Ugly Fruit A Supermarket Smash

With its loose, wrinkled skin, the Ugli fruit lives up to its deliberately misspelled name. Think of a grapefruit crossed with a Shar-Pei.

Another fruit looks like a green starfish.

These and are other strange looking produce are slicing out a niche at supermarkets.

"People are becoming aware, and they are, to be frank, getting bored of the common apple and carrot," said Robert Schueller, assistant marketing director at Melissa's World Variety Produce, a Los Angeles-based company that wholesales exotic fruit to food stores.

The country has a big appetite for fresh fruit. The average American ate almost 100 pounds of it in 2002, according to the Agriculture Department, and total produce sales came to $40.3 billion.

Exotic fruit accounted for 2.5 percent of produce sales where such items were carried in 2002, according to a survey in 2003 by the trade magazine Progressive Grocer.

Melissa's says sales of starfruit jumped 219 percent in 2003. Sales of Ugli fruit, one of the trademarked names for a type of tangelo (a cross between a grapefruit and a tangerine), rose 130 percent. The privately held company did not release figures on total sales.

To a growing immigrant population, exotic fruits offer a taste of home.

Consider the dragonfruit, which is covered with knobs, spikes and scaly growths. People from Southeast Asia are familiar with it and some think it brings good luck, said Robert Schueller, assistant marketing director at Melissa's.

For cooks, such fruits and vegetables present a chance to experiment. For sellers, however, there can be a marketing problem. Companies have to teach new consumers what the varieties are, and how to prepare and eat them.

Babe Farms of Santa Maria, Calif., sends employees to restaurant trade shows to show chefs what to do with the products it raises and distributes. Carrie Jordan, the company's sales and marketing director, said Babe Farms is counting on some people who try the food in a restaurant to decide to prepare it at home.

An example is the celery root, a celery variety in which people eat the root, not the stalk. The root has celery taste but not the stalk's stringiness, Jordan said. A grocery customer might say, "I was at this restaurant, and I had celery root mashed potatoes," she said.

Unlike the slim, graceful stalk version of celery, celery root will not win beauty contests. "It's brown and knobby and rough," Jordan said. "It has some little hairs on it."

Exotic fruits stand out in ordinary produce aisles, but this does not make them easy to sell.

Schueller said about 70 percent of produce is purchased on impulse and ugliness does not make the best impression. "The average person won't go into the produce department and say, `That looks ugly. I think I'll try it,"' he said.

One solution is sampling - getting a slice in the customer's mouth. The approach worked for Ugli fruit, which the Wegman's chain markets under the name uniq fruit, said Jo Natale, consumer service manager for the Rochester, N.Y.-based supermarket chain.

"People buy it for the taste, and when we give them a chance to taste it, that's when it sells best," she said.

Although consumers might not think about it, they can ask produce managers anywhere to cut off a slice of any fruit for a free taste test, Schueller said.

With persistent marketing, an ugly duckling fruit can turn into a produce swan, said Tristan Millar, director of marketing and business development for Frieda's of Los Alamitos, Calif., a pioneer in introducing unusual produce.

For example, the Chinese gooseberry is green, plum-sized and covered with tiny hairs. It also is burdened with that less-than-tantalizing name. Frieda's worked 18 years in getting people to accept it, Jordan said. Back in 1982, according to Agriculture Department figures, hardly anyone ate Chinese gooseberries. These days, the average American eats about a half pound a year of what they now know as kiwi fruit.

By Ira Dreyfuss