Do you love strawberries? Like, really love them? Because as much as you think you do, in years gone by, you probably wouldn’t have considered paying $50 for a pack of eight – even if each berry is hand-picked and nestled into chic moulded packaging.
Grown in an indoor vertical farm by the Hudson River in New Jersey, the berries are produced using seeds that the founders imported directly from Japan. Called the Omakase berry, the variety is known for its seedless exterior, creamy texture and exceptional sweetness. And Oishii Berry (see box-out) has been selling them like crazy to restaurants and consumers ever since launching last year. It’s not the only new brand betting big on rising demand for fancy fruit.
Our appetite for healthy food – along with organic, locally grown high-quality produce – has been increasing for years. Awareness of the environment has spotlit ideas such as provenance and sustainability, and the rise of the wellness industry has made us more attuned to the benefits of a good diet. Easy to snack on and rich in vitamins, fresh fruit is in particular demand. Blueberries and avocados have evolved from premium treats to daily snacks. Exotics like mango, papaya and açai have jumped from the smoothie-bar menu to our kitchens.
For Cindy van Rijswick, an industry analyst for fruit, vegetables and floriculture at Rabobank International, a Netherlands-based co-operative bank, ‘premiumisation’ away from ordinary apples and oranges towards berries and exotics has been going on for a decade or so. Consumers may still look for a low price when buying commoditised fruit such as bananas, but many now consider premium products like berries and tropical fruits a treat worth paying for. ‘People are willing to spend more on products that have more flavour and health attributes, or that are more convenient to eat,’ she says. The ascent of online grocery services, which are not restricted by the limited shelf space available in supermarkets, is exposing shoppers to more varieties of fruit, too.
By the numbers
The pandemic push
The pandemic only accelerated the luxury fruit trend. In the UK, sales of organic food and drink grew by 6.1% during the country’s first lockdown, according to market research company Nielsen. That’s more than double the growth of non-organic products. Globally, demand for high-quality fresh produce has also increased significantly. Nourish Organic, an Indian online retailer, experienced a 30% sales rise in March 2020, while similar businesses in France reported increases of 40%, according to a report by Ecovia Intelligence, an expert on ethical product industries. In the US, Whole Foods was forced to limit the number of online customers due to overwhelming demand. Again, fruit is a front runner: a survey by EIT Food, part of the European Institute of Innovation and Technology, revealed that, during the pandemic, 32% of people increased their consumption of fruit – more than any other food category.
The pandemic has caused the market to be pulled in two directions, says Mike Knowles, an editorial director at trade publication Fruitnet. Many are feeling the pinch and seeking out affordable groceries, but others want to treat themselves. As people spend less on holidays, restaurants and fashion, food has become a worthwhile indulgence. ‘There’s a pleasure to be had from spending on top-quality fruit and vegetables,’ he says. Health benefits aside, the colourful, sweet nature of fruit means it is a food that has always made people happy.
Delivering the goods
The demand for premium produce is reflected in a boom in the many fruit and vegetable boxes now widely available – another existing food trend that rapidly accelerated as a result of global lockdowns. Lots of these produce companies are exposing their consumers to varieties of fruit that are uncommon in most regular supermarkets. Abel & Cole, one of the longest-running organic veg box services in the UK, made an average of 55,000 deliveries a week before the pandemic hit. Afterwards, orders increased by an impressive 25%. Pale Green Dot, which supplies sustainably sourced fruit and vegetables to restaurants, switched to home deliveries when the pandemic started. The service made more than 80,000 deliveries a week during 2020. Its customers have been excited to receive British-sourced apples, pears and rhubarb, says chief sustainability officer Stephanie Ferguson, and this summer it will offer a heritage strawberry variety. Trap Fruits, a delivery operation that launched in London at the start of 2020, caters to a demand for familiar and more unusual tropical fruits. Boxes are packed with mangoes, pineapples and custard apples – large, knobbly green fruits, also known as sweetsop, from the West Indies that can cost £5 each.
Could a luxury fruit market emerge? This all may remain a niche trend, but the broad desire for better fruit is very unlikely to wane. A YouGov poll commissioned by the Food, Farming and Countryside Commission and The Food Foundation found that 42% of people in the UK felt the crisis had made them value food more – and 85% want to see at least some of the changes they have experienced continue afterwards. More people are getting a hunger for fresh fruit that has been grown with care – and tastes amazing.
Case study: Oishii Berry’s $6 strawberry
Grower of plump and perfect scarlet strawberries, Oishii Berry is a New Jersey brand that brings a taste of Japan’s luxury fruit culture to the US. By recreating the environment found in the foothills of the Japanese Alps – where, during certain months, the conditions are perfect for strawberries to thrive – in an indoor vertical farm, it can cultivate the coveted Omakase berry all year round. Co-founder of Oishii, Hiroki Koga, who is originally from Tokyo, was disappointed with the strawberries found in the US. He spent years learning how to cultivate the Omakase berry in order to share it beyond his homeland. The variety, known for its scent, sweetness, texture and – most importantly – its signature seedless appearance, has already won over New York’s top chefs. The fruit found its way onto menus at Korean fine-dining restaurant Atomix and Dominique Ansel Bakery, the patisserie that introduced New Yorkers to the cronut. At the Michelin-starred Sushi Ginza Onodera, head chef Kazushige Suzuki let the quality speak for itself: he served the strawberries as a dessert dish simply as they were. Oishii now markets the strawberries directly to consumers – but they don’t come cheap. Those seeking to indulge can purchase a punnet of eight large or 11 medium strawberries for $50. But, as Hiroki told US public radio station NPR, ‘It’s really not just the berry that we’re selling, but the experience.’
Case study: Three new luxury fruit brands from Japan
In Japan, fruit is already more than a treat – it is a gift. Lavishly packaged melons, grapes and cherries sell for hundreds and even thousands of pounds. Here are three brands that have launched at high price points.
Fruits and Season
Cream-filled fruit sandwiches are a popular snack in Japan. Many convenience stores sell them, but Fruits and Season, a Tokyo-based business, has given them a luxury twist. It sells gift sets of seasonal fruit sandwiches from ¥4,000 (£27). The products are vegan; egg and dairy-free bread is stuffed with soy whipped cream. The company’s first physical store, which opened in January, has the chic, minimal decor of a luxury fashion brand.
The Fruits Company
This new business concept aspires to be a saviour to fruit. After hearing that most mandarin oranges that fall below the aesthetic standards for retail are thrown away, Yusuke Onishi and Ryohei Tokunaga felt compelled to make use of the wasted fruit. The Fruits Company buys non-standard fruit to sell as 100% fresh juice. Launched as a crowdfund campaign, the company delivered its first shipment in March.
Nara Strawberry Lab
Founded in 2017 by a group of expert farmers, the Nara Strawberry Lab produces a selection of sweet, fragrant fruits. Its range includes strawberries that come in a number of beautiful shades: Kotoka, bright red; Light Snow, a pale pink; and Pearl White. Each has a unique flavour palate. Two punnets start at ¥4,500 (£30) and large gift sets can cost ¥200,000 (£1,300).