Jeroen van Groenewegen:

“You don’t have to be a chef to work with exotics”

Demand for exotics increases as we head for the holidays, but carambola, purple mangosteen and rambutan really stand out. Demand for these exotics has grown rapidly in recent years. Mike Looije, salesman of purple mangosteen and rambutan, among other products, and Jeroen van Groenewegen, brand manager for Yex, talk about these exotics and the importance of communication.

“Mango and avocado are hardly new anymore. Passionfruit can also be found with practically every retailer,” Jeroen says. “Every year, certain products go with the flow and become better known.” Purple mangosteen and rambutan are in that flow, but that’s the case for all of the products in their range. “They’re all very much on the rise, and not just in the Netherlands, but outside of the country as well.” Other major growers are, for example, sweet potato and green asparagus.

Exotics less exotic?
The purple mangosteen and rambutan mostly come from Asia. For the purple mangosteen, Indonesia is a major player on the market. Vietnam takes up that position for rambutan. “The product is available from Asia year-round, but it does have highs and lows,” Mike says. Because of these highs and lows in supply, in part because of the rainy season, growers on the other side of the ocean saw their chance. In Guatemala and Colombia, investments were made in the production of these exotics. “The purple mangosteen tree needs about 10 t0 15 years before it bears its first fruit,” Mike says. Because of this, purple mangosteen prices are relatively high. The Latin American countries fill the gaps in supply from Asia. “We started with our own grower in Guatemala two years ago,” Mike explains. “Quality of this fruit is great.”

Eastern and Christmas are the peaks for the exotics. “These are the days consumers try new things,” Jeroen says. The entire category is on the rise, and exotics appear to be increasingly better integrated. Scandinavia is a frontrunner in this field. “Exotics are often in supermarkets year-round there.” The market for exotics is also growing in the Netherlands. Exotics are given a more prominent place by Lidl around Christmas, while other chains pay more attention to this category throughout the year. “That’s happening more and more, with baby steps, and we’re naturally also trying to have year-round supply,” Jeroen continues. Besides the holidays, it’s important to have the products available to avoid disappointment among consumers. “After all, they want to enjoy these delicious products year-round.”

Essential to inform
“We tested various packaging,” Mike explains. The exotics are usually packed in film, but the current social trends for less plastic resulted in Yex holding the packaging up to the light again. “How can the fruit be packed as efficiently as possible, and how can we prevent mould in the packaging?” These are two important questions. The result is less plastic. “With purple mangosteen, for example, mould can occur near the crown. It doesn’t look great, but it’s not bad for the fruit,” he describes another challenge. Rambutan had a similar challenge. “We’ve now developed a packaging with an improved air circulation in the packaging.”

Because of the drier packaging, the rambutan turns darker sooner. “we’ve tested it and the flavour is still delicious even after a month, when the rambutan is completely dark.” Mike adds: “Rambut means hairy, which explains the product’s name.” The colour, the name, the moments of use, packaging material; “We need to explain it all to consumers,” Jeroen says. “We’re naturally searching for alternatives, but the packaging just happens to be functional as well.”

Online and offline
A lot of effort is put into spreading knowledge about the exotics and increasing the number of uses. “We did a photoshoot in a kitchen with Daphne Schippers, for instance, to better promote the uses of these exotics.” Communication towards consumers happens both online and offline. A lot of information can be found about the different products on Yex’s website, and the sites were recently published in a number of Scandinavian languages. “Consumers starts looking for recipes for Christmas around 5 December, so the website has to be up-to-date,” Jeroen says.

An offline method is putting recipe cards with the exotics in supermarkets. “Eighty per cent of purchasing decisions take place in shops, so that’s where you can make a difference,” Jeroen says. That’s why recipe cards have been placed near the exotics in supermarkets. “You have to support consumers.” In the field of catering, purple mangosteen is an unknown exotic as well. “A lot of chefs don’t know purple mangosteen, but once they taste it they like it. A lot of potential can still be found in that.” Exotics are often used as dessert, but Yex is also using communication to get them used in other courses. “You don’t have to be a chef to work with exotics,” Jeroen says.

For the importers, the availability of air cargo is essential. “That’s our biggest challenge around the holidays,” Mike says. “By planning and communicating well, we can be certain we’ll have a spot on board, otherwise we’d just miss our flight.” Around Christmas, demand for room in aeroplanes increases rapidly. “Some products need to be with the consumers within three days, so that the product can be as fresh as possible,” Mike explains why seaborne cargo isn’t an option for all products.

More information:

Jeroen van Groenewegen 

Mike Looije  

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