Taking the time to master the taste of strawberries through Brix testing and rigorous selection processes has allowed a Western Australian fresh produce company to build up a successful premium brand in the market.
Quality Produce International (QPI) founded the "Heavenly" brand, which is now in its 13th season, with around 400,000 punnets sold each year.
"A sample of the fruit is crushed and the juice is applied to the surface of our scientific testing equipment, which gives us a sugar reading," QPI Director Damon Watling said. "We do this to meet the Heavenly brand standard, and I wouldn't think there is anyone else out there sugar testing their berries. To get the Brix levels right and the best fruit for Heavenly, it's the riper fruit we want and that does almost trend against what we do as an industry, particularly in strawberry farming. This takes a lot of management to get this right and our fruit is harvest mature."
Heavenly Strawberries are grown on the Lieu family farm just north of Perth, with the season running from late July through to November. Mr Watling says it has been a local success story due to its guaranteed sweet flavour and aroma, making it a highly anticipated premium fruit.
"This particular berry is an older variety long forgotten by other local growers," he said. "It was licenced and released by the University of California and is known for its exceptional fruit quality, flavour and unique long conical, symmetrical shape. It is delicate and challenging to grow, but taking the time to master, we think that the results speak for themselves. If you look at Heavenly's they have a smooth glassy look, a nice deep colour and an amazing aroma - you can smell the strawberry, whereas more recent varieties of berries out there have lost their aroma."
Photo: Grower Chi Lieu with QPI Director Damon Watling on the Carabooda (Perth) Heavenly Strawberries farm.
As with most growers, QPI admits there have been challenges finding workers to pick the fruit, especially as Heavenly’s are picked when ripe, unlike many other growers who still pick the fruit in a semi-ripe condition. But Mr Watling says that as Heavenly will always remain the premium brand in the market, there have been no shortcuts taken this year despite the hurdles with labour sourcing.
"Volumes are consistent this year and the Lieu family only ever plant to their capabilities within the constraints of labour sourcing," Mr Watling said. "Plus, consumers have become more focussed on the origin of their fresh produce, especially, and we saw a greater focus on this from a retail perspective. Heavenly has such a recognisable brand presence amongst both our retailers and consumers and many of them have come to understand how special the product is over the years and anticipate the season with a lot of fanfare – more than any other strawberry in market. We’ve even heard of stores having ‘waiting lists’ for when the first batch comes into the store. The strong reputation that Heavenly’s have built up over the years means that consumers are prepared to pay a premium. unlike other fruits, for example, stone fruit, consumers can rely on a good eating experience and identify Heavenly’s with that reliability."
Whilst the demand from Australia's East Coast markets is massive, QPI says it will only ship there when Western Australian market demand is satisfied. Currently, there is no demand for riper fruit in overseas markets. The challenges of air freight and temperature fluctuations mean that growers need to pick the greener fruit to travel.
Mr Watling adds that the berries go through a rigorous selection process to ensure quality is maintained, and are all hand-picked and hand-packed.
"The first wave of packing they will go through is for the Heavenly pack, where they pick out the fruit that meets the Heavenly standard," Mr Watling said. "The second stage of packing goes into another label that is still equal to or better than other fruit in the market. Our growers the Lieu family, already had the expertise to grow this particular variety and we identified his fruit was something special. Their respect of the brand and the consistency they are able to deliver at has as much to do with the successful marketing of the brand itself. The Lieu Family are backed by QPI’s team of Food technologists and Quality Assurance officers to present the safest possible produce available. Training and assistance are available in all aspects of QA. QPI enjoys a strong relationship with Buy West, Eat Best and other industry bodies to provide support to Heavenly Strawberries."
In 2020, some of QPI's imports that rely on air freight have suffered from reduced flights and increased costs, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Mr Watling. He admits some stock simply just can’t get here as flights have been cancelled altogether and where flights are possible, imports are cost-prohibitive.
"We haven’t seen a huge effect on local producers prices as we mostly import counter-seasonal stock," he said "Demand for some imports, like Medjool Dates that come by sea, has been strong, particularly for more food safety-conscious consumers that have embraced pre-packaged dates in the various consumer pack sizes. Our exports have always been focused on very specific customers that we have had a very long relationship with. For the most part, their markets have been able to absorb the increased freight cost and we have managed with reduced flights out of Perth."
The company's growth has been a steady journey, from one grower with one pallet of carrots in 1977 to now more than 500 growers. Mr Watling says its founders, Gary Watling and Geoff Moore built a strong sales team with a good work ethic that remains today.
"The average length of tenure for our current sales team is 17 years and the company culture remain strong," he said. "The development of brands has been something that has really evolved over the last 12-15 years. It comes from a focal point of our team needing to provide more support for the grower over and above getting the best return for their produce. This support not only comes through branding and marketing but also through food technologists and Quality Assurance experts that QPI provides, who guide growers through the challenges of the various certifications."
He added that expanding on grower support, QPI's number one goal is lifting growers' profiles and identifying the that ones that are growing a premium product should be rewarded for it.
"In some cases, such as Heavenly Strawberries, the brand is tied to one grower and the variety and the expertise in growing is central to the brands' success," Mr Watling said. "In other cases, such as Cue Bites and NaNa’s, there is a suite of growers with a like-minded approach to quality."