Full of pep(pers)

The diversity of peppers is driving sales in the supermarket aisle and innovation in the field.

Some like them hot. Some like them sweet. Some like them cooked. Some like them raw. One of the most versatile items in the produce aisle, the pepper category offers something for all consumers.

mini-peppers4There has been a big boom in retailers’ pepper offering lately, say industry observers. It is no surprise when considering the diverse roles peppers play in so many different types of cuisine. At-home cooks are expanding their culinary horizons and introducing meals from around the world to their dining room table, and many of these recipes include peppers.

The peppers category has shown steady—and consistent—growth for a dozen years, says Mike Aiton, director of marketing for Prime Time International, based in Coachella, Calif. “Fresh peppers add flavor to every dish and are extremely versatile. New sweeter and milder varieties have eliminated many of the stereotypes from years ago. There are now peppers of every size, shape, flavor, spice and color to satisfy any palate.”

Pleasing consumer palates is no easy task these days. The grocery industry is increasingly tailoring its offerings to the growing ethnic demographics that are drastically influencing American cuisine. Yet, it goes beyond that, say observers. There is a new generation of at-home cooks who are learning more about how to use their kitchen from the Food Network and blogs than from their mothers and grandmothers.

Generation X and Millenials are growing up with a level of intelligence about nutrition that Baby Boomers never had. “The nutritional information that a 32-year-old mother has today compared to 20 years ago is much greater,” says Douglas Kling, senior vice president, chief sales and marketing officer for Eatontown, N.J.-based Village Farms.
Foodservice has played a significant role as well. Restaurants are finding new uses for peppers, such as fusion-style cuisines, where a pepper used traditionally in one cuisine can carry that flavor over into a new dish. “It seems that the restaurant business is in some ways driving the colored pepper category,” says Dan Edmeier, director of sales for Kingdom Fresh Produce, based in Donna, Texas. “More people are being exposed to new and creative ways to prepare peppers in the meals they serve to their families at home.”

With increased interest, come increased options. Much of the category’s growth has come from new varieties, say observers. Growers are rejuvenating the once-all-green pepper bin with red, oranges, yellows and multi-packs. Just as these colorful varieties add to the visual appeal of restaurant dishes, retailers are hoping colorful displays will capture the attention of consumers.

“There is no prettier display in the produce department than a dozen or more pepper varieties displayed in contrasting colors,” says Aiton. “The vibrant colors and varied shapes and sizes draw shoppers to the display. When varieties are well signed, complete with a flavor profile and suggested uses, consumers will shop the display thoroughly and load up. Pepper sales also respond very well to price promotions and expanded displays.”

According to some growers, mini sweet peppers are becoming one of the best selling new items. Available in red, yellow and orange varieties, they are usually sold in 1- and 2-pound bags, says Aiton. “Minis are becoming popular with consumers to be eaten raw as a snack, chopped in cooked dishes or stuffed with a wide array of products as an hors d’oeuvre.”

Throughout the produce department pre-packaged offerings continue to gain in popularity. Peppers are no different and observers say bagged peppers benefit everyone involved. Branded products become more front-of-mind with consumers, retailers can save labor by not having to manage and organize a bin of loose items and the consumer gets a clean, unhandled product. Kling says that though multi-pack bagged product originated in club stores, they are commonplace in supermarkets now.

One dilemma retailers say they face is where to merchandise peppers. Should they sit with the cooking vegetables? Or will they sell better by the salad ingredients? Both are key locations, say observers. What is important is to make sure there is signage with nutritional information and cooking or preparation recommendations.

The nutritional benefit of peppers is a big driver for consumer purchases. Different colors offer different nutritional benefits, as well. “Red Bell Peppers specifically contain lycopene, which has been shown to be effective in lowering the risk of certain types of cancer, and all peppers contain high levels of vitamin C,” says Kingdom Fresh Produce’s Edmeier. The grower offers red bell peppers in two varieties—the traditional blocky pepper and the longer cone shaped LaRouge variety.

Some like it hot
Hothouse-grown peppers are heating up—pardon the pun—the pepper category. Grown in a controlled environment away from the elements, hothouse-grown produce offers consistent quality and availability year-round.

Hothouse peppers continue to be in demand with consumers, says Doug Kling, senior vice president, chief sales and marketing officer for Village Farms. The Eatontown, N.J.-based grower offers peppers in all colors and sizes, as well as tomatoes and cucumbers.

Hothouse peppers offer a smoother taste, especially green bell peppers, says Kling, adding that consumers who do not like green peppers—because of their acidic taste—sometimes prefer hothouse. Kling says it is because hothouse peppers have a smoother taste, more in line with a red, orange or yellow pepper. “It gives the consumer a broader flavor profile, more visual options and with the growing trend in multi-packs, they are a better value,” he says. “The more variety and options you provide in a category, the greater the overall consumption.

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