Four years ago US-headquartered produce giant Robinson Fresh set up a subsidiary in Europe to offer value-added services to mainly retailers. PBUK takes a closer look at three supply programmes Robinson Fresh is rapidly evolving for the market in the form of Spanish sweet potatoes, Italian mini watermelons and Mexican avocados.
A division of US-based logistics firm CH Robinson, Robinson Fresh has more than 100 years of experience and attests to being one of the largest produce companies in the world; offering an abundance of fresh solutions.
“Our core services are global in nature but, that said, the Robinson Fresh business model is somewhat different in Europe,” Robert Walsleben, the director of Robinson Fresh, Europe, begins by explaining.
“We focus heavily on complex or imported products where we can add true value. We’re not here to compete as a trader. We deal with complex products where we can provide solutions to primarily retail customers.”
This season (September through January) Robinson Fresh begins supplying sweet potatoes grown from new seedlings that will be cured and packed at its brand-new facility in Cadiz, Spain, after entering into a new joint venture with a local grower last year.
“We’ve invested in Generation 1 seeds and implemented a new curing facility with the same specifications as our US operation,” reveals Robinson Fresh’s head European sales manager, Dusty Waldron. “The product will have a very similar eating experience to our US supply.”
Waldron says in the past Spain has faced challenges with sweet potato production in terms of the curing process and tracking the generation of seeds. Thanks to its 20-year experience with sweet potatoes, this is where Robinson Fresh is adding value, and, ultimately, creating a marketplace for Spain.
“Firstly, curing was only done in the ground which doesn’t allow for the starches to turn into sugar, and that’s what gives you the ability to cook sweet potatoes in multiple ways,” Waldron points out.
“Secondly, in the USA you don’t go past four or five generations (or years) of growing a sweet potato before putting a new seed in the ground, whereas Spanish growers were going for 10-15 years. That takes away the seedling’s value – the characteristics that it was bred for, such as pest and disease prevention and improved yield.”
Robinson Fresh claims its Spanish crop presents European buyers the additional advantage of reducing their carbon footprint by sourcing locally. In turn, product shelf-life is expected to be similar or improved thanks to a shorter transit time in comparison to importing from the US.
Across in Italy, Robinson Fresh plans to expand its production of mini seedless watermelons with its grower in Sardinia, in addition to potentially establishing a second site of its own in southern or eastern Europe.
The company has a successful background in growing and marketing mini melons in many regions and owns proprietary seeds for mini seedless watermelons.
“Robinson Fresh is the market share leader in the US and that is for the same variety and brands that we’re bringing over to Europe,” states Walsleben.
Waldron adds that this is enabling the firm to capitalise on growing consumer demand for smaller-sized watermelons in central and eastern Europe, alongside consolidating business in the UK, Scandinavia and western Europe.
“This is a very unique variety because it not only has the right quality but also the characteristics – it’s a true mini seedless watermelon,” he explains.
“You can find small melons from a full-sized watermelon but they’re just picked earlier so they have a thick rind and aren’t as deep red in colour. Also, because they’re not as mature, they don’t get the full sugar and flavour.
“Our true mini watermelon has full sugar, full brix, a thin rind and lots of bright-red flesh that is crisp and crunchy.”
Waldron says customers are really attracted by this, and the variety is successfully expanding the melon category for many buyers.
“It’s really exciting for retailers,” he explains. “One of our customers in the UK has tripled its growth this year with our proprietary brand called MelonUp!
“There were concerns over whether our mini seedless watermelon would cannibalise the melon category, but every retailer has found that it has attracted shoppers who were not buying melons at all.”
The programme also offers buyers the further advantage of extending their availability with Europe-grown product, as well as reducing dependency on one source.
“In the past, a lot of customers have only used Spanish supply,” notes Waldron. “But with diversification of the growing area you can supplement with Italian melons.
“Also, the Spanish crop goes from June until August, while Italy goes from July to the end of September or early October.”
Another of Robinson Fresh’s hottest commodities that is primed for European growth is its niche Mexican Hass avocado programme, which plugs a gap in consistency during the transition months between Europe’s traditional sources.
In line with burgeoning demand for avocados across Europe, the programme is already expanding exponentially, according to Waldron.
“We started about three years ago, and we’re now supplying many areas of Europe – generally the UK, Scandinavia, western, southern and eastern Europe,” he says.
Historically, Mexican avocados are exported almost in their entirety to their natural markets in the US and Canada. With no other European importer-distributor handling Mexican avocados in any significant volume, Waldron says Robinson Fresh has the scale to add value for its customers.
“It has been a great opportunity to connect our European supply chain with what we already do in Mexico,” he notes, adding that the company sources from its existing grower base and distributes via the CH Robinson logistics network.
Walsleben adds that this makes it a unique supply programme.
“What sets us apart is that we have the end-to-end logistics to manage the airfreight,” he explains. “We’re flying avocados from the middle of Mexico to Schiphol airport [in Amsterdam] and forward distributing from there.”
Because Mexico is the source, Robinson Fresh is also able to supply almost all year-round, with the remaining months complemented by Spain.
“Mexico produces avocados for nine months of the year, which is more than any other producing region thanks to the different climates and topography of the country,” Waldron says.
The programme really comes into its own around Easter and early Autumn, however, when the main transitions in Europe’s traditional avocado-supplying nations occur.
“March to April and September to October are when we’ve had a lot of success in Europe,” attests Waldron. “This is when there has always been a quality and consistency issue. We have filled the gap with consistently ripe avocados that have good fat content and good sizes.”
Robinson Fresh is looking forward to sharing further details about these key programmes for Europe, among others, when it participates at The Amsterdam Produce Show and Conference 2017 in November.
“We are one of the few produce companies that are actually based in Amsterdam,” points out Walsleben.
“Not only does the event provide a platform to meet with our key customers but our proximity allows us to host people to visit our headquarters to see our overall suite of products and services.
“This gives us an opportunity to really showcase what sets us apart.”
The Amsterdam Produce Show and Conference 2017 takes place on 15-17 November at the Westergasfabriek.
Get in touch here to join the tour of Robinson Fresh’s European operation.