Longo's director of produce talks summer trends

Mimmo Franzone on what's hot in the produce department, including pluots and cauliflower crumbles

With Ontario’s produce season well underway, Canadian Grocer talked with Mimmo Franzone, director of produce and floral for Toronto-area chain Longo’s, about what’s new in the chain’s most colourful department.

What are some of the hot trends in produce right now, and what’s driving them?
Consumers are really looking for two things: Flavour and unique items, and they’re looking to be educated on how to use them.

Besides kale, there hasn’t been a ground-breaking produce item in recent years. Usage is a big thing: Am I buying squash because it’s cut and cleaned, or am I not buying it because it’s tough to cook?

Whether it’s growers or retailers, if they have a solution for a certain commodity, it creates additional awareness and demand.

We’re bringing in a new product called cauliflower crumbles from a partner in California. It’s cauliflower that has been processed into a crumble that you can use to make cakes and muffins.

What’s tending now is coloured cauliflower, just because it adds something different to your meals. There’s another cauliflower called Romanesco, which is green and pointed and has a slightly more earthy flavour.

Is there anything exciting happening in fruit?
Moon cherries are a variety of cherry grown at higher elevations. It extends the season for a couple of weeks and produces higher sugar content. It’s probably the strongest-tasting cherry of the year.

Because the cherry season only happens twice a year, in the early summer and winter, there’s high demand on growers. In order to continue the supply, they’re trying different varieties and grow them in different micro-climates to extend the season.

Where years ago we used to have a four-week cherry season, now you can have a 12-week season. There’s a 24-week gap, then you go for another 10 weeks or so.

We’ve also been hearing about a product called pluots. What can you tell us about this item?
Some producers are getting away from the generic plums you’ve seen for the last four or five decades. We’re moving from generic red and black plums to pluots, which are a cross between a plum and an apricot .

They’ve got a different texture and the Brix levels are higher. If you think about a ripe apricot, its sugar levels are a lot higher than a plum.

They’re from cross-pollination of multiple trees and the season lasts all the way from June to October, so every week there are new varieties coming in season. You’ll get pink, purple, yellow, green, red, black – there are literally hundreds of varieties and 8-10 different colours.

It looks like a plum, but when you bite into it it’s a little different.

There’s also something called an aprium, which is the same mix but 75% apricot and 25% plum.

Is there a lot of this type of hybrid experimentation going on?
In general, growers are trying to differentiate themselves from their counterpart across the street. In order to increase consumption and trial, they need to put out something different.

If there are hundreds of California growers growing black plums, they’re the same black plums we’ve been seeing for years and years. If you put something new into the system, it’s going to increase trial.

Do you anticipate seeing more of this type of activity?
For sure. We’re seeing it a lot in grapes: There are a ton of different grape varieties, flavour profiles and shapes.

Any other emerging vegetable trends?
Snacking vegetables are trending very high, like mini-tomatoes that people are washing and eating out of their hand, or mini-cucumbers. They’ve sort of taken from the mini-carrot of 10 years ago.

Speaking of trends, what’s going on with kale?
It continues to be strong. The people who were on the trend five years ago continue to buy, and the people who were slightly behind continue the trial. Every year sees enormous growth: You’re seeing kale in salad kits, soup kids, processed kale, coloured kale. It’s not dying at all.

I think there’s going to be some growth over the next couple of years and then it will probably plateau. Sales will stay strong, but once everybody’s on board it’s going to be tougher because we’re already established .

How is the produce section performing as a whole?
The industry is doing a lot to increase produce consumption, and I know for our organization we’re seeing double-digit growth in our tropical categories an increase in avocado and mango consumption.

We’re also seeing growth in the grape category strong varieties grown around the world. There are strong programs out of Chile and Mexico. Having your grower partners grow the right varieties appeals to the consumer and drives consumption. We’re also seeing double-digit growth in fresh greens, including kale.

What are some of your tried-and-true tactics for merchandising produce?
It starts with the product itself. Regardless of how good your merchandising is, if you’re putting sub-par product on display for your customer, it’s not going to drive consumption.

We start off with creating great relationships and making sure we’re sourcing the best products for our customers. Once the products start arriving, we work closely with our in-store teams to make sure there’s the right amount of product on display and try to turn it over every day.

Themed displays also work great, especially when you’re doing a category. If you’re doing a tropical display, for example, try to tie-in pineapples, mangoes, papayas and some exotic fruit. Berries also work great together.

What can we expect for locally-grown produce this summer?
The berry season started a little slow for us, but it’s in full force with the recent great weather. We should have a very strong couple of months of Ontario strawberries. Asparagus this season was outstanding, and everything else is in-line.

We had a little bump in the weather in early May that slowed some of the vegetables down, but only by a week. The fruit looks like it’s going to be a great crop: Apples and pears are going to have a great fall.


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