Roger Pepperl is a man on a mission. Specifically, a mission to make America fall in love with the pear again.
We all remember eagerly biting into a juicy, sweet pear when we were younger, but times have changed, and the data doesn’t lie. The pear category’s contribution to the total produce department is currently at an all-time low: under one percent.
So I ask Roger, Marketing Director for Stemilt Growers, how we can reverse the downward spiral the pear category is caught in. His answer is simple: initiate Operation Flavor.
“When you see this kind of downward trend on paper, you have two choices—stay on the same pathway or make a bold change,” Roger explains. “Operation Flavor is Stemilt’s journey to reverse this trend and get more shoppers to enjoy pears. With Operation Flavor, the one thing we wanted to do is create a better eating product, and to do that, we had to look at ourselves in the mirror and see what we have done to contribute to America’s changing attitudes towards pears.”
The idea is, Roger tells me, that pears are a mature category. Companies across the category have seen diminishing returns from their investments, and there are two reasons why. One is that they are not delivering the same flavor and delight they used to, he notes, and two, there are always bigger, trendier, and newer categories to contend with. As we all know, competition in the produce department is steep, and if your category doesn’t have the flavor or the novelty to keep up, it’s no wonder why the dollar amounts have been dwindling.
So what exactly are the methods attached to Operation Flavor? First of all, Roger clarifies that the program is entirely trade and retail focused—a consumer will never see those words pop up on point-of-sale materials or on Stemilt’s website. In essence, the operation lies in taking a long hard look at Stemilt’s own pear practices, identifying what processes are prohibiting the flavors consumers know and love from developing, and creating new processes that not only stop the downward trend, but reverse it.
“From the orchards themselves to the packing and storage, then the postharvest handling of the product, we saw problems with the process,” Roger says. “We talked to everyone we work with—quality control, those in the warehouse, buyers, produce managers, you name it—and we created a better plan. Even with simple things like picking the pears at the ideal maturity level—which meant a huge effort on harvest labor timing—reassessing our water management, and picking into dedicated pear harvest bins—we wanted to control everything better.”
"When you see this kind of downward trend on paper, you have two choices—stay on the same pathway or make a bold change."
– Roger Pepperl, Marketing Director, Stemilt Growers
But perhaps most importantly, Roger tells me, Stemilt deviated from many of its fellow pear providers by ceasing the use of anti-ripening agents.
“Anti-ripening agents inhibit a pear’s ability to age, which is great when you want to stop a product like an apple from ripening too quickly. But we found that when you open up that pear room to pack, the pear was not waking up and ripening like it was supposed to, even after warming and gassing. These pears can be dry, gritty, and just don’t get as juicy as an untreated pear,” he says. “Yes, allowing our pears to ripen can make our packouts a little lower because you’re dealing with a lower pressure, more sensitive piece of fruit, but in return you’re getting a tremendous pear to work with.”
These things alone have had an astonishing effect on pear flavor and ripeness, but Stemilt also wasn’t afraid to put its money where its mouth is. The company recently added two brand new ripening rooms, giving Stemilt the ability to turn over thousands and thousands of boxes of pears in just a 36-hour cycle.
“Inside our ripening rooms, we gas our pears with ethylene just as the industry does for bananas when they want to tell the fruit to start ripening. The result is that these pears come out of these ripening rooms with ideal pressures that become super juicy with a softness that is ideal for consumption. For Anjous, they have a great texture, but they’re still super juicy and super sweet. And for Bartletts, it gets them ripe fast, and allows consumers to enjoy them when they get home from shopping. Part of the ripening process includes packing these pears in 27-pound tray Euro boxes without the paper you usually see them wrapped with, which allows air to flow around the fruit, resulting in very even ripening and cooling after the process,” Roger says, relaying that retailers who use Stemilt’s pears have already shown double-digit sales increases—anywhere from 12 to 20 percent.
One of Stemilt’s major intent marketing programs is also doubling down on Operation Flavor and seeing similar results. The company is taking Operation Flavor into its Lil Snappers® brand, putting them in display-ready Euro boxes, then gassing them to ripen in the bag.
“The same experience happens,” Roger says. “If anyone wants ripe pears, it’s kids. Kids are the fussiest people ever—they’ll tell you if something is crummy. The idea is to develop a market of the future with these kids that love pears, but what has already happened for our customers that are on our ripened pear Lil Snapper program is that 12 to 14 percent of their pear category is now Lil Snappers. I have one customer that has even had that reach 20 percent.”
Despite the fact that sales for pears have skyrocketed since implementing Operation Flavor, Roger remains humble, insisting that all Stemilt is doing is reversing the course that it had a hand, albeit a small one, in charting.
“People don’t go to a store to look for fruit that is ready-to-eat; they expect it. Telling them about Operation Flavor would be missing the point,” Roger explains. “The only way we’re going to truly deliver that Operation Flavor message is delivering it through our brand Rushing Rivers®, and then when consumers buy that brand, they will love it and keep coming back and buying more. The pears, their flavor, and those two wonderful river valleys we grow them in—the Wenatchee and Entiat—tell the story consumers care about. Ready-to-eat is an expectation!”
"We talked to everyone we work with—quality control, those in the warehouse, buyers, produce managers, you name it—and we created a better plan."
To prove that theory—the one that says consumers expect flavor—Stemilt did a test on signage. Using the same retailer, the same pears, and the same price, the company presented its fruit in three different ways: one with pears that had not gone through the ripening process, one with ripened pears, and one with the same ripened pears, but with a “Ripe and Ready to Eat” sign attached. The results were surprising to me, but not to Roger.
“We found that sales were up 12 percent over the unripened pears in both cases, but when we looked at signage versus non-signage, there was no disparity. What else is interesting is that you really did not see any trends in the data until the pears were in-store four to six weeks,” Roger says, piquing my interest. “My hypothesis is that people only believe in how good your product is after they’ve tried it. They came there, they tried it, and even if they didn’t buy that many pears in the past, they buy them again because they taste good. That’s when sales pick up. It is about building trust with the consumer.”
He offers these words of advice: Don’t get hung up on the signage; get hung up on consistency.
Though we all love consistency, retailers especially, it doesn’t hurt to add a little bit of spice now and again. Roger hints that he and the Stemilt team plan to bring new life to the pear category with new varieties. And while the company’s in-depth trialing process has about another six years to go by Roger’s estimates, we may see an extremely unique pear come to market within the next decade.
One of my particularly favorite ways to get consumers excited about pears is to match them up with an excellent bottle of wine and full charcuterie plate. This can be a great marketing play through signage or social media promotions at retail.
He laughs, “Between the parents opening a bottle of wine and the kids looking for a perfect sweet snack, I think we’re going to have plenty of audience.”
To that, I raise my glass and offer this toast: to Operation Flavor.