The Honeycrisp apple is a Cinderella story. A somewhat homely apple, almost rejected from its own breeding program, is given a chance and is discovered by an adoring public and propelled on a rise to a height of success still not fully realized.
The rags-to-riches story verifies the clichés: Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. It’s what’s inside that counts. You can’t tell a book by its cover.
Never give up.
While the Honeycrisp story is not finished, it has inspired apple breeders, growers, and marketers to try to write a similar tale for a growing list of other new varieties.
The most important part of the Honeycrisp story is that consumers will pay unprecedented prices if the apple has a wow factor.
Few people think such a story can repeat itself naturally; many people think they can find new apples that, with help, will come close to the benchmarks Honeycrisp set.
That’s the key idea behind creating “clubs” in which varieties can be managed and marketed for success.
Stemilt Growers, LLC, in Wenatchee, Washington, owned by the Mathison family, was an early adopter of that idea, getting on board with Pink Lady in the late 1990s. It is one of the largest grower/shippers of Pink Lady in the United States.
Turning to a different variety, Stemilt bought the exclusive U.S. rights to grow and market the German-bred apple, Pinova, back in 2004, eventually adopting the trademark name Piñata and taking it to market in 2009.
The name Piñata came from combining the names the apple was known by in Europe, Pinova and Sonata. The new cultivar was named Apple of the Year in Germany in 2001.
In 2010, Stemilt joined the cooperative Next Big Thing to manage growing and marketing of another club variety, SweeTango, specifically for the Western United States.
Last year Stemilt bought the rights to grow and market MN55, a University of Minnesota cultivar, which like SweeTango has Honeycrisp as a parent. The variety has yet to get a trademark name and is still a couple of years from coming to market. But it will be another managed variety.
Brianna Shales, who’s in her seventh year as communications manager at Stemilt, says she can’t see into the future, but she’s pleased with how things are evolving. Club varieties are changing the way apples are marketed and changing the way apples are perceived by consumers.
“It is a way to differentiate our products in the marketplace,” she said. “Having apples exclusive to us allows us to control the volume so it doesn’t flood the market, but creates excitement and new flavors. If we control the quality, it elevates the premium.”
How many Honeycrisp-like varieties can the market handle? Shales notes that SweeTango, which comes to market in about the same season as Honeycrisp, has been able to achieve Honeycrisp price levels and a loyal following.
“The next best apple can’t be the same,” she said. “It has to be better.”
But better is subjective. MN55, she said, is a Honeycrisp cross, but has a different flavor and is earlier. “It will be the first fresh apple of the season,” she said.
Shales believes that the new apples are helping to change the shape of the supermarket produce section, a trend that is already well underway. Not only are there more varieties of apples, there are more varieties of many produce items.
Club varieties foster partnerships between apple marketers and retailers, she said, and “these partnerships will grow stronger.” Partly it is the realization that consumers need a way to discover new varieties, and that means more supermarket demonstrations and samplings, more special packaging, better displays and promotions.
“Demonstrations and samplings are really important,” she said. “Consumers want to try it before they buy it. But that’s OK. Consumers today are into trying new things. They are looking for new flavors.”
Not every supermarket will partner with every distributor of every apple seeking access to consumers. “What I expect is that different stores will offer different selections,” she said. Consumers who develop a taste for a certain apple variety will have go to a store that sells it, and not every store will.
She also believes that there will be more apples sold in seasonal niches. While some varieties will be sold year-round, many of the new varieties won’t. “They won’t necessarily sell in really short windows, but each will have its peak season.”
On its website, Stemilt claims year-round availability for its Fuji and Granny Smith, but says others are more seasonal: Piñata is available from November to May, SweeTango from August to November, and Honeycrisp from September to February.
As varieties grow in popularity there will be the usual desire to extend the selling season. In the case of Honeycrisp, “the consumer is driving that boat,” she said. So far, demand has outstripped supply, but the knowledge needed to store Honeycrisp longer is building, and that, she says, is a normal pattern for any apple variety.
For those who worry about too many apples and too many varieties, Shales takes an evolutionary point of view. She believes the new, modern apples will boost the entire apple sales category and more apples will be sold for fresh consumption. But demand for some varieties will taper off considerably as new varieties are favored.
Dennis Courtier at the grower cooperative Next Big Thing said he thinks that club varieties may take a third of the apple market, but any one new apple will not reach the market share once reached by Red Delicious or Golden Delicious. Well, maybe Honeycrisp will.
“We’ll see what happens,” Shales said. “This is a few decades off.”