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Caplan, F. 1996. Marketing Lost Crops™ of the Americas. p. 127-129. In: J. Janick (ed.), Progress in new crops. ASHS Press, Alexandria, VA.

Marketing Lost Crops™ of the Americas

Frieda Caplan

    1. Positioning the Product Line
    2. Marketing

In 1994 at the annual Produce Marketing Association convention in San Antonio, Texas, Frieda's, Inc. introduced the "Lost Crops™ of the Americas," a line of plant based foods that are indigenous to South, Central, and North America. The concept of "Lost Crops™" came from a book published in 1989, entitled, Lost Crops of the Incas. Noel Vietmeyer, then senior program officer of the National Research Council was, at that time, the director and scientific editor of the Inca crops study that resulted in the publication of this book. With the permission, encouragement, and guidance of Noel Vietmeyer, we committed a great deal of our company's resources—financial, research, merchandising, and marketing—to introduce this program to the American consumer.

Since we opened our doors over 33 years ago, an important mission of Frieda's, Inc.—a merchandising and marketing company operating at the wholesale produce level—has been to discover, introduce, develop, and create markets for specialty fruits, vegetables, and complementary items. In the produce industry, we are known as creators of marketing excitement! We search out unique foods that have good taste, good shelf life, are good for you, and make the eating experience memorable. Through our packaging and the information we provide, we try to capture the imagination of the American consumer, but the first step is to gain the commitment of the retailer, the decision maker responsible for presenting our "discoveries" to their shoppers. Without the support of top management as well as their produce merchandisers and their buyers, we knew that our "Lost Crops™ of the Americas" concept would face many marketing hurdles.

It took nearly 18 years for the kiwifruit to start earning its stardom in the produce department. It took nearly ten years for both spaghetti squash and the Sugar Snap Peareg. to reach this same level of acceptance. Can a program embracing a multitude of little known fruits, vegetables, grains, and nuts be a financial success—one that will favorably impact our bottom line as did kiwifruit, spaghetti squash, and the Sugar Snap Peareg.? Only time will tell.


How did we develop our intense interest in these "Lost Crops?" I actually tingle with excitement when I recall the seminar in early March of 1984 held at the offices of the National Research Council in Washington, D.C. that alerted us to the possibilites of such a produce line. There were around 20 people present including Hugh Popenoe, Donald Plucknett, and the late Calvin Sperling, people who were legends to me. Also present was George White, former plant introduction officer of the USDA/ARS and his staff botanist, Sharon Drexler who both turned out to be invaluable contacts. I was the only marketing person.

The primary purpose for the gathering was to draw attention to overlooked food crops of the Andes. The crops were not truly lost and most were well known in many areas of the Andes, especially among the indigenous populations. These crops, however, were lost to the mainstream of international science and to people outside of the Andes.

For Frieda's, that meeting planted a marketing seed that took nearly 10 years for fruition. We already had experienced some of the products of the Andes. These included oca (Oxalis tuberosa Mol.). Which we tasted in New Zealand some seven years earlier. California-grown cherimoyas (Annona cherimola Mill.), which we began marketing soon after we started in business—passion fruit (Passiflora edulis) and tamarillos [Cyphomandra betacea (Cav.) Sendtn.] which we were already sourcing from New Zealand.

When the report of our ad hoc panel was published in 1989 replete with additional information and access to resources, that seed planted in our marketing minds five years earlier, began to sprout. In 1992, during the 500th anniversary celebration of the discovery of America by Christopher Columbus my daughter Karen, who is president of Frieda's, Inc. and Bess Petlak, our special projects coordinator, attended a unique series of events sponsored by the Smithsonian that brought a concrete marketing idea into focus, and out of it, two years later was born our "Lost Crops™ of the Americas" concept.

