Issues and insights on seasonal fruit

Talk to many chefs these days, especially in fine dining, and they’ll tell you that “local” and “seasonal” are top priorities when purchasing fresh fruit. But to fulfill menu obligations and meet customer demand, operators must sometimes resort to buying fresh fruit out of season—an easier job now that our global economy makes it possible to source fruit from around the world any time of year. Another popular option is frozen fruit—processed today to better retain quality and flavor. To make the smartest buys, each of these choices should be weighed in terms of cost, availability and end use.

Seasonality is still important when it comes to buying fruit,” says Barbara Boyce, VP of programs for the Produce for Better Health Foundation (PBH). “Growers don’t want to see fruit on the menu when it’s below its prime, but operators are requesting product when it’s not in season.” PBH has just initiated a marketing campaign to get more fruit onto restaurant menus, especially at QSR and casual concepts—a feat that would be impossible without relying on imports in the winter. Tropical fruits grown outside the United States are also in greater demand for smoothies, salads, appetizers, desserts and even entrees.

Much of the imported winter fruit comes from Central and South America, particularly Chile and Mexico. Grapes, peaches, plums and nectarines are the largest crops from these sources. Bananas and pineapples are shipped to the United States year-round, primarily from Costa Rica, Honduras, Ecuador and Guatemala. “We source as close by as possible, so transportation time is kept to a minimum of a few days,” notes Marianne Duong, a foodservice spokesperson for Dole. Tropical fruits that fall under the specialty category, such as mangoes, kiwis, papayas, guavas and certain melons, may be shipped from as far away as New Zealand, South Africa and Fiji. 

Prolonging the season

Hardier fruit varieties, mostly apples and pears, are often kept under controlled atmosphere (CA) storage to extend their “season” to the summer months following the previous fall’s harvest. The fruit is held in large, airtight rooms and the oxygen level is reduced, usually by adding nitrogen gas; carbon dioxide levels are also controlled. Temperatures are maintained at 32 to 36 degrees and humidity at 95 percent.

CA storage allows the fruit to slowly mature without becoming overly ripe for up to 12 months or longer. According to the USDA, certain softer fruits, such as plums and grapes, are now being stored in controlled environments (regulated temperature and atmosphere) to prolong shelf life for a few months. On the other hand,  bananas, kiwifruit and mangoes are held in CA rooms pumped with ethylene gas to hasten ripening.

Many still believe that peak flavor and quality comes from fruit that is shipped and sold soon after harvest, says Dean Simon, president of Pro*Act, a produce distributor. “As a former chef, I encourage our foodservice customers to choose locally grown produce first and U.S.A.-grown fruit second. The closer you are to the source, the better the sugar development of the fruit. You’re just not going to get a peach out of Chile that tastes as good,” he says. When fresh fruit is in small supply, Simon advises operators to be flexible, reserving scarcer seasonal fruits for specials and using imported fresh fruits in regular menu items that require consistency.

What about frozen? 

Seasonality is not an issue with frozen fruits—they’re picked and processed at their peak of ripeness and retain flavor and nutrition. IQF (Individually Quick Frozen) fruit is the gold standard for quality; each cut and prepped piece is frozen individually and packed in re-sealable bags. Specific quantities can be removed and thawed as needed, then stashed back in the freezer—reducing waste and prep time. As a bonus, once fruit is frozen, the risk for contamination is very low. Moister, softer fruits such as strawberries, grapes, plums and cherries are more appealing in fresh form, while frozen peaches, pineapple, mangoes and other firm fruits are comparable to fresh if handled properly.

Future fruit

Innovations in fruit production, processing and packaging are the trends to watch.

•Polymer-based packaging. A customized membrane controls the oxygen and carbon dioxide levels within a package to maintain optimum conditions and extend shelf life. Right now, the packaging is being used with bananas.

•Value-added fresh fruit. Pre-washed grapes, sliced apples, sliced oranges and pineapple spears are some of the convenient forms available to foodservice.

•RFID tags for tracking. Packers are using radio frequency ID labels on pallets and cases of fruit to aid in product rotation and traceability.

•Fun fruits. Market researcher Datamonitor reports the 2006 launch of several fresh fruits with unexpected properties. Grapple Sweet Apples look like regular apples but taste like Concord grapes; Fizzy Fruit sparkling grapes and pineapples are naturally carbonated to intensify flavor and effervescence; and watermelons are being forced to grow in a square shape for easier transport and storage.

Product cutting

Frozen fruit
Stuart McAllister
Sr. Business Development Manager, Dole Packaged Foods

1. Inspect cases. Each should contain two 5-lb. resealable pouches.
2. Packages should be frozen on arrival with no signs of thawing or leakage. IQF fruit should not be frozen in a solid block; this may indicate defrosting and refreezing.
3. Thaw fruit in pouch by placing in refrigerator for 1 to 2 hours. Or pour fruit onto platter and thaw in refrigerator 30 to 45 minutes. To save time, microwave on “defrost” for 1 minute.
4. Examine fruit for signs of freezer burn or deterioration in shape, cell structure or texture.
5. Taste the fruit “as is” for true flavor.
6. Use the fruit in an application to test its performance. Try it from both its frozen state (in a smoothie, for example) and thawed state (in a salad).

