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Asparagus sales have room to grow, says Southern Specialties exec

There are still a lot of people who haven’t tried asparagus or don’t eat it as often as they might, said Charlie Eagle of Southern Specialties, which has its corporate offices in Pompano Beach, FL. It is for this reason that the firm’s vice president of business development believes asparagus, and especially Peruvian asparagus, has a bright future in front of it.

Echoing the comments heard by just about all the U.S. importers this season, Eagle said volume could be down a bit over the next several months because of decreasing acreage in Peru. However, he believes this is a short-lived phenomenon brought on by a number of growers pulling mature asparagus plants and replacing them with other crops. As time goes on, he believes that acreage will be replaced and volume will start to rise again.

asparagus-tips-wrapper-doubEven so, Eagle said volume will still be sufficient for some good fall asparagus promotions this year. “Retailers are doing a pretty good job promoting asparagus,” he said. “Where I think a lot of them might be missing the mark is they are not being creative enough in the foodservice side of their operations.”

It’s no secret that prepared foods at the retail grocery store is a big growth area. In fact, one survey in the not-so-distant past revealed that supermarkets are one of the fastest-growing sectors for the hiring of chefs. Eagle said many supermarkets feature an asparagus salad in their foodservice operation, but it is almost exclusively made with green asparagus. “Sometimes, like right now,” he said on July 22, “white asparagus actually cost less than green asparagus. They can add some white to that salad and introduce their customers to the product. It’s a real win win, but I just don’t see too many of them getting that creative.”

White asparagus has always been much more popular at foodservice operations in the United States than at retail. Eagle is bullish on the growth potential for white asparagus largely because of how well it does in Europe. It is a big seller in Europe and he sees no reason why it can’t duplicate that success in the States.

Asparagus of any color is considered an upper-end item appealing more to well-educated Anglos as opposed to other demographic sectors. However, Eagle said Southern Specialties, which began as a foodservice supplier more than 20 years ago, has held several successful promotions with Asian restaurant operators. Asparagus has been incorporated into the menus of these establishments and done quite well. It has long been known that acceptance of an item by the restaurant trade often predates and leads to its acceptance at retail. Eagle clearly believes this can be the formula, especially for white asparagus.

“We have some very strong loyal customers for the white asparagus,” he added.

Eagle said the asparagus category, led by imports from Peru, has grown tremendously in the past dozen years and he thinks that growth will continue especially as more consumers become acquainted with some of the innovative offerings such as asparagus tips. “We still see a lot of upside for the category,” he said.

Southern Specialties is a huge believer of air freighting the asparagus to the United States and has won an award the last several years for its tremendous air cargo volume. “The vast majority of our asparagus comes in by air,” said Eagle. “The only time we use sea containers is when we are forced into it like around Valentine’s Day when flowers take up all the available air cargo space.”