Caitlin Tierney says she’d eat a kombucha-flavored, sour or spicy grape if given an opportunity, in hopes it’s the next best trend.
While this might sound far-fetched — and Tierney did share this in jest — it does exemplify her out-of-the-box thinking that makes Tierney one of the more innovative minds in the fresh produce industry today. It’s no wonder. Tierney’s past gives her a great lens to view the future.
Over the past 15 years, her resume reads from leadership positions in the production side of the business right down to the seed to buying and selling at mainstream brick-and-mortar U.S.-based supermarkets, online grocers, discounters, and now at a large natural and organic retailer. Next month, Tierney celebrates a year as the Senior Director of Produce Innovation at Sprouts Farmers Market, a Phoenix, AZ-headquartered chain with over 350-stores in nearly half of all states.
Tierney also recently shared her expertise at the 2022 Global Grape Summit. We asked Carol Bareuther, RD, Contributing Editor at the Perishable Pundit’s sister publication, PRODUCE BUSINESS, to talk with Tierney before her session at the Summit:
PP: With your background in growing and selling, in fresh produce and other departments such as Bakery/Deli/Frozen, what key takeaways have these experiences provided when you look at the grape category today?
CT: Retail is rapidly changing no matter what commodity you manage. As consumers shift faster than ever, the need to quickly adapt to change is becoming a top priority. If you can focus in on consumer key category drivers and can capture these changes in a commoditized category, you will have a win on your hands.
When looking at the grape category, flavor and quality are top. Consumers are willing to pay for a great eating experience. Whether it’s Boar’s Head deli meat, Crumbl cookies, Talenti Gelato, or Cotton Candy grapes, people right now are willing to spend more for high-quality, flavor ‘revelations’. To be honest, I won’t hold my breath for all consumers, but I do think Millennials and Gen Z’s will continue to splurge on favorites even in an economic downturn.
PP: Where do you see innovation headed in the grape category? What sky is the limit?
CT: I think grape innovation is already underway on new varieties in the pipeline. Globally, breeders have concentrated their efforts to go above and beyond a red or green seedless grape, trialing different flavor profiles, textures, and experiences. Grapes were blessed with an easy on-the-go, multi-use capability (i.e., breakfast, snack, dessert, etc.), but I feel there are still more opportunities. We haven’t tackled cooking with grapes. Though I think the Waldorf Salad will have a comeback, it’s not the category ‘cooking’ solution. Where is a firmer flesh grape that can hold up when sauteed? Grapes are like candy, but where’s a ‘sour patch’ variety to challenge kid’s and adult’s palates?
Unfortunately, retailers can’t carry 40 varieties of grapes. It’s not that we don’t want to; we just don’t have the space to physically make it happen. I think umbrella branding of similar varieties will help educate consumers, build brand awareness, decrease shrink and increase sales. The average consumer isn’t going to taste the additional hint of honey if they don’t have the competing variety side by side to compare it to. Finally, I think about climate change, water, and farming challenges and how we continue to evolve grapes to grow in the U.S. efficiently?
PP: What do you see as the perfect balance of innovation and retail sales? For example, it might be possible to grow a polka dot-color grape that tastes like cayenne-flavored Brussel sprouts, but will it sell at retail?
CT: Well now you’re acting crazy! I do think people buy with their eyes on produce, so another bold color in the grape category would definitely be accepted. I think in the past, the issue of a variety’s success was its texture, and its shelf life.
If you look at other categories, ‘sweetest’, ‘jumbo’, ‘umami’, ‘rosé’, ‘tropical’, ‘candy’, ‘tart’, ‘honey’, ‘almond’ … have all been extremely successful attributes to several categories. I personally would eat a kombucha-flavored, sour or spicy grape if given an opportunity, in hopes it’s the next best trend. The perfect balance of innovation and retail sales is continuous trial. I know that’s hard with grapes due to their growth cycle, but that’s why the Global Grape Summits and Breeder Field Days are so important to the innovation process.
PP: With breeding, will the grape industry go the way of apples with 30 and 40 varieties each with its own name? Or will it still be the color – white, black and red – that consumers see? How will these two forks in the road ultimately help drive consumption?
CT: Grapes have the potential to expand just as apples and stone fruit have. As retailers and growers have commoditized several seasonal categories to be yearlong, consumers continue to look for healthier, flavor-forward options that excite their tastebuds. But if every category in produce comes up with 30 to 40 SKUs at one given time, it won’t be feasible.
I feel strongly about having umbrella brands, as well as sub-category planning, i.e., growing enough for one or two retailers at a time, where retailers can showcase additional varieties for a month and growers can ‘pass’ it to a non-competing retailer in another part of the U.S. the following month.
I do think seasonality and local mean a lot to the consumer. When it’s gone it’s gone, and that does increase consumer’s behavior to buy more. If breeders and growers could capitalize on those two benefits, the sky’s the limit to new varieties.
PP: I understand Sprouts conducted an 8 SKU promotion on cherries, an item that is even less so than grapes to have visual differences among varieties. How did you differentiate the varieties? How did shoppers respond? What are the key takeaways from this in marketing and merchandising the grape category?
CT: Cherries are still a commodity that are not year-round, and import varietals with travel time and variety selection have not met the equivalent flavor expectation as have U.S. grown products. Consumers still get extremely excited about “cherry season” as they know it’s short, and it shows in retail sales.
What better way to promote amazing varieties at the peak of our season than to showcase the innovation the cherry industry has given our consumers? Sprouts differentiated variety by packaging, marketing signage, how we presented varietals on the shelf, and doubling down on sampling. Shoppers were completely engaged in our educational experience in a seasonally best-performing category. We saw a residual trend of rising sales after promoting an array of differentiated varietals. We see this same trend in melons at the peak of the local summer season.
There are ways to do this in grapes as well. At Sprouts Farmers Market, we recently did this in a California-grown store event and saw significant growth in year-over-year sales. Going after key categories at the right time is the right thing to do as a retailer.
PP: It’s oftentimes difficult to get consumers to pay more for what looks like the same fruit they’ve been buying. With inflation and the cost of food rising, and a typically higher price for grapes than other produce items, what does this mean for new varieties that need a premium to sell? What will it take to sell these to shoppers?
CT: Education, sampling, and packaging have been three key successes for introducing new varietals and creating consumer followers.
PP: Could you give us a sneak peek of what you’ll be speaking about at the Global Grape Summit?
CT: I’m hoping to focus on how grapes can strategically be the next category to increase consumption by varieties, flavor profiles, quality, and brand messaging.
PP: Just for fun, and with only your consumer hat on, what do you look for when shopping for grapes? If you could have anything you wanted on the shelf in grapes, what would it be?
CT: I love texture. I want a year-round snap, flavor-bursting experience every time I buy grapes. I always taste a grape before buying, and trust me, I’m not the only consumer who does this. This is a retailer’s worst nightmare when it comes to shrink. But I, as a consumer, want to ensure it’s to my ‘standards’ of flavor and texture before buying 2-pounds of product. Consistency, no matter where it is grown, would be an amazing advancement for the traditional red/green/black grape category.
Caitlin has a unique position in produce retailing. As Senior Director of Produce for Local and Innovation for Sprouts, she has one of very few produce positions at retail focused on innovation.
Her background runs the gamut, from the grower/shipper side with Mastronardi, the discount retailing side with 99 Cents Only stores, the science and horticultural side with Bayer Crop Science, internet delivery services with FreshDirect, foreign companies looking to establish new things in America with Tesco’s Fresh & Easy, and even service wholesalers such as Spartan Nash.
And here, Caitlin draws on this experience to suggest a Baker’s Dozen worth of things the grape industry could gain from working on:
- Developing not just great, but also distinctive eating experiences. This is the story of Cotton Candy grapes – something distinctive. Many retailers carry a red grape, a black grape, a white grape – and Cotton Candy grapes. Although it may be true that retailers can’t handle 40 varieties, they find space for distinctive varieties backed by consumer demand. If grapes are going to increase per capita sales, getting more space at retail is crucial, and this may be a path to do so.
- Cooking with grapes! Grapes are one of the weaker categories in foodservice. Some of the issue is marketing and recipe development, but maybe there is an opportunity in developing grape varieties designed for cooking?
- Breeding for flavors. Caitlin asks about sour and spicy grapes. Just as a chef would challenge the palates of his clients, maybe we need breeding to focus not just on the “big win” — the varieties that will sell best — but on the smaller, more distinctive flavor profiles. They won’t be the best seller, but they can be a consistent winner — for breeders, retailers and consumers alike!
- Retailers have limited space, so how does the grape industry earn more of that space through Differentiated products and higher-profit products that have heavy consumer demand? Again, earning space at retail is key to boosting consumption, but it is difficult to get that space without higher sales — an important industry challenge.
- With the proliferation of varieties, it will be impossible to gain consumer recognition of the plethora of varieties out there. Solution: Umbrella Brands that capture distinctive characteristics and can mean something to retailers and consumers. Sun World has moved in this direction with stone fruit, for example, by packing several varieties under its HONEYCOT brand. Is this the future for grapes?
- There has to be more consumer education on variety differentiation. To recognize what makes a variety unique, we have to allow the consumer a chance to taste the hint of honey in a new variety. Of course, this implies the grower community can’t select varieties just because they might be the highest yielding.
- Appearance, taste… these have been the Holy Grail of grape breeding, but that is no longer enough. Consumers care about sustainability, water usage, labor issues, soil health and more. So, both varieties and marketing need to think of these areas both as prerequisites and as a marketing opportunity.
- Black, red and green are the grape classics, of course. And differentiation in flavor points to new varieties, but maybe the future could be a rainbow of colors. Fresh Del Monte seems to be doing OK, albeit at low volumes, with its Pinkglow Pineapple.
- Can the industry develop products that are on trend — ‘sweetest’, ‘jumbo’, ‘umami’, ‘rosé’, ‘tropical’, ‘candy’, ‘tart’, ‘honey’, ‘almond’? Is there a future in looking at Cotton Candy and development focused on distinct flavor profiles?
- Better in-store marketing. What Sprouts has done with cherries, it has tried extending with grapes in a California-themed event. But how many producers have anyone on staff capable of guiding retailers on merchandising and marketing?
- Packaging and sampling – how many grape packages really contribute to increased sales? With all the new varieties, how many producers budget for the demos, education and other programs needed to boost consumer understanding and interest?
- Complete package – grapes can see marked increases in consumption, but they need a focus on varieties, flavor profiles, quality and brand messaging.
- Consistency – why do so many consumers feel the need to take a few grapes and eat them in-store? Because there is still too much inconsistency in flavor and taste. Are breeders selling to locations and growers that are not optimal, just to make a quick buck? The long-term future prospects for the industry, depend on consistency.
It is a challenging list, yet an inspiring one as well.