Soon after their return, Karen assembled an all-day meeting involving our key management personnel, our design firm, and our marketing consultants who specialized in new product marketing. The meeting was conducted by an outside facilitator who lead us through a brain-storming exercise after Karen presented her concept for this new program. We batted ideas around for hours. We quickly recognized that we had a tremendous amount of research, product sourcing, and packaging development to do before any such program could be implemented. Tasks were assigned. In June of 1994, nearly two years later, a formal marketing proposal was finalized.

Our objective: to increase and reinforce the leadership and innovative image of Frieda's, Inc. through the introduction of a new line of specialty fruit, vegetables, and grains. These products would be unique and their origins indigenous to South America, Latin America, and North America. Our intentions were to position these products as a department within a department to highlight their uniqueness and individuality.

We were already aware that since the publication of The Lost Crops of the Incas, many national associations and academies of science in many countries began investigation, research, and development on the crops covered by this publication. Peru began investing and sponsoring a return to Incan agriculture and crop production. We also saw interest from American tobacco farmers as they began looking for alternative crops.

Seeing all this, we at Frieda's, Inc., wanted to capitalize on what we felt was the next frontier of innovative cuisine and specialty foods. We began the trademark process on the name "Lost Crops™ of the Americas" and the unique products it would represent.

Positioning the Product Line

Then came the positioning of the product line. These specialty fruits, vegetables, and grains needed to have a distinct and different appearance in comparison to common, domestically grown produce. The positioning of the products would have to reflect the elements of the cultures of the Incas, Mayans, Aztec, and southwestern Native Americans. Recipes using the "Lost Crops" products would have to be developed to replicate those recipes in the culture from which they originated. The line of items would need to appeal to those individuals who like to prepare unique menus and who would not be intimidated by extensive preparation and hard-to-find items.


To begin the marketing of "Lost Crops," we made the decision to move some existing Frieda's items out of our regular product line and augment them with our new line of products as they became available. Our primary strategy was to develop very unique custom packaging which would set "Lost Crops" apart from other variety items and which would communicate the concept of "Lost Crops" visually. We decided that all packaging would be produced on recycled paper with a grain-like appearance and that we would use colors that reflect the Native American culture.

During the introductory period, we would try to position "Lost Crops" with key retailers: industry leaders who recognized the value and the message of these unique items and retailers who would want to capitalize on their marketability and "star quality" and who wanted to be viewed by their customers as innovators. As we got closer to finalizing all of the items to be in the line, we flew Noel Vietmeyer out to our facility in Los Alamitos, California to review our product mix, our copy, and our packaging and to confirm the authenticity of this new program.

After this peer review, confident that we had all our ducks in a row, we then developed a consumer brochure, a catalog sheet in full color displaying the line, fact sheets for our sales staff and for the media and continued our extensive recipe testing program that always goes along with anything introduced by Frieda's.


Has this venture been profitable for us? Not as yet. Tremendous expense was involved in launching such a line even before we got to packaging, labeling, and recipe development. There were years of development that involved our most talented people. So even with broad retail acceptance, a high volume of sales is necessary just to cover initial costs.

Has it reached our objective of increasing and reinforcing the leadership and innovative image of Frieda's, Inc.? The answer is yes! What we didn't fully anticipate was the incredible response from the media, both locally and nationally. The resulting consumer interest actually created early sales for us as selected retailers called us inquiring about product availability as a result of consumer requests.

The "Lost Crops" received a tremendous send-off shortly after three major retailers in different parts of the country agreed to introduce our line to their shoppers. Kings supermarkets in Irvington, New Jersey, Dominicks in Chicago, and H.E. Butt in San Antonio were featured in an article in the New York Times on November 1st 1994, headlined "America Embraces Its Native Foods." Since that article first appeared, we've been able to track no less than 122 news stories which appeared in papers across the nation with an estimated readership of over ten million people. There is a great deal effort and expense that goes into introducing a new crop or in this case a new line of products.

Frieda's has built its reputation on operating with an open mind and an open door. We welcome concepts and ideas that fit our parameters and marketing style. Please contact us so we can give close consideration to what you have to offer.

Last update June 4, 1997 aw