“We were the company that had the ‘weird’ fruits and vegetables,” explained Melissa’s Produce Director of Public Relations, Robert Schueller, describing the company’s early years in slightly amused tone. Whether the thorn-covered durian fruit from Thailand, or 60-pound jackfruit from Mexico and Costa Rica, Melissa’s prides itself on always offering customers something new and unique, a feature particularly prized by the company’s gourmet clientele.
The company, founded by Joe and Sharon Hernandez, has a catalog of approximately 1,200 items, many offered seasonally. The selection includes conventional and organic fresh specialty produce, as well as dried items. One of the first national organic brands to begin selling 15 years ago, Melissa’s variety is among the U.S. leaders for both organic and conventional specialty produce, as well as hispanic and Asian specialty produce.
While Melissa’s – named for the Hernandez’s daughter – distributes to the nation’s top 20 retailers as well as independent gourmet markets, it started out catering to local specialty ethnic food retailers. First delivering traditional favorite items to Hispanic markets and shoring up supply chains that had left stores with inconsistent stock, Melissa’s soon branched out to bring original, sometimes unusual produce to a range of retailers.
While many distributors source quality produce both locally and globally, Melissa’s prides itself on pioneering a path for American consumers to taste new fruits and vegetables. When the company identifies an item it thinks would go over well stateside, but for one reason or another cannot be imported – often due to the lengthy regulatory process required to clear international produce – Melissa’s innovates by bringing new farming to the U.S. “Ten, 15 years ago, people would visit Southeast Asia, or Central American, and taste the delicious dragonfruit,” explained Schueller. “Then we started getting emails and calls, with people saying, ‘I had this terrific new fruit, how can I get it? You guys are the company to get it!’ But 15 years ago, we couldn’t get it. It wasn’t yet legal for import into the U.S.”
Knowing that dragonfruit is in the cactus family, the company approached one of its growers, a cactus fruit producer in Fallbrook, California, to attempt cultivation of the plant. The crop was a success, and that producer now turns out 80 percent of all domestically grown dragonfruit. Still a relatively expensive item, due to the plant’s sensitivity to swings of cold and hot weather, Melissa’s now has a source of dragonfruit for late summer and fall, which it pairs with Florida-grown fruit that became available in 2010. When the USDA finally approved Melissa’s import of year-round Vietnamese dragonfruit in 2011, this completed the company’s move to supply American consumers with a delicious new exotic fruit whose sales continue to increase.
While some of the company’s unique fruit offerings catch consumer eyes, its flagship product is actually the routine-looking Dutch Yellow Potato, sold in retail stores and also favored by gourmet chefs for its buttery flavor. This creamer potato, grown in Idaho and often referred to (erroneously) as ‘Baby Yukons,’ is uniquely resistant to toxic greening, a common problem with creamer potatoes. Other proprietary items offered by Melissa’s, of which there are many, include kale sprouts – imagine a Brussels sprout appearing plant that produces miniature kale sprouts instead of balls of Brussels sprouts – and Muscato grapes.
While Joe Hernandez has brought Melissa’s a long way – he continues to serve as CEO and President of a company whose staff includes 25 family members, and the company has evolved to include the most exotic of produce from around the globe, Melissa’s remains true to its roots, covering those same – and some new – hispanic staples that gave the company its early success. Known for its variety of both fresh and dried chile peppers, one of the company’s exclusive partner farmers will begin growing the new world’s hottest pepper – the Carolina Reaper at 2.2 million Scoville heat units – this summer in California, to pair with the dried product the company currently sources from Mexico. The pepper will be one of many produce varieties that Melissa’s procures as exclusives from its growers.
For more information on Melissa’s Produce, visit www.melissas.com.