The Honeycrisp Effect

Capitalizing on consumer preference in fresh produce

Our team recently did a project that led to a lot of face time with Washington apple growers, and we learned a ton about their perspectives on technology, industry trends, and the future of tree crops in North America. 

But one of the most surprising insights we gained had less to do with robotic harvesting and the high price of inputs, and everything to do with an explosively popular apple that is an extraordinary pain in the butt to grow. 

Meet the Honeycrisp

If you are less than a full apple-stan, and thus not intimately familiar with the many commercially available varieties at your local supermarket, let me tell you about the Honeycrisp (or in Europe, the Honeycrunch). This blushing red variety has been around since the early 1990s, but was written off early as a dud. As late as 2018, Bloomberg called the apple “cursed,” pointing out that it “wasn’t bred to grow, store or ship well.” Washington growers in particular were so frustrated that they started to rip up recently-planted Honeycrisp orchards, sacrificing decades of orchard productivity, because losses– in the orchard, on the packing line, and in the supply chain- often amounted to more than 40% of total yield. 

Then something unexpected happened– consumers went absolutely nuts for Honeycrisp. 

Though the apples lacked high yields characteristic of other varieties, had limited resilience to disorders like bitter pit, and suffered during storage and transport, consumers were happy to pay a significant premium for what these apples were bred for– explosive crispness, unprecedented juiciness, and a wonderful balance of sweetness and acidity. 

Today, in orchards across Washington state and beyond, Honeycrisps represent one of the most reliably profitable varieties, despite the many production challenges and the extremely high rate of fruit loss. 

What consumers want – it’s complicated

The finicky and troublesome Honeycrisp got me thinking about tomatoes. If the modern supermarket tomato has taught us anything about how consumers buy fresh foods, it’s that the biggest priorities are visual aesthetic and affordability, with flavor more or less trailing behind. I’m not sure that consumers ever consciously made the choice to eschew more flavorful fresh produce for the beautiful, shippable, easy-growing, low-flavor options we have now, but I don’t see much evidence that consumers put up much resistance to the switch. 

That’s what makes the Honeycrisp example so interesting and counterintuitive. The variety represents a situation where the apple industry says to consumers, “we can give you a cheaper, beautiful, more reliable apple,” and consumers have responded with a resounding, “no– we’re happy to pay for our expensive, finicky, delicious apple.” 

So what gives? Why was deliciousness in apples such a motivator for consumers when it wasn’t for so much of the rest of the fresh produce category– and what does that tell us about the future of fresh production? 

Honeycrisp apples vs. tomatoes - who’s your customer? 

My first thought when comparing apples to, say, tomatoes, is that they serve different customers. Though tomatoes are certainly consumed fresh, they’re more often used as an ingredient. And even when eaten raw, they’re far less likely to be consumed alone– the loss of tomato flavor on, say, a McDonald’s hamburger is not nearly as noticeable as biting into a low-flavor apple. 

All those other uses for tomatoes (pasta sauces, ketchup, soups, etc.) have a big impact on the production sector. Namely, the larger priority for tomato breeders and producers has been to create a tomato for industry, rather than consumers. Food manufacturers, whether it’s a Heinz or the local pizