Wada Farms continues to expand watermelon program
Wada Farms got into the watermelon business five years ago, and a year ago it took a major step forward to expand the category by adding a longtime industry veteran to oversee the program.
Fran Torigian, who joined Wada Farms in March of 2021 as vice president of sales and business development for the Eastern division, draws on his 45-plus years of industry experience in guiding the growth of Wada’s watermelon business. His experience and connections in Latin America are especially important as Wada looks to establish itself as a year-round shipper.
“My experience in Central America goes back more than 30 years, and Wada wanted to expand into a year-round program when they brought me on,” said Torigian, whose wife, Susi, also works at Wada as a category manager. The couple is based in the company’s Raleigh, NC, office.
In the year since he joined, Torigian said things have been trending upward for the program.
“We’re really just in the infancy of our watermelon program, but we have gained some traction and are starting to build brand recognition,” he said. “We expanded the customer platform beyond where it had been and brought on an additional 30 percent more volume from Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, Delaware, Missouri, Indiana, Michigan and Texas. We’re adding more volume and growers so we’ll be able to attract new retailers and wholesalers. Produce buyers want a 12-month deal, and that is our goal. But even more important, we want to be sure we can deliver the quality, size and specs that we promise, so we need to make sure everyone is on board with how Wada needs things to be done.”
Torigian said he began working with melons in California right out of college and moved to Florida 15 years ago to work at Central American Produce, where he was exposed to a number of different products, including various melons.
Asked about the changes he has witnessed throughout the years, Torigian said there have been many.
“But the one that comes to mind is the evolution of varieties,” he said. “In the beginning, seeded melons were the prime variety, then seedless came along, and then the mini or icebox watermelons. I also observed cut melons rise in popularity. Today, cut melons are popular especially with younger consumers, who want ease and convenience.”
Torigian also noted that plant breeders and seed geneticists play an important role in the watermelon category. “They work hard to develop varieties with the deep red color and sweet flavor, because that is really what sells a watermelon — the color and flavor,” he said. “That is especially important with winter watermelons, which don’t always have the deep color that appeals to consumers.”
Torigian said that while he is optimistic about Wada’s watermelon program, he acknowledges there are some major challenges that must be overcome.
“The major challenge this year is with the rising cost of production,” he said. “We set a farm budget in December, and we are nearly through it and it’s only May. Everything costs more this year — fertilizer, insecticides and herbicides, seed, diesel fuel, basically everything. I just hope the retailers and foodservice buyers understand these costs are real. And with rampant inflation, consumers will have to make decisions about what they can afford. The next several months will tell the tale.”
He reiterated the importance of focusing on flavor and color to keep watermelons as an attractive option for consumers.
“At $7.99 per melon, it becomes somewhat of an discretionary item, and when mangos are two for $1 and pineapples are $2.99 each, consumers have other great tasting options to consider,” he said. “So we need to make sure watermelons offer a great eating experience.”