The D’Arrigo family is unique in the American produce industry. No other family’s interests bestride the industry, both east coast and west coast, from growing, packing, shipping and wholesaling.
It is an influence likely to continue, in part because of a rising generation of executives. Over in Pundit sister publication, PRODUCE BUSINESS, we’ve run several pieces from the up-and-coming D’Arrigos in both Boston and New York:
When we began work on The Global Grape Summit, we wanted someone from the trenches on Hunts Point who had been interacting with grape shippers and with buyers.
What does this explosion of varieties mean to buyers? What can drive increased consumption?
Breeders are going gangbusters developing new grape varieties. But for supermarket shoppers, it’s still all about color – green/white, red, black, and maybe a seeded, according to Dillon D’Arrigo, fruit buyer, salesperson, and one of the fourth-generation family of produce professionals at D’Arrigo, New York, at the Hunts Point Market.
D’Arrigo was invited to share his insights at the 2022 Global Grape Summit in Bakersfield, California, along with fellow wholesaler, Tom Kovacevich, president of TMK Produce on the Philadelphia Wholesale Produce Market. A last minute conflict prevented him from attending this year, but he will be with us both at The New York Produce Show and Conference and next year’s Global Grape Summit. In the meantime Carol Bareuther, RD, contributing editor the Perishable Pundit’s (PP) sister publication, PRODUCE BUSINESS, talked with D’Arrigo (DD) about his views on the industry and how what his customers buy indicates what consumers really want in fresh grapes.
PP: What led your interest in handling grapes?
DD: The grape path is one of many that’s on my docket. Members of my family’s company here in New York are separated amongst their responsibilities. My father, Michael, has always handled the fruit commodities. I worked summers in the warehouse when I was in high school and college. After college, I started working in sales alongside my father and naturally gravitated toward the commodities he handled. Grapes were one of them.
PP: How have you seen the industry change?
DD: It’s all the different varieties. Ten years ago, the California grape industry was primarily Flame Seedless. If you had a green grape, it was either a Sugraone or Thompson. Black seedless were Summer Royals, and back then, seeded Red Globes were a lot more prevalent. Those were the four staple varieties for California. Back then, Chile and Peru were not where they are today. Now, I don’t even know how many grape varieties are being produced. I think it’s a couple hundred or tenfold in terms of the different types of grapes you’ll see in a warehouse.
PP: What the grape section looks like in your warehouse in New York?
DD: As I said, I think there are a couple of hundred different varieties of grapes at this point. Varieties that are being tested or planted in the field. I compare it to apples, because I also deal with apples and there are so many club varieties of apples. Everyone’s trying to find the next Honeycrisp. They’re searching for the one variety that just might make it. But on the wholesale side, and for grapes, I’ve noticed that when my customers shop, they want one type of green grape, one type of red grape, maybe a black grape, and maybe a Red Globe.
They don’t care about what variety is if there’s good size, good condition, good quality, good color, and a good eating experience. So, my business is much simpler. Here’s an example: a vendor might offer me 10 varieties of green grapes, but my customers really only care about one. So, say a retailer calls me in the next 5 minutes and says he or she needs 10 pallets of green seedless grapes. I give them a price on whatever green seedless I have in the store. If it’s good enough quality to get through their inspection at the door, they’ll take it. They’re not buying a specific variety of green; they just want green.
PP: From a wholesaler’s perspective then, what insights would you share with growers putting money into new varietals?
DD: I think there’s quite a lot of risk versus reward that I’m sure vendors, shippers, and growers are probably analyzing. Everything’s more expensive now than it used to be. So, to take all these risks in terms of trying to find a variety that sticks, or putting all these new varieties in the ground, not knowing whether or not they’re really going to make it, I would say is extremely risky.
Overall consumption of table grapes has been flat for some time. On a per capita basis, we’re not consuming any more grapes than we used to despite all these new varieties and the investments made. So, I don’t want to say I disagree with all the new varietal development, because you always must adapt and innovate. But the reality is when you go to the grocery store, you’re not looking for six, seven, or eight different types of green grapes. It’s still pretty much the four basics – green, red, black, and a seeded red Globe.
PP: What do you think can make a new variety a success and warrant that shelf space in your warehouse and at retail?
DD: The biggest thing in the apple industry is the marketing dollars that go behind these new varieties. It’s impossible to market that many different types of grapes. You just can’t do it. There are not enough dollars to do it and educate customers. I mean, I sell grapes 60 hours a week. It’s my entire life, and I can’t tell you everything there is to know about all the new varieties of grapes. So, the average consumer sure isn’t going to know the difference. And there’s no way to educate them to a point where it would change their buying habits, in my opinion.
PP: What about the potential to see more grapes in foodservice?
DD: To be quite honest, I don’t know. The answer is probably yes. There are probably a few newer varieties like Cotton Candy that high-end foodservice customers are drawn to. My business here is very retail-centric. We do some foodservice business, but the overall tonnage at least from my business is a very small percent compared to retail. So again, there’s probably an opportunity with higher price point varietals and certain foodservice sectors, but I wouldn’t build a business model around this. I think that would be risky.
PP: What do you think it will take to increase grape consumption?
DD: Marketing. I think that’s probably part of it. But also making it simpler for the customers to decide when they’re in the grocery store. I think the industry is a bit diluted right now, and I’ll keep going back to this, but with so many different varieties, consumers get confused. Consider too this scenario: They go into the store and buy one variety of green grape because they don’t know anything about it and want to test it and see if they like it. Then next week, they go back and the green grapes they bought last week aren’t there, but there’s another variety. So, they just keep buying grapes and testing them, and there’s no consistency to what they find.
I think if there’s enough education, some of these varieties can take a stronghold. If they consistently show up on the shelf, the consumer can recognize the variety and buy it again because they know what it is. They’ll say ‘hey, this isn’t another test run. I know what the product is, I like it, and I’ll buy it again.’ So, increased consumption is all about a simplification of the total SKUs and better marketing and education for the consumer.
PP: Could you give us some lessons about your experiences with grapes?
DD: Primarily, my experience is with our customer base here in New York. As we spoke about above, I want to reiterate how important it is to my customers that there’s a good green grape, a good red grape, a good black grape, and then occasionally, there’s a good Red Globe. The variety doesn’t really matter if there are a few good ones.
As a wholesaler, I think it also is important to engage with the industry. I would be interested to know whether even the people who grow these varieties have a full grasp on all the different varieties of grapes there are right now. I could be mistaken, but if there are people in the industry who don’t have a good grasp on all the different varieties, then how do they expect the consumer to?
The big insight here is that for all the money spent on varietal development, the vast majority of buyers know very little about these varieties. Is this due to lack of marketing or lack of distinction between varieties?
A guy like Dillon deals in a week or two with more varieties than a big retailer will deal with in a lifetime.
He has a lot to share from interacting with both the production side and the buy-side.
The Global Grape Summit is always about finding ways to increase consumption and sales. To do that, a variety of buyers has to be engaged, and Hunts Point is not a bad place to start that discussion.