In a week’s time, Tom Kovacevich probably sees more grapes than many retailers do in a lifetime. The president of T.M. Kovacevich-Philadelphia Inc. — better known simply as TMK Produce — Kovacevich operates nine units on the Philadelphia Wholesale Produce Market, and there are times TMK has over 100 combinations of grape offerings.
At the 2022 Global Grape Summit in Bakersfield, California, Kovacevich discussed what it means to sometimes have dozens of grape varietals at one time in a wholesale facility. He shared insight as to what retailers — and consumers — actually value and prefer.
Prior to the Summit, we asked Susan Crowell, contributing editor at Pundit sister publication, PRODUCE BUSINESS, to talk with Tom, and get a sneak preview of his remarks:
Q. You have a unique perspective in the grape community, in that, as a third-generation wholesale grape seller, you see them all. And when I say “all,” I mean all (or at a least a huge chunk) of the varieties on the market. How do you keep them all straight in your head?
A. That’s literally what I do. I was actually buying a half a load of Fall Bliss, which is also known as Krissy, when you called. The other half was a Sugar Drop, also known as ARRA 30. Some varieties, such as Ivory, which is Sheegene 21, is also called Summer Crunch, Sugar Crunch, Summer Diamond and Marlena.
I don’t know how other people have any idea what’s going on! We struggle to keep up with it, and we’re looking at everyone’s, but if you’re only selling IFG grapes, there’s a whole other world out there, from Grapa to SNFL to Sun World and smaller breeders as well.
I’m sure shippers use different names for the same variety partly to differentiate themselves from other shippers. It’s the same thing that retailers are trying to do — differentiate themselves from their competition with different and better grapes. Grapes are a differentiator! But at the Global Grape Summit, I hope to have a discussion about this trend of custom naming and corresponding confusion.
And then, the tricky part, in addition to the names all being confusing, is the varieties aren’t always consistent. So, you have a lot of times when what you expect from a variety isn’t what you get.
Still, what an exciting time to be a grape seller and a wonderful time to be a grape consumer. The advancements in variety development are yielding great results for the grower and everyone through the supply chain. In the end, a happy, repeat consumer will continue to drive the business to new highs. Grapes have size, crunch and flavor like no other time in history.
Q. So, how do your customers know what to buy?
A. We have a lot of our independent retailers, for example, saying, ‘This is too tough for us to figure out. You bring them in, you pick out which one you think is the best and then you send us the best. You hand pick them; we know they’re going to sell, and our consumers are going to be happy and repeat.”
That has been a lot of our success with these new varieties — experimenting with different varieties and finding out what’s best at each moment, and then delivering those to our customers. We bring them in, we thoroughly inspect them and then we just know this is a 10 out of 10, and this guy should get this grape.
Retailers at the higher end are willing to pay, and they want what’s best. I’ve been very impressed with what retailers, and thus consumers, are willing to pay for good grapes.
Q. What happens when one of your customers says, ‘Hey, I really want that Fall Bliss that you sent me again,’ when, as you said earlier, varieties aren’t always available and, even when available, not always consistent. And at some point, doesn’t the growing end of the industry need to address that?
We say, ‘You know, you don’t want Fall Bliss, you want Passion Fire.’ And that’s exactly the conversations we have every week. It’s a lot on us, but it’s fun. We enjoy it, so it’s never boring.
A lot of this is all very new. In the past 10 years, you saw the breeders getting really focused on developing the best varieties. And now we’re starting to see them getting involved in helping their growers be the best possible or delivering the best varieties. They’re getting better at assisting the growers to realize their potential, because the variants between one grape variety grown by grower A versus B can be so great that it’s in everyone’s interest to get that more uniform.
So, they’re starting to educate the growers on what’s working, what’s not working, in different regions, and I think we’ll see less variation. And also, as they get into more mature grape vines. As these varieties mature, we’re seeing their true nature. It’s amazing how excellent they can be. And at times, it’s disappointing when you see a failure, but it’s all just part of the process. This isn’t a manufacturing plant, and it’s a huge investment, so it’s in everyone’s interest to get this right.
And I’m hopeful we get to a point where there’s less variance in the same varieties, which may lead to less naming. But it kind of makes sense, right? If you think you’re growing Ivory better than someone else, do you want to call it Ivory? You figured out the way it’s meant to be grown, and you can grow that variety spectacularly, so you want to call it something different, so it stands out. Maybe that’ll always be the case; maybe we’ll always have growers who are growing better than other growers.
Q. With all the commodities you handle, how did you become ‘grape gurus?’
A. It’s just from trying to satisfy our customers. They come to us, and they say, ‘we really want to differentiate ourselves with having better grapes up front. Can you help us do that?’ And we say ‘sure.’ And so, we buy from all over to try to get what’s best and deliver what’s best. Because we’re wholesalers and see so many varieties throughout the year from so many different growing regions, we have a unique perspective.
Q. What feedback do you hear from retailers and retail customers that you wish you could send back down the supply chain to the growers?
We need size and flavor — that’s what the consumers want. There’s a lot of varieties being produced that don’t have the size, and they’re just not working for us. Some varieties may have excellent flavor, but it’s hard to get the consumer to buy it based on the flavor pitch alone. The consumers, and thus our retailers, go for size, crunchiness and flavor. Size makes the sale, crunchiness and flavor bring them back.
It is a fascinating thing… With all the massive explosion of varieties, the diversity of country of origin, different label and size codes, even unique packs such as tricolor packages, Tom Kovacevich, tells us that what sells is size: “size makes the sale, crunchiness and flavor bring them back.”
Tom mentions many distinct varieties, but when we looked each one up on the web, thinking we would link to a description, it was interesting as some have no website and most that do are very trade-focused, actually very grower-focused. They mention how many “tons per hectare” one can expect the variety to yield; they rank how well the berry attaches to the vine and explain how many bunches one can expect on the vine.
It is interesting to note that so many buyers, unable to observe the distinctions between the varieties, are content to let their wholesaler choose for them. And it is interesting that so many shippers think their product is distinctive enough to justify their own branding with a goal of differentiating the product from the same variety being grown by others.
Yet, the overarching challenge for the industry is clear: Despite enormous investment and significant improvements in varieties, large groups of buyers are unable to discern the difference between the varieties and think them small enough that they are content to let a third party make the decision.
This inevitably means that emphasis will be placed on developing varieties that have superior horticultural qualities, because the one party definitely focused on discerning the differences in these varieties is a grower spending millions to plant many acres.
But, how will this move the needle on consumption?