As you are pushing your cart through the grocery store, looking for your next purchase, you come across a piece of fruit that catches your eye. You look it over, check for any blemishes or bad spots, and if it meets your personal specifications, you place it into your cart and keep going about your business. The act of picking up and selecting a piece of fruit is not a complex one. For most people it doesn't even last more than a minute. Have you ever thought about more about how that piece of fruit got to the store? Your selection of the fruit is the end of a long process of planting, pruning, tasting, harvesting, planting more, pruning more, tasting more, harvesting more, and so on for what could have been years. To show you what goes into bringing a piece of fruit to the consumer I am going to share with you the super-popular Cotton Candy grape's journey from the vine to your store.
A Decade Long Journey
This week I had the privilege of speaking with Jim Beagle, the CEO of Grapery out of Bakersfield, California. They are the growers of Cotton Candy grapes. They have been working with Horticulturalist David Cain and International Fruit Genetics to create new grape varieties through classic hybridization. This is done through crossing different species of grapes. Once that is done and you have a plant, it has to be grown. Now you have to wait until it fruits and taste the fruit to see if it's any good. It takes 2 to 3 years to produce fruit. If it passes that test you need to determine whether or not this grape is commercially viable - tack on another 8 to 10 years. You have to be able to produce enough to supply stores and it has to grow well enough to produce enough fruit. Even if you grow a grape that tastes great, if you can't meet the challenges of growing it, then it will still never see the light of day in the supermarket. It is a long process of trial and error. The success rate is very low. So when something as good as a Cotton Candy grape comes along it truly is an extraordinary find. A find that took ten years to get to your table.
Toffee Caramel Grapes?
One of the most interested things I learned while talking with Jim Beagle was that the original name for Cotton Candy grape was Toffee Caramel. When he was out in the field tasting the grapes that's the flavor profile that came to mind. Later, when others tried it, they felt it tasted just like Cotton Candy. The difference is all in the temperature. When Jim was tasting the grapes in the field they were warm out in the 90 degree weather. It wasn't until they were chilled in cold storage that the flavor of Cotton Candy was really pronounced. If you try the grapes at room temperature they just aren't as good, they are better cold.
Once you have a great tasting product that seems to be commercially viable you need to get people interested in the grape. One way Grapery did this was to reach out to Henry's Farmers Market stores (now merged with Sprouts). They did a taste test of grapes including Cotton Candy, Witch Fingers (at the time called Chile Pepper grapes), and a Muscat type. The Grapery wants to grow grapes that people are going to want to buy. People were blown away by the Cotton Candy grapes and not as much by the Muscat type that Jim personally loves. This began a relationship between Grapery and Sprouts. Grapery is able to deal directly with them. They have also reached out to other stores, sending them samples of their grapes. In 2014, they launched their Flavor Pop grapes, featuring 8 very limited varieties. These grapes are so limited that very few stores will get them and if they do they may only receive a single case. In the end this is putting the grapes in the hands of produce workers, buyers, and some customers to try and give feedback.
A Small Business - Specialty Focus
Grapery's desire is to reach out to the small businesses. They are able to supply grapes locally to Sweet Surrender Bakery, Sequoia Sandwich Shop, and Sully's Chevron gas station - all located in Bakersfield. They also work with distributors and wholesalers to get their grapes in the hands of small companies they can't work directly with. They are very passionate about working with these places where their grapes will be appreciate and people will flock to these locations, bringing more business to the small businesses.
The amazing flavor of Cotton Candy grapes is not enough to get them into stores and then into customer's hands. There have been roadblocks. Here are 5 issues that have come up along the way.
1. Consistent flavor in the field
Consistency is extremely important when launching a new variety. People want to be able to have that same great experience each time out. When it comes to most table grapes, people don't even recognize the grower or pay attention to the packaging. Stores go through many different growers of red, black, and green grapes. You might go to the same store twice in one week and get a different quality grape each time. If you have a bad experience it probably won't stop you from buying a bag of red grapes again. With Cotton Candy grapes - the brand is recognizable. People aren't going to forgive and forget so easily. Quality needs to be maintained.
2. The capital to start a variety
It takes money to make money as the saying goes. Who is going to give you money for grapes that have never been grown? The capital is needed to start the variety, and it takes years before any return can be seen. You have to wait for the grapes to mature and have a supply to make it to the point where you can actually make some money.
3. The labor to pick only the ripe grapes
You might think, "well anybody can pick grapes, so why would labor be a problem?" You need to have the right labor. They need to train people to pick only the ripe grapes that are at the quality and flavor desired in their fruit. It takes skill to be able to make those judgments, more than just snipping some grapes off the vine.
4. Getting produce buyers to buy into a more expensive product
Cotton Candy grapes are not cheap. Don't expect to see them on sale for 99 cents a pound at your store anytime soon. They are more expensive to grow - you need more skilled labor, they don't pick them all at once, their growing process is more costly. Jim Beagle says its like asking a produce buyer to put his job on the line every time they make an order. If they spend more money to buy the grapes and they don't make money off the consumer, then why would they continue to buy? Grapery has to convince buyers that they are making a good investment - the flavor has to match up with the higher price, every time out.
5. What is best for customers
The most important thing is the customer. They have to like the product, enough to want to buy it again. This is why they do taste tests. Personal preferences work fine when you are growing grapes just for yourself, but when you are growing them for a nation with widely different tastes you need to appeal to enough of the people in order to sell your grapes.
Thank-You to Grapery
I wanted to end this with a thank-you to the Grapery. I appreciate all the hard work you have put in, to bring new exciting flavors to a world full of bland table grapes. I have never been more excited about a particular fruit grower. I am excited to see and taste what the future holds. And a special thank you to Grapery CEO, Jim Beagle for taking time out of your busy schedule to speak with me.