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Pushing Produce

No longer just side dishes, fruit and vegetables are driving the main course.

Things are getting tense on Top Chef Canada, one of the standout programs on the popular Food Network channel. It's the start of Episode 4, and contestants have a half-hour to put together a signature salad. The seconds click away amid a flurry of greens. Finally, Dustin Gallagher, a youthful Toronto contestant, wins the challenge with his beet-and-carrot carpaccio salad featuring wasabi mustard, pickled onion, shaved apple and garlic chips.

The popularity of Top Chef and other cooking shows is a big reason why today's shoppers are seeking out new and exotic fruit and vegetables to try at home. These shows often put produce items up front, and that's been a boon for sales, says Linda Cavasin, senior director of produce merchandising at Metro Inc. In the last year sales of two tropical fruit, mangos and papayas, have doubled and nearly tripled, respectively. Sales of bok choy are up a bountiful 18 per cent, while the licorice- like herb anise is up 138 per cent, according to figures from Nielsen.

Produce sales overall remain, well, healthy. For the year ending May 7, 2011, revenues from fruit and vegetable items sold with a UPC code rose four per cent, to $8.1 billion, across all channels in Canada. Unit volumes were up seven per cent. "A large portion of our customer base has educated themselves about health and nutrition and is shopping accordingly," says David Wilson, manager of produce operations at Choices Markets, a B.C. chain specializing in natural and organic products. The hottest trend in the produce section is still the move toward packaged products. Sales of bagged salads topped $318 million in Canada, up three per cent from a year ago. Even the good, old banana is showing up in plastic bags more often now as non-grocery retailers such as Shoppers Drug Mart add produce into their aisles.

New products reflect the mix of health and convenience in one package. Toronto-based EarthFresh Foods, for example, launched a line of microwaveable fresh potatoes, called Steamers, this May. "These are fresh potatoes–not frozen or dried–so they are as good or better than what most people can make at home themselves," says company president, Tom Hughes.

Produce that comes in snack formats are also popular. Fruit giant Sun-Maid Growers of California has two new, ready-to-eat, dried fruit products for the Canadian market: Vanilla Yogurt Mini-Raisins and a six-pack of Cape Cod Cranberries. Dried fruit is a great alternative to fresh as it's cheaper for shoppers and highly resistant to shrink, which is good for retailers, says Joe Tamble, Sun-Maid's vice-president of sales.

Meanwhile, Canada's multicultural influence isn't just responsible for the introduction of exotic new fruit and veggies. It's manoeuvring produce from side dish to the main course. "We have noticed that ethnic fruit and vegetables are becoming popular and people are trying new fruit and vegetables that they wouldn't otherwise be familiar with," says Cavasin at Metro.

Indeed, as consumer awareness and acceptance grows about unfamiliar produce, it's up to grocers to keep up with the demand for new flavour experiences. "Canada is a cross-cultural nation with a diverse mix of people and food. Exposure to different cultural recipes helps foster taste adventures," says Wilson.


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