New York (CNN Business) When Jerry Callahan had his first bite of a Sumo Citrus fruit about nine years ago, he knew he'd tried something special. "This is going to go crazy," he thought.
As the group vice president of produce and floral at the grocery store chain Albertsons, Callahan is essentially a produce trend-spotter by trade — and he's eaten a lot of fruit. But he described Sumo Citrus as unique. "The eating experience, there's just nothing like it," he said.
The fruit may appear unappealing at first: It looks like a small, wrinkly orange with a knob akin to the top knot worn by the Sumo wrestlers for which it's named. But it's actually a hybrid of navel oranges, pomelos and mandarins and tastes like an extra-sweet mandarin. It peels easily, thanks in part to that knobby handle, and doesn't make your fingers too sticky.
But Sumo Citrus didn't go crazy in the United States, at least not right away. In the years immediately after Callahan took that first bite, the fruit's popularity grew slowly. There wasn't much of the fruit to go around, anyway — AC Brands, the company behind Sumo Citrus, started selling its produce here in 2011 and increased its crop over time. But as more hit stores, more sold. And then once production hit a critical mass, Callahan's prediction started to come true.
Now, once you start paying attention, it may feel like the Sumo Citrus is everywhere.
That could be because over the past two years, AC Brands — confident in both its relationship with retailers and in the size of its crop — invested in a major marketing push to place Sumo in front of the right consumers. It has built (and built off) buzz from Instagram influencers, and placed splashy magazine ads and targeted billboards to attract consumers willing to shell out up to $4 per pound of fruit. Over the past year, consumers spent nearly $62 million on Sumo Citrus fruits, according to Nielsen, still a small sliver of the $2.1 billion mandarin market.
To make sure people try the product — and back up that price — AC Brands has been spreading the Sumo Citrus gospel. In its branding, it nods to the fruit's heritage and to how it's grown (painstakingly, carefully, with attention paid to each fruit). The short selling season that could be a drawback has also been used as an upside, helping the company to build buzz. Before the fruit hits the shelves for a period from January to April and again during a brief window in the fall, the brand can generate hype, and then encourage shoppers not to miss their chance to get it.
US sales have jumped around 35% each year since March 2018, according to Nielsen data.
"When you walk in our stores, in a lot of cases, you're going to see them right at the front door with a great big display," Callahan said. "Because we know the customers are hungry for them, and they want them."
But fruit marketing can be a fickle business. People who love Sumo Citrus today might find a new fruit to love tomorrow. And professionals like Callahan are always looking for the next big thing. So AC Brands has only a little while to ensure the product has the staying power to keep selling when the next hot fruit starts to trend.
Sumo Citrus is the brand name for a type of fruit called shiranui, which is commonly referred to as the Dekopon, itself a brand name, in its home country of Japan. The fruit was born in the early 1970s. By the 1990s, it had become a popular, beloved fruit in Japan, selling for as much as $10 a pop, the self-described "Fruit Detective" David Karp wrote in a 2011 Los Angeles Times article titled "The Dekopon arrives in California."
Karp described a years-long effort by American growers to get their hands on the seedlings. Some smuggled the product over and were forced to cut trees down by the government, which feared that they would spread harmful plant viruses in the country. Eventually, Suntreat, which has since become AC Brands, was able to legally set up shiranui groves in California, an effort it undertook in secret.
The growers involved "had signed confidentiality and exclusive marketing agreements with Suntreat," Karp wrote. "No one was supposed to even breathe the word 'Dekopon.'"
By 2011, the company was ready to make its secret public and to introduce the new fruit to Americans under a different name.
AC Brands didn't think that the name shiranui or Dekopon would make sense to US consumers. So it came up with something new.
"The Sumo Citrus brand was created because of ... what the fruit looks like," Sunnia Gull, director of brand management at AC Brands, told CNN Business. "It's this giant fruit" compared to a traditional mandarin, she said, with "that top knot, which is sort of like what a Sumo wrestler has in the ring."
When branding something new, like a hybrid fruit, you want to go with something that is "approachable, easy to spell [and] easy to ask for in a store," said David Placek, founder and president of Lexicon Branding, which helps companies name products. Plus, he said, by turning that knobby top into a feature, AC Brands is taking "what would be possibly a disadvantage, the way the fruit actually looks, [and] turning that into an advantage."
Ultimately, marketers are "looking for a story," he said — something that will explain to consumers why this product is better than the rest, and why they should buy it.
Sumo Citrus is "probably the world's most pampered fruit," said Albertsons' Callahan. A lot goes into making sure that the Sumo Citrus fruits that reach grocery stores are tasty enough to convince customers that they're worth the price.
"The trees are hand-pruned and trimmed," said Gull. "The skin of the Sumo Citrus is actually so delicate that there's this sort of clay that is put on, a sunscreen, over the summer," for protection, she said. "We're talking about every piece of fruit," she emphasized.
Each fruit is hand-picked and packed in pallets to make sure they don't bruise on the way to stores. Other, sturdier citrus fruit don't need quite as much attention.
Scaling that process up could be challenging, said Roland Fumasi, a food and agribusiness research analyst at Rabobank, an agriculture focused bank. People won't spend on a pricey fruit if they're disappointed by the product. "You have to be careful that your quality control is maintained."
And, he noted, there's a careful balance of supply and demand for AC Brands to consider, as there is for any product. Grow too little and it could miss out on potential sales. Grow too much and it might have to cut prices — or watch as that pampered fruit rots unsold.
Some people may have first learned about Sumo Citrus through the Instagram of Eva Chen, director of fashion partnerships at Instagram and an influencer in her own right with 1.6 million followers. Chen has been raving about the fruit online since 2019. One recent photo shows Chen in her classic #evachenpose — feet casually up on the back seat of a car, with shoes, purse and a snack, often a fruit, on display — with a Sumo mandarin. One post from last year shows Chen illustrated in the manner of the surrealist artist Magritte, a floating Sumo blocking her bowler hat-topped head. Another shows her pulling a stack of Sumo Citrus crates, looking stylish in an Oscar de La Renta top and Chanel flats. The all-caps, multi-exclamatory caption reads "SUMO CITRUS FOR THE WHOLE OFFICE!!!"
Chen's initial interest in Sumo was "all organic," Gull said. "There was nothing paid around that."
But over the past few years Sumo has started paid partnerships with influencers in an effort to reach more millennials. Online, influencers with slim bodies and wide smiles post photos of themselves with the fruit, promising giveaways. They often use the hashtag #healthyobsession, positioning the fruit as a health food.
Sumo also sent Jenna Fischer, known for her role as Pam on "The Office," a tree of her own. On the Sumo Citrus instagram account you can see a smiling Fischer kneeling beside the young tree, sporting a bright orange "Sumo Citrus" beanie.
AC Brands declined to say how much it spends on marketing. In addition to social media campaigns, it has launched targeted ads to reach high-income individuals — those who might not bat an eye over the cost of the fruit.
"We partnered with New Yorker magazine as well as Bon Appetit," Gull said. "There's electronic vehicle charging stations outside some key retailers, we're advertising there and testing that," she said. Sumo has also posted small billboard advertising in Boston, LA and Minneapolis, "key" markets where Sumo consumption grew last season.
AC Brands also distributes marketing materials to retailers to help advertise the product in stores.
Last year, it introduced new purple displays to grocers. Sumo also holds a contest, with prizes, for retail partners that have put together the most creative in-store display.
Creating buzz online is one thing. Making a splash in grocery stores is an entirely different challenge. That depends in large part on convincing retailers to place products in highly-visible, well-trafficked locations.
A big, prominent display can encourage people who may not have heard of the fruit to try it. At Stop and Shop, which has been carrying Sumo Citrus for over four years, customers can often find the product near the front of the produce section, said Joe Connolly, the chain's category manager for produce.
"If we brought them in and we just displayed them in the citrus section, amongst everything else, they'd probably be lost," he said. So far, the strategy is working. "Each and every year we've been selling more and more of them," he said.
That doesn't mean it'll work forever. Sumo Citrus is starting to see competition. Fowler Packing, which sells mandarins under the Peelz brand, announced last month that it is adding a Dekopon product to the Peelz portfolio, which is already well known among mandarin lovers. Trinity Fruit Company, which sells peaches, pomegranates and mandarins among other fruit, recently started selling Big Honey Dekopons. Big Honeys, which have the same taste profile as Sumo Citrus, have gotten some buzz in niche markets: Earlier this year, the Produce Moms blog named the Big Honey one of the its 21 Must-Try Produce Items in 2021, after the "plumsicle" but ahead of the PinkGlow Pineapple, which is pink on the inside.
And one day, Sumo Citrus could be dethroned by an even trendier citrus. Items that were hot one year can go out of vogue, and grocers have no reason to try to revitalize the sale of a flailing product — they can just move on to the next big disruptor in the space. It's happened before, Albertsons' Callahan said.
"Seeded watermelons used to be the watermelon to buy," he said. "And we were able to develop a seedless watermelon, and all of a sudden the seedless watermelon basically took over." (Of course, trends can be cyclical: seeded watermelons are starting to make a comeback, he noted.) Another example? Red apples, which have been squeezed by more popular varieties. "There's so many apples that are better than red apples today. Honeycrisp really changed the apple industry, it was really that first apple that just exploded across the country."
Already, Callahan is excited about a new product. "We've got this new lemon plum that we're just starting to get ahold of that we've had really for the last couple of years," he said. "It's certainly not something that's across the country and every one of our stores, but it's really gaining popularity," he said. "That's one that I can see coming on."