Hail to the twisty tomato.
And cheers for the bulbous-nosed green pepper and the boomerang-shaped cucumber.
These misshapen vegetables, labeled “the misfits” by southern Alberta’s Red Hat Co-op, were snatched off the shelves last year in a novel promotion slated for expansion this spring.
The Misfits: Rise of the Rejects marketed vegetables from growers in the Medicine Hat and Redcliff areas of Alberta that were not quite perfect. Cucumbers, mini-cukes, tomatoes and peppers were offered at a 30 percent discount, for a limited time, in 11 Calgary and Medicine Hat grocery stores.
They sold out.
Now Mike Meinhardt, who works in sales and marketing at Red Hat, is planning the 2015 promotion, which might expand the range of misshapen produce that is available.
“We definitely will repeat it. The question becomes, how do we expand it,” said Meinhardt.
“I can see there being this misfit brand that is sort of rotating through a variety of different products throughout the growing season.”
The promotion is based on a similar one, called Inglorious Fruits and Vegetables, which was launched by Intermarche, the third largest supermarket chain in France.
Like that campaign, the Misfits attracted considerable media and consumer attention. Meinhardt said some shoppers drove across the city to buy the ugly veggies.
“We had a feeling once consumers knew what this was and were educated a little bit, it would ring a bell with them,” he said.
“We’ve launched a few new products in the produce section and as much as we’d like to think produce is as sexy as soft drinks and beer and salty snacks and all that kind of stuff, there’s typically not things that are fun and sexy happening from a marketing standpoint. This really got the produce teams in the grocery stores excited.”
Red Hat Co-op president Albert Cramer said growers were pleased to find a market for produce rated No. 2.
Some greenhouses make deals with processors or operate small stores where they sell odd-shaped vegetables at a discount to walk-in customers, but some of the less attractive produce inevitably ends up in landfills.
The Misfits promotion improves grower returns and reduces food waste.
“In the cucumber world, it’s no different from planting in the garden. Cukes don’t necessarily grow straight,” said Cramer, a cucumber grower.
The promotion won’t eliminate vegetable waste because some produce is damaged in the picking, transport or packing process and can’t be marketed.
As well, specific grading requirements eliminate some vegetables. For example, a long English cucumber that is one-quarter inch too short cannot be graded No. 1, even though its shape and quality are fine.
“It’s ridiculous, is what it is,” said Cramer.
“But every system has to have a standard.”
Meinhardt said Red Hat’s 50 grower members were initially hesitant about the promotion, fearing it would affect sales of No. 1 grade produce.
“They gave me the rope to run with the program … but they were being cautious. Then as the program went on, I think they got quite a bit more excited about it. Consumers were gobbling the product up.”
Nerves were also soothed by the knowledge that misshapen vegetables make up only half to one percent of the total marketed by Red Hat.
Meinhardt said retailers also had concerns at first. They wondered about the benefit of selling a discount vegetable as opposed to one at market price.
An increase in store traffic eased those fears. So did Red Hat’s 40 percent wholesale discount, while retailers offered a 30 percent discount to consumers.
Now Meinhardt envisions marketing a wider array of ugly produce from a larger geographic area.
“There’s no reason that carrots and onions and potatoes and the fruit out of the Okanagan … that all of that stuff can’t be part of this. Every produce has its misfits.”
He isn’t worried that the novelty of buying weirdly shaped vegetables will wane because the Misfits promotion offers a nutritious staple, as opposed to gimmicks devised to sell the latest brand of potato chip.
The other positive aspect is consumers’ continuing desire to reduce food waste and be more environmentally responsible, he added.
The 2015 promotion will begin in March and April, when southern Alberta’s greenhouses start harvesting their next crop.
Here is the European video that launched the Red Hat idea.