Talk of the Northwest

The Pacific Northwest has a plethora of produce in the ground, fish in the sea and products made from local ingredients.

ieooc1Apples have taken up ground in Washington State for approximately 200 years. As settlers planted trees to claim their piece of land, those nestled along the base of the Cascade Mountains amid meandering rivers thrived. It was not long before the region soon began commercial production.

Tree fruits, like apples and pears, are only a couple of the dozens of fruits and vegetables that thrive in the volcanic-ash soil and temperate dry climate of the Pacific Northwest. Add potatoes, onions and berries, along with the dressings and dips made from the region’s local fare, and retailers do not need to look far to stock their produce aisles. Seafood also plays a big role in the Pacific Northwest economy: Alaska proudly represents about one-third of the country’s edible seafood, say industry observers. To uncover the secrets of the land and sea Grocery Headquarters spoke with producers, growers and marketers representing the foods indigenous to the region.

  • Larry Andrews, retail marketing director for Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute (ASMI), Juneau, Alaska
  • Mac Riggan, director of marketing for Chelan Fresh Marketing, Chelan, Wash.
  • Steve Lutz, vice president of marketing for CMI (Columbia Marketing International), Wenatchee, Wash.
  • Lori Hickey, marketing manager for HBF International (Hurst’s Berry Farm), McMinnville, Ore.
  • Alison Kellogg, brand manager for Litehouse Foods, Sandpoint, Idaho
  • Seth Pemsler, vice president of retail and international for Idaho Potato Commission (IPC), Eagle, Idaho
  • Ralph Schwartz, vice president of sales, and Barbara Keckler, marketing manager, for Potandon Produce, Idaho Falls, Idaho
  • Suzanne Wolter, director of marketing for Rainier Fruit Co., Selah, Wash.
  • Sherise Jones, marketing director for USA Onions, Parma, Idaho
  • Addie Pobst, organic integrity and logistics lead for Viva Tierra, Sedro-Woolley, Wash.

What are some characteristics of the Pacific Northwest’s growing regions?

Steve Lutz, CMI: One is that the area allows deep dormancy for trees during the winter, which is important because that is the time the whole system and roots regenerate and build energy for the coming year. This region of the world is referred to as the apex of the temperate zone: it is far north enough to allow for deep dormancy for the trees but not too far north for the propensity for winter damage. The other piece of that is there is about an extra two hours of sunlight that California does not get.

Lori Hickey, HBF: The combination of rich volcanic soil combined with moist, cool Pacific winds makes Oregon a prime spot for growing all types of berries. We have blacks, blues, kiwi berries, currants, gooseberries and cranberries all being grown in the region.
Seth Pemsler, IPC: Idaho is a high-mountain desert with warm days, cool nights, volcanic soil and ample water. Potatoes grow best when it is warm during the day—to allow growth—and cool at night to allow for the plant to heal. There is also nearly no rain so growers can almost completely control the water supply.

Suzanne Wolter, Rainier: There are no other growing regions in the country like central Washington. The region has a very long growing season and there are more sunlight hours than other growing regions in the country. It is also extremely dry; most people find that surprising because of all the rain Seattle gets, but on the east side of the mountains precipitation is low, seven- to 11-inches a year including snowfall.

Addie Pobst, Viva Tierra: In addition to ideal climate conditions, there is infrastructure that has been developed throughout the years for packing and harvesting. You need that community infrastructure around the industry; it is not something you do by yourself. We are planted in eastern Washington where, for the last half century, fruit production has been important. It takes all of these elements together to make it possible to produce and market really great fruit out of the Northwest.

What role does the region play in your organization’s marketing?

Larry Andrews, ASMI: We have conducted a number of consumer surveys over the years to determine consumer’s reaction to seeing both the word Alaska and the Alaska Seafood logo on menus, signage and packaging, as well as the impact the logo has on their purchasing habits. The results have showed us that 73% of consumers surveyed feel that it is important to know the origin of the fish and seafood they purchase; the use of the word Alaska on packaging increases the likelihood to purchase among 72% of consumers surveyed; and 80% say that seeing the Alaska Seafood logo would increase their likelihood to purchase.

I think the power of the brand speaks for itself and the fact that consumers are more likely to purchase and order fish/seafood when Alaska is included in the description.

Mac Riggan, Chelan: Washington is a very pristine place. At Chelan we try to leverage the fact that we are from a small community nestled in a pristine environment that is very suitable for growing superior quality fruit. We do that on an international and national level. Often when people from the East coast arrive they say, “Wow, this is beautiful,” so we try to leverage that whole experience. When you buy from Chelan Fresh, you are buying from the Chelan region.

