With its increasingly influential role as sales driver and image builder, GB editors break down the ripest trends powering the fresh produce category.
1. Ugly Produce
Ugly. Rejects. Imperfect. Misfits. While they don’t look as pretty as the pristine mainstays, a misshapen cucumber by any other name is still a cucumber, and it tastes every bit as good—which makes it all the sweeter that these homely veggie and fruit castoffs have at last found their place in the sun (as opposed to the hopper). In addition to helping reduce food waste, ugly produce is also helping retailers tout value in the all-important fresh produce department, where unattractive, blemished, irregular-shaped fruits and vegetables are sold at a discounted price.
Robinson Fresh has been among those at the forefront of the ugly movement via its alliances with several leading retailers, including Hy-Vee, Hannaford and Meijer, which offers its branded Misfits line of cosmetically challenged produce in support of the USDA’s goal of reducing food waste by 50% by 2030. The line offers imperfect items such as apples, bell peppers, lemons and sweet potatoes at a 20-40% discount. Hy-Vee launched the program to nearly all of its 242 store locations earlier this year, and within four months had rescued more than 1 million pounds of produce from landfills. Walmart also launched its own line Spuglies line of irregular Russet potatoes for 88 cents per 3-pound bag, and a 5-pound bag of “I’m Perfect” mixed apple varieties, available for $4.97 per 5-pound bag.
2. Produce Butchers
For many folks, one of the greatest impediments to cooking—and eating healthier—is peeling, chopping, slicing and dicing an abundance of fruits and vegetables before cooking a meal, to say nothing of cleaning up. Enter “produce butchers,” savvy retailers’ novel response to time-strapped shoppers’ cry for convenience. Companies such as Whole Foods Market, Coborn’s and Lowes Foods are now offering dedicated counters where shoppers can bring their hand-selected fruits and vegetables to be prepped and cut to order, eliminating time-consuming prep work and the safety risks of handling challenging such as like watermelon or pineapple.
The concept of produce butchers has resonated with consumers and food professionals alike, including chef Mario Batali, one of the owners of dining-grocery hybrid Eataly, who advocates for produce butchers as a way for retailers to encourage exploration, education and interaction between store employees and produce shoppers. Coborn’s debuted its Chop Shoppe destination last year at its Isanti, Minn., location, where shoppers can drop off their produce to be prepped while they shop, charging per pound after the product has been cut. And Lowes Foods’ Pick & Prep station offers the same service, free of charge. “They’re able to accomplish two things at one time,” says Rick Stein, VP of fresh foods for Arlington, Va.-based Food Marketing Institute (FMI). “The produce butcher is doing production, so they’re cutting fruits and veggies, wrapping it up and putting a price on it. But they also serve the purpose of having an information counter right there on the sales floor, so now consumers can come up while they’re working and start talking to them.”
Price discounts are not the only way to put deformed produce to use. East Coast juicing company Misfit Juicery brings perfectly fresh and tasty, albeit unattractive, produce to the blender. The company teams up with farmers, distributors and fresh-cut producers to make use of fruits, vegetables and scraps that would otherwise go to waste. Each juice contains at least 70% ugly produce and scraps that farmers can’t sell, including carrot sticks and watermelon cubes, in a variety of flavors, including All Kale Breaks Loose, 24 Carrot Gold, S.C.R.E.A.M., Pear to the People, Far From the Tree, Off Beet and A Better OJ.
Fresh-pressed juices are not only rich in antioxidants, vitamins and minerals, but they also offer a healthy and convenient meal occasion on the go. And with consumers’ increased interest in health and clean-label diets, it’s no surprise that the fresh-pressed juicing trade has reportedly soared into a $3.4 billion industry, according to Forbes. Retailers, too, are getting in on the action, now offering fresh-pressed juice counters right in-store. Earlier this year, Whole Foods partnered with Juicero, a countertop cold-pressed juicer, to launch in-store juice bars across 11 locations in Southern California. The juice bars offer an interactive, self-serve experience for shoppers to order fresh, 100% organic cold-pressed juice by the glass.
4. New Formats
Produce has made its way from a side dish or snack to the center of consumers’ dinner plates. Companies have been exploring different shapes and sizes to deliver vegetables in fun and exciting formats. Cauliflower “rice” was perhaps the first to explode in popularity as the consumer’s choice for a healthy alternative to carbs. Today, seemingly any type of vegetable can be transformed into a funky format. The infamous “zoodle,” or zucchini noodle, paved the way for fresh options including veggie spirals, ribbons, crumbles and cuts. Renaissance Food Group’s line of Garden Highway Veggie Noodles features four on-trend flavors—Butternut Squash, Sweet Potato, Butternut Squash & Sweet Potato, and Zucchini—packed in clamshell containers that offer cooking instructions and add-in suggestions for proteins and sauces to create complete meals.
“Convenience is important but maybe isn’t recognized for the cutting-edge items coming out every day,” says Kathy Means, VP of industry relations for Produce Marketing Association (PMA). “I’ve taken to calling it out as a two-prong trend related to responding to different consumer needs, and by that I mean my individual needs are different during the week than on the weekend—so not just serving different people, but serving individuals what they need at that moment.”
Vegetable-centric cooking and dining are on the rise in a big way, and retailers must be ready to up their game with a wider variety of fruits and vegetables to help shoppers add more inventive produce dishes to their plates. “Vegetable-centric eating is finally mainstream, and it’s paving ways for the future of food and produce consumption,” says Karen Caplan, president and CEO of Frieda’s Specialty Produce. “Retailers are embracing this change by expanding the number of vibrantly colored vegetables and providing more produce variety for shoppers.”
Among the four hottest veg-centric fruits and vegetables, per Caplan, are:
Radishes. With root-to-stem cooking making its way from restaurants to home kitchens, specialty radishes will take center stage as vegetables that can be eaten whole—tops and all. “With their vibrant colors, bright flavors and nutritious green tops,” radishes are on a roll, says Caplan.
Purple cauliflower. This colorful, cruciferous vegetable finds itself all over Instagram in strikingly arranged vegetable trays and pickle boards. Simply steamed or roasted as a colorful side dish, or pureed as a low-carb mashed potato substitute, purple cauliflower—which doesn’t lose its color when cooked—is also great for adding color to fresh veggie platters.
Hard squashes. Hearty and nutrient-dense, versatile and economical, hard squashes add variety year-round instead of just in the fall and winter. It’s no wonder they are becoming the darling of veg-centric cooking, with butternut and delicata squashes leading the pack.
Tropical fruits and aromatics. From the Tiki cocktail revival to island cuisine, tropical flavors are the key to many rising trends. That’s why Caplan urges retailers to jump aboard the tropical bandwagon with both feet to meet shoppers’ growing interest in items such as lychees, dragon fruit and starfruits. She also advises aggressive produce retailers to commit to adding more space to fresh aromatics such as turmeric, ginger and lemongrass.
6. Meat Alternatives
Once a small category consisting of tofu, tempeh and seitan, options for meat alternatives have exploded into a major category with countless produce possibilities. From portobello mushrooms and eggplant to beets and potatoes, vegetables are a hearty and healthy option for vegans and meat eaters alike. Jackfruit, in particular, has been appearing more in grocery stores this year. The Jackfruit Co. works with more than 350 farming families to deliver high-quality, ethically sourced and sustainable jackfruit products that are healthy for both consumers and the environment. High in fiber, low in calories and containing no cholesterol, the company’s refrigerated product line is ready to eat and features teriyaki, curry, Tex-Mex and barbecue jackfruit varieties, plus two new flavors: Lightly Seasoned and Lemon-Garlic.
Retailers are also offering ready-to-eat meat alternatives in their prepared foods sections. Whole Foods recently announced its partnership with Ocean Hugger Foods to introduce what it calls the first plant-based sushi alternative. Created by Certified Master Chef James Corwell, Ahimi is made from tomatoes and savory umami-rich ingredients designed to replicate the taste and texture of ahi tuna. Ahimi will be available in two dishes—the Ahimi Nigiri and Roll Combo, and the Ahimi California Roll—at the retailer’s New York and Los Angeles locations beginning Nov. 1.
7. Local and Seasonal Specialties
Perhaps one of the retail produce department’s biggest competitors is the local farmers market. To be sure, when it comes to fruits and vegetables, shoppers seek seasonal and local produce to meet their farm-to-table freshness fix. Retailers recently have been taking steps to build their entire brands around locally sourced fresh fruits and veggies, including Salt Lake City-based Associated Food Stores, which recently debuted the first-of-its-kind small-format Honey Bee Produce Co. banner store. Honey Bee works with more than 30 Utah growers, producers and vendors to stock its produce department, which it plays up heavily with eye-catching, colorful fruit and vegetable displays.
As the yin to local’s yang, seasonal specialties have become a cornerstone of high-performing fresh produce departments, and no time is it more evident than the present peak harvest time, when seasonal displays of pumpkins, squash, eggplant and pomegranate draw shoppers like moths to a flame. For holiday resets, Alex Jackson Berkley, senior account manager for Frieda’s Specialty Produce, advises retailers to use complementary and specialty items to give shoppers a turnkey destination to elevate autumn’s bounty, such as shallots, elephant garlic, specialty onions (pearl, boiler and cipolline), pine nuts, cinnamon sticks, vanilla beans and mulling spices.
Consumers want to know where their food comes from across all parameters of the grocery store, and as this trend continues to rise, price gaps between organic and conventional food are beginning to decrease. Formerly out of reach—or interest—for the average grower/shipper, traceability is becoming the norm. Growers have been promoting their practices to attract and inform consumers of callouts such as non-GMO, sustainable and fair trade. FMI’s Rick Stein says this trend is particularly important to millennials, who are constantly absorbing information. “It’s not enough that they know Brussels sprouts have a good price on them,” he says. “Now they want to know where those Brussels sprouts came from. Were they grown locally? Were they imported? How are they in terms of a vitamin and nutritional aspect?”
For retailers, it’s not enough to only carry organic, non-GMO and fair-trade produce; now they must have additional information and callouts about related product attributes. Ahold’s Stop & Shop division recently partnered with HowGood, an independent research organization dedicated to bringing transparency to the shopping experience with a proprietary rating system in four of its Massachusetts stores based on environmental and social benchmarks.
9. Influencer Chefs
The role celebrity chefs have played in helping to educate and enlighten shoppers about new cuisines and cooking techniques cannot be underestimated. Indeed, the stars of the TV kitchens who have shone bright over the years have had a profound influence on consumers’ appreciation for experimentation and intrigue with ingredients that were previously unheard of. PMA’s Kathy Means marvels at the power of “as seen on TV” influencers. “Some retailers have directly tapped into what’s trending on Food Network and PBS cooking shows,” she says, which she believes to be extremely commendable—and smart. “Large chains may not be able to do this because of their need for uniformity, but it’s an edge that local/regional chains or independents can use to differentiate.”
Further, local chefs are increasingly providing inspiration for home cooks by introducing them to new foods and unconventional ingredients. As such, she believes retailers could parlay alliances with local chefs into in-store events. “It’s kind of like bringing in the local farmer to pay a visit to the produce department,” says Means. “But here, it’s inviting chefs from local, cool restaurants to demo and sample special recipes so folks can cook them at home using the chain’s prep-ready produce.”
10. Herbs and Spices
Fresh herbs are creating verdant gardens in today’s grocery stores. What was once limited to summertime is now available year-round, thanks to a growing array of fresh, pureed and freeze-dried herb and spices, which have carved out an important niche in the produce department. By allowing consumers to relish the fresh taste and rich flavors—sans the prep time—companies such as Gourmet Garden produce a bevy of fresh herbs in a variety of formats, including stir-in pastes and lightly dried herbs and spices, which offer the closest thing to fresh in terms of appearance, flavor and aroma.
Category innovation also extends to freeze-dried blends from the likes of Litehouse, which recently debuted a guacamole herb blend that combines dried and freeze-dried herbs and spices to create a simple ingredient panel of cilantro, red onion, tomato, lemon, cumin, red pepper and garlic to make homemade guacamole simple and tasty. For those who wish to grow their own—or at least purchase a product that is still in soil—companies such as North Shore Living Herbs are also making waves on the retail scene. The company offers more than 20 different types of living culinary herbs in both packaged clamshell and potted varieties.