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November, 2012

Fall Tropicals

By Dennis Linden

It is November, a time when our domestic harvests flood retail produce departments with a sea of relatively common fresh staples like apples, pears, oranges, potatoes and onions
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Korean Pear

The logistics involved in moving fresh produce from fields around the world to grocery carts around the world has never ceased to fascinate and amaze me. It is November, a time when our domestic harvests flood retail produce departments with a sea of relatively common fresh staples like apples, pears, oranges, potatoes and onions. While there is a good mix of colors, shapes and sizes within this group, it’s not a collection that inspires much mouth-watering excitement unless one is a real apple aficionado or, dare I say it, an avid potato head!

Forty years ago, with the exception of a few common tropical fruits such as coconuts, bananas and the occasional pineapple, the U.S. consumer had to settle for a rather “plain Jane” fresh fruit menu during the winter months. That was then; if you want an example of today’s global economy in action, just take a gander at the list of fresh tropicals that Melissa’s is now able to offer in November: Caribbean Red Papayas (Belize), Korean Pears (Korea), Plantains (Ecuador), Sweet Young Coconuts (Thailand), Starfruit (Taiwan), Maradol Papayas (Mexico), Passion Fruit (New Zealand), Kiwano Melons (NZ), Cherimoyas (Chile), Quick Crack Coconuts (Mexico), Feijoas (Chile/NZ), to name just a few. It’s a United Nations of exotic delights that add some sex appeal and tasty temptations to retail produce aisles in spite of domestic seasonal limitations.

Starfruit

All this has been made possible, in part, due to technological advances in the science of agriculture; especially in the areas of post-harvest handling, packaging and transportation. We are all not only able to enjoy fresh fruits sourced from the opposite hemisphere, but the produce industry does this so well that the consumer has come to expect it. For those living in northern climates, for instance, what an amazing thing it is to be able to snack on a bowl of fresh raspberries while watching it snow outside! No doubt the fresh-picked taste of those berries are savored with relish, though I am sure that the lucky “snacker” never gives two seconds of thought to the logistical feat that bowl of berries represents.

Today, a typical, mid-sized supermarket produce department carries about 500 SKU’s on average. SKU is short for Stock Keeping Unit, which is a unique identifier for each distinct product sold in any retail store. Actually, that average includes a substantial number of superstore retailers who handle as many as 600-700 produce SKU's at any one time. Forty years ago that fresh produce count for U.S. grocers was about 150 units.

Coconuts

While technology makes it possible for Melissa’s to physically import such an array of fresh exotics from around the world, this is still a business of trusted relationships. The credit for managing these communication and transportation tools profitably must be given to the global network of dedicated professionals, who work across borders, time zones and cultures, to make the system appear so seamless. It’s a unique industry that demands a 24/7 work ethic that most find much too daunting and all-consuming -- a job description that I would not contradict.

To be a success in the business of fresh produce, those who must have at least eight hours of uninterrupted sleep out of every twenty-four, need not apply. Anyone who insists on a career that can be left at the office when it’s time to go home also need not apply. This industry is manned by a small fraternity of hard-working individuals around the world who are willing to sacrifice sleep, as well as a normal home and social life because they are, in fact, consumed by the challenge and somewhat addicted to the risk vs. reward thrills that dealing with such fragile perishables offers. Only the fresh flower industry or anyone selling ice cubes in a desert has quicker time challenges than the fresh produce wholesaler.

While most of the country sleeps, our industry works in the dark hours of the night and early morning to procure harvests happening in real time on the other side of the globe. The perishability of the commodities involved set a much faster pace of doing business than most. Decisions must be made quickly because the clock starts ticking down on good quality from the second a produce item is picked. After all, no matter how long a case of nails sits in a building supply warehouse, it will not rot before being shipped to the carpenter who ordered it! Plus those nails are not going to freeze, over-heat, bruise or ripen no matter their ambient temperature; so the order gets shipped when someone in the warehouse gets around to it.

The need for speed has also made this a very honorable profession. We trade internationally under a shared set of agreed upon quality and condition standards as well as a credo of honest business practices that politicians in those same countries can only envy. There is really no time in this business for samples to be sent, so millions of dollars in fresh produce is negotiated, ordered and shipped daily on the trusted say-so of sellers operating under universally recognized grades, condition and uniform sizing criteria that everyone along the distribution pipeline focuses on maintaining. If everyone does their job and the shipment is handled correctly, a wholesaler like Melissa’s can confidently promise our retail clients good quality fruit before it arrives, which greatly expedites distribution. By necessity, our warehouse is a fluid staging area, not a storage facility; the same square footage is used over and over again each day as product comes in from all over the world and goes out just as quickly to retailers across the country. The satisfaction of getting a call from a retailer in the mid-west just to report that the red papayas from Belize have arrived and are beautiful is what keeps all of us in this business getting to the office before sunrise.

In these times of such division between countries and cultures, the world could learn a lesson or two about mutual cooperation from the international fresh produce community as evidenced in this month’s list of dazzling tropical fruit choices. For Melissa’s, life truly is a bowl of cherries and, depending upon the month, we know just where in the world to get them for you!