Pemsler: Consumers view Idaho potatoes as a premium product. According to a national study conducted by the IPC, retailers generally charge a premium for an Idaho potato product, and consumers will usually spend the money. Idaho to them means quality and consistency. It says to the consumer, “This is the best potato you can buy.” For many shoppers, that is a motivating factor. Potatoes are relatively cheap compared to other produce. It is easy to buy the “best potato;” it is maybe 50-cents more for a 5-pound bag of potatoes.

Wolter: There is a focus on “connecting with the grower.” Retailers in other parts of the country request information about the growing region, the grower and the product. We try to connect the shopper by talking about who grew that product, where it comes from and why we partner with this particular grower. Regionally it is easier to make the connection. We help retailers with materials, whether it is wording or a grower’s bio or photography.

How does your organization support and give back to the local community?

Riggan: Chelan Fresh has a healthy donation program targeted towards helping kids under 18 develop into productive adults.  By supporting sporting events in high school, organizations like DECA and FFA (Future Farmers of America), or different competitions and events that schools do not receive enough funding for, we try to make up the shortfall and allow them to have these experiences.

Pemsler: We do a lot in the local community. On a national level, we just finished the second annual Big Idaho Potato Truck Tour, which sponsored Meals on Wheels. Next year the tour will be supporting Go Red for Woman, raising awareness for heart disease in partnership with the American Heart Association.

Alison Kellogg, Litehouse: Litehouse is proud to be a major contributor in all of its communities, both through gifting, product donations and employee time. We work with the local food banks and Second Harvest organizations; we participate in fundraising events; and we are on the board of directors in every community aspect, from hospital to education to economic development, with a strong focus on children, education, faith and community.

Barbara Keckler, Potandon: Potandon funds its own foundation committed to giving to local charities and organizations on an annual basis. Along with that, the company donates money, product and time throughout the year.

Pobst: For the last several years we have been working with Sedro-Woolley Adult Transition (SWAT). The program helps developmentally disabled teens and young adults obtain work experience at local businesses. We had a young man named John work with us in our office a few days a week, and then we hired him after he graduated from the program. We will continue to work with new students. It has been really educational for the students to gain skills, but also positive for office moral; the staff gets a lot out of interacting with the students in the office.

In what ways does your organization use its location to support the “locally grown” movement?

Andrews: For many, Alaska is their choice because it is a product of the U.S. and supports local fisherman and communities, as well as a number of jobs both inside and outside of the state. The commercial seafood industry is Alaska’s largest private sector employer. In a recent study conducted by the McDowell Group in late 2013, Alaska represents about one-third of the total value of U.S. edible seafood. Here is another interesting fact: If Alaska were a country it would be the seventh largest exporter in the world.

hurst2Hickey: For consumers in areas of the country where it is not possible to buy “locally grown” berries because of growing conditions, we do our very best to provide them with the same quality product that we are proud to share in our own communities and with our families. We bring our view and love of the Pacific Northwest to local markets in those areas and share the abundance of healthy products with them.

Kellogg: At Litehouse we are proud of our Pacific Northwest origins. The Litehouse story is unique, with a focus on faith, family and providing the highest quality products. Consumers enjoy knowing their food is coming from a Northwest company founded on strong principles, and sharing the message that Litehouse is a family making food for families definitely resonates. Additionally, our apple cider is made exclusively from apples grown locally in the Pacific Northwest, which is a strong selling point for consumers around the nation.

Sherise Jones, USA Onions: USA Onions is big on using the local movement to sell its onions across the nation. Since the area has so many family farms, the personal care and commitment to raising a crop easily compares with that of a local gardener. The farmers spend long days carefully tending to their crop in order to produce a fresh and beautiful piece of produce that they can proudly take to market. Consumers can feel like USA Onions is their local onion provider; whether they are in New York, Chicago or Atlanta, we are there with fresh, beautiful, Spanish sweet onions.

Pobst: We are definitely happy to be known as a local company in our regional markets—Seattle, Portland, Spokane and Vancouver, B.C. There are certain commodities and seasons that we make more of a pitch about being local to the market; we bring it into Seattle and add that into the marketing effort. We also think of Viva Tierra as an international company, so we enjoy both worlds.

How do you leverage exclusive fruits or varieties in your offerings?

Riggan: The Rocket Apple is exclusive to Chelan. It is imported out of New Zealand and we sell it on a very limited basis—available for June and July—but we will be growing it here soon. Also exclusive to Chelan is the Ruby Cherry program. These options give Chelan a point of differentiation and provide people with a treasure hunt type of experience.

Lutz: CMI is the exclusive grower of Ambrosia and Kanzi in the U.S.; and it is one of three growing Kiku in the U.S. We really try to use these as a reward for the retailers that are our best customers. If the retailer wants to be able to have access to and sell Kiku, then they have to be a partner with us and work with us on the total category.

