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How Cuties Conquered the Produce Department

December 12, 2014

Oranges used to just be oranges…until Cuties came along and branded them.

History of CutiesIn 1990, an early freeze resulted in California’s citrus-growing San Joaquin Valley having one of its worst harvests ever. Berne Evans, a farmer (and former stockbroker) was out a lot of his orange crop, but heard through industry sources that the hot new fruit on the East Coast was the clementine, a small, seedless, very sweet, easy to peel orange grown primarily in Spain. He talked to some grocery executives, who asked if he could grow clementines to meet demand. After researching to see if the fruit could withstand the San Joaquin Valley’s weather extremes, he put almost everything he had into the new citrus fruit.

The fruit sold very well on the West Coast in the early ‘90s, so well that in 1996 Evans hired a nursery to multiply clementine trees, and contractually forbade it from selling them to anyone else. This gave him a monopoly on clementines. Still, he hoped not to alienate any other farmers looking to get in on the mini-orange game, particularly Stewart and Linda Resnick. They ran a massive pomegranate farm, which they used to produce Pom Wonderful juice, the first attempt at branding pomegranates in the U.S., and a massively successful one at that. Instead of discord, Evans and Resnicks teamed up in 2001. They agreed that the Resnicks would aggressively advertise and market the tiny oranges, as they’d done with pomegranates, while Evans would pack, sell, and distribute them.

In 2004, “Cuties” debuted in stores (at least in the Western U.S.; they hit East Coast stores in 2011). Evans built a $64 million plant to sort, clean, and pack Cuties. The Resnicks have spent as much as $20 million a year advertising them, directing campaigns at children with slogans like “Kids love Cuties, because Cuties are made for kids.” The campaign worked—the lack of seeds means no choking hazard, they fit in the palm of a child’s hand, and, like baby carrots, they’re perceived as an easy way to get kids to eat their produce.

Today, Cuties, or clementines, are the most profitable citrus food in America. Hundreds of farmers have ripped out their orange, lemon, and grapefruit groves and replaced them with Cutie farms, growing them with permission. Evans’ Cutie farm is the largest clementine plantation in the world.

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