elevation, so there is some concern about chills in January and February that can reduce production. The Guatemala farms are closer to the ocean, so chills are not an issue. We have the advantage of sourcing from both areas.”

The bulk of the company’s current business is done with specialty ethnic stores that are located in pockets in the United States, with large Asian-American populations, as well as a small group of foodservice operations. The company has strong presence in the Northeastern United States, Toronto, Canada and Houston.

“While we have traditionally targeted this population, we are interested in marketing toward a more general American public,” Mr. Holbik explained. “These items are very popular with health-conscious Americans who also like to learn to prepare specialty produce. The diversity of products attracts consumers to eat more fresh produce, and having these products at their fingertips is the best sales’ advantage a retail store can have.”

With Asian restaurants high in popularity in the United States, consumers want to prepare foods they eat out in their home kitchens. This too helps to spur retail sales.

The company does sell direct, but the majority of its business is with wholesalers in the United States and Canada. Mr. Holbik said that the Asian population currently represents its final customers.

Ecoripe started in business seven years ago by importing papayas from Guatemala, which are now grown in Belize. It also handles rambutan from a leading exporter in Guate-mala. It added the Asian line two years ago.

“Adding the Asian line was a natural evolvement,” Mr. Holbik explained. “Because Asians use a lot of papayas and rambutan our business was geared toward that population early on. It was a natural to add the Asian line of products.”

The company recently expanded its cold-storage facility in Medley by about 3,000 square feet of triple racks.

“This will enable us to receive the projected increases of Asian vegetables and to continue to expand our product line,” said Mr. Holbik. “We just added yucca and eddoes from Costa Rica to our Hispanic line, which is sold to more general retailers and wholesalers.”

The company ships its products under the “Ecoripe” label and it uses some of its growers’ brand names.

Isabel Hurtado is Ecoripe’s sales manager. She organizes sales on the company’s Asian product line. Mr. Holbik said the company always goes through the process of clearing a new product with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food & Drug administration to make sure there is an import protocol for the item before they start planting and developing a program.

“This is very important, especially with specialty items,” he said.

“We are also proud to announce that we were food safety-certified this year by Primus Labs,” he added.