Wolter: Rainier exclusively grows and markets the Junami and Lady Alice brands. Due to limited production and high demand, they are only available for a short amount of time. Junami is available in December and January, and Lady Alice is available from around February through April. They are huge though; more and more retailers are looking for unique varieties to promote on a monthly or short-term basis to add excitement to the category throughout the season.

Organic produce is more in demand than ever. How is the Pacific Northwest responding?

Lutz: CMI is one of the largest organic producers in the state of Washington. Our Daisy Girl brand is the number one selling branded organic apple in the U.S. It is very popular with consumers and really strong with retailers. We have a strong commitment to organic here at CMI, and we are continuing to work to expand our production.

Wolter: Organic continues to become a larger part of our overall program, but even so, we are not keeping up with demand. Not only are people promoting “local,” there is more emphasis on the organic side of that. It is partly because more traditional retailers are adding organic produce into the mix, and apples are one of the entry items; they are less perishable than some of the other items and therefore less risky.

Rainier continues to add a little bit all the time, focusing on the varietals—Fuji, Gala, Pink Lady and Honeycrisp. We also have more organic cherries available this year than in previous years.

Pobst: We recently added a tagline to our company name: ‘Organic to the core.’ The company started more than 20 years ago, not so much in tree fruit, but organic, so the slogan fits in well with our company history. Roger Wechsler, the founder of the Viva Tierra, was a real believer in organics. It started as a very small business; we were not even dealing with whole pallets, just a dozen boxes here and there. That was the size of the organic market and we have grown with it since.

What image do you want to invoke in consumers when they see your brand? How does being “USA-grown” help portray this image?

Ralph Schwartz, Potandon: The Green Giant brand is synonymous with quality and trust. Freshness from the valley resonates with people, not only as a slogan, but something they can see, taste and experience. Being USA-grown gives us the control over our products and allows us to strengthen that image by “walking the talk” with high standards and a commitment to complete customer satisfaction.

Hickey: When consumers hear the names HBF International and Hurst’s Berry Farm, we want them to know the company stands behind its product 100%, and that it is committed to providing quality fruit that adhere to very stringent safety standards. Although the company has grown by leaps and bounds over the years, we still believe in providing the same quality berries to our consumers that we want for our own families. We want our consumers to feels like they are part of the HBF Family.

Jones: This season we are focusing on being “The Heart of Onion Country USA.” We want consumers to know that our growers put their heart and soul into producing a healthy and homegrown product. All of our POS, ads and communication will reflect the new “Heart” concept, and we are excited to connect with consumers and buyers in this very personal way.

As a manufacturer that does not grow produce, how do you incorporate the local foods and flavors into your product development?

Kellogg: Litehouse has a strong understanding of flavor regionality. The company incorporates unique ingredients and offers flavor profiles that make sense for each of the regions where Litehouse products are found, such as incorporating huckleberries in some of our products for the Pacific Northwest. 

Swimming Sales

Around the world, consumers seek out Alaska seafood. Larry Andrews, retail marketing director for the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute (ASMI), based in Juneau, Alaska, explains what seafood is harvested in Alaska and why it makes a splash in the market.

alaskaseaQ: What species of fish are harvested in Alaska?

Andrews: A variety of species are harvested in Alaska—and an overall abundance of them, which is a tribute to the rigorous fishery management policies that are in place. Alaska is known for its five species of salmon and three species of crab, but the area also produces a number of whitefish species.

Whitefish is a major contributor to retail sales: the Perishables Group reports that whitefish make up 64% of the seafood-case volume. Alaska pollock, cod, halibut, sole, black cod, ling cod and rockfish are grouped as whitefish; all can play a key role in a seafood case that offers a diverse selection with varying price points which, along with distinct flavor differences, make them sought after by U.S. consumers.

Q: What characteristics of Alaska Salmon make it unique?

Andrews: A few of the characteristics that set Alaska salmon apart from farmed salmon are flavor and texture. The flavor of Alaska Salmon depends upon fat content and the environment in which it matured. Alaska’s icy, pure waters and the abundance of natural food give Alaska Salmon unparalleled flavor. The fat content of salmon depends not only on the genetic make-up of each species, but also on its spawning cycle. The longer and more vigorous the up river (freshwater) trip, the more fat the fish will carry as it leaves the ocean. In terms of texture, Alaska salmon has a firmer texture and richer more succulent flesh.

All five species of salmon have their own distinct characteristics. Alaska sockeye salmon, which is the most widely found Alaska salmon species in U.S. supermarkets, is hailed for its distinct, deep red flesh and rich flavor. Alaska sockeye also retains its color throughout cooking which brings dramatic impact to any presentation.

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