Notes from a distributor

Q&A with MaryKay Skrypec
SVP of innovation and quality, U.S. Foodservice—Monarch Foods

What issues do restaurants face when purchasing fruit?
Operators want more variety than ever before. Quality, product size, ripeness, flavor, color, efficient pack sizes for the restaurant’s volume, delivery schedules—these can all limit choices. For agricultural products, operators must also make sure that food safety programs are an integral part of the supply chain.

How can operators source the best product?
They should ask questions related to usage, stage of ripeness, storage (capacity and temperatures) and ordering lead times. Each fruit has a critical temperature and humidity point above which it will ripen too quickly and below which the cell structure can deteriorate. The best suppliers and distributors have commodity-specific storage rooms in their warehouses where they can hold fruit under optimum conditions—restaurants just aren’t equipped with these facilities. To maximize product quality, have your vendor manage your inventory and make frequent fruit deliveries.

Once the fruit is delivered, what are some general handling guidelines?
Keep the fruit in its original protective package; it should be made of heavy corrugated paper designed to prevent crushing and bruising. Rotate product so it’s in the kitchen for minimal time. Most fruit should be held at 32 to 40°F; melons, oranges, lemons, papaya and pineapple do best at 40 to 50°F; bananas, grapefruit, limes, mangos and watermelon should be kept at room temperature.

Have there been recent advances in cold chain management?
“Temperature Tales” from a company called Sensitech monitor and record the temperature of fruit in transit—from the supplier, to the truck, to the loading dock and warehouse. If the temperature fluctuates, it’s immediately noticed and can be adjusted. This helps control perishability and maintain quality and food safety.

What are the pros and cons of fresh vs. frozen fruits?
Certain restaurants use more fresh fruit since they feel it adds to their reputation and menu. If food costs are not a significant factor, fresh fruit is often the top choice. Other operators prefer to use more frozen product to alleviate time and labor constraints. Frozen fruits also offer more consistency in cut and yield, plus they can be stored and “slacked out” over a set time period.

What steps assure food safety?
Operators should look for distributors who place a high priority on food safety, instituting proper cold chain management, dependable HACCP programs and effective traceability and recall procedures. It’s essential to maintain the safety and quality of fruits across all distribution channels. A program must evolve as we learn from recent events [i.e. the E.coli outbreak] and stay ahead of newly discovered risks.

Ideation: Fruit packs a punch

Jamba Juice, San Francisco-based
item: Fruit Smoothie
A Jamba smoothie is made with fruit and real juices. “We [buy] fruit from nine countries to ensure we source top quality from the best growing regions,” says purchasing manager Mary Escalante.

Wish, Miami Beach, Florida
item: Passionfruit Marinated Tuna with dragon fruit, almonds and Dijon mustard
Twice a week, an organic supplier delivers tropical fruit from Homestead, Florida to executive chef Michael Bloise. Dragon fruit is a cross between kiwi and pear.

Black Bear Diner, Mt. Shasta, California-based
item: Blackberry Cobbler
This from-scratch dessert is made with IQF blackberries “for their consistency in quality and price,” says Black Bear founder/COO Bruce Dean.

From farm to fork

With farmers’ markets springing up all over, chefs are jostling with the public to procure the best locally grown, seasonal produce. While buying direct can yield quality fruit, it can also raise food security issues. “Small farmers have to put in the same stringent controls as the big guys,” says Dean Simon, president of Pro*Act, a specialty produce distributor. “Food safety begins with the dirt.”

Donna Garren, VP, health and safety regulatory affairs for the National Restaurant Association, says the produce industry is calling for stricter government regulations for growers and suppliers. In the meantime, she advises operators to “know your supplier and the supplier of your supplier. Find out the practices they are using to deliver
a safe product.”

Critical checkpoints:

•Soil preparation. Fertilizer, water and other elements are potential contaminants. Look for farms and orchards that employ GAP (Good Agricultural Practices).
•Pest control program. Insects and rodents carry micro-organisms that can be toxic to the plant.
•Sanitary picking conditions. Workers must wear gloves, have access to bathrooms away from the harvesting area and be trained in safe handling methods.
•Third-party inspections. In-the-field testing of soil and water and supervision of picking and packing are essential.
•Temperature-controlled transportation. Trucks and shipping containers should be refrigerated and clean.

And once produce comes in the back door:
•Examine fruit. Excessive bruising or damage on the outside can make it easier for bacteria to infiltrate.
•Store fruit properly. Avoid cross contamination by raw proteins and chemicals.
•Wash fruit, even if you peel it. Cutting into an orange, melon or pineapple invites bacteria to migrate from the peel.


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