Eggplant done right in the kitchen can provide a wonderful eating experience for consumers. Eggplant done right in the produce department can be profitable for retailers.
But eggplant is not as forgiving as some produce. Prepared improperly, it can be a culinary disappointment, and improper handling at store level can result in costly shrink.
“The post-harvest process is quite delicate,” Gonzalo Avila, chief executive officer at Malena Produce Inc. in Nogales, AZ, told The Produce News in an Oct. 2 interview. “You’ve got to really know what you are doing with it to maximize the shelf life on it.”
Malena, a grower and shipper specializing in eggplant, bell peppers, squash, cucumbers, tomatoes, pickles, chili peppers, grapes and melons, has been a leading supplier of eggplant in North America since the 1950s.
“We know how to handle eggplant,” Avila said. But “over the years, we have heard back from our customers” that they have found it to be “a high shrink item.” So the company undertook a study to determine the best way to handle and merchandise eggplant at the retail level, then communicate that information to the trade “so that we can improve the quality and condition of the fruit on the shelf. At the end of the day, it is for [the benefit of] the end consumers, so they can have a better experience with it.”
Last year, Malena hired Veronica Kraushaar, managing partner in Viva International Partners Inc., to help the company “do more of an eggplant category outreach to try to develop the category a little more,” Avila said.
“Eggplant does not have the consumption that some of the other items have that we handle or other people handle here in Nogales. So we are trying to grow the category,” he said.
Through Kraushaar’s connections at the University of California Davis “and the information and data that they have for post-harvest handling” of eggplant and other commodities, he said, “we were able to tap into some of that information and develop it even further.”
According to a company press release, Malena undertook an eggplant market research study “and is now launching an educational initiative with retailers to help develop the category.”
That effort, in conjunction with an expansion of the company’s eggplant production into geographic areas that enable now, year-round availability and “consistent quality” reflect “our continued commitment to our flagship product,” Avila said in the release. “Our goal is not to push more supply into the system but to help educate receivers on optimum eggplant assortment, handling and merchandising. We’re also providing promotional support to help pull in the customer.”
The study analyzes a three-year eggplant consumption trend “and identifies key demographic profiles for retail advantage,” the release states. Retail trainers who are, themselves, former produce managers “are being contracted to review the study with chain produce teams, focusing on how proper handling and merchandising can reduce shrink and increase margins.”
The outreach extends also to consumers, and to the foodservice industry as well. One deterrent to increased eggplant consumption is that “a lot of people … don’t know what to do with it,” Avila said. Although eggplant is becoming more widely known and utilized, still, “not everybody knows how to cook it. Not everybody knows how to prepare it. They know what to do with a tomato or a cucumber or a squash. But what do you do with eggplant?”
Success in the kitchen with eggplant, while it may not be especially difficult, does require a bit of special knowledge, and according to Avila “the prep work is the most important.” Once it has been properly prepared and pre-cooked, and “a little of the acid flavor” taken out of it, “then there are a million things that you can do with it.”
To help address that need, Malena has contracted with Brian Yager, a well-known product development chef who, according to Krausher, “brings top credentials plus extensive formulation and recipe development to the Malena team, helping our retail customers and their customers maximize eggplant’s potential.”
“We brought [Yager] on to make it as simple as possible” for people as yet unfamiliar with eggplant to get “on board” with the product “by educating consumers and foodservice operators on how to prepare eggplant in a simple way,” said Avila. “We are using him as a consultant” to develop “recipes and product formulations and see what other things we can do with eggplant.”
Details of the retail support program are “still being finalized,” but they will involve “helping retailers with tools for their needs,” Kraushaar said. Some retailers want help with handling and displays at the store level. “Others want to reach out to their customers via their nutritionists, websites and blogs,” and some are looking for product sampling and chef demonstrations in-store. Still others prefer ad support. The program will be designed to meet “specific customer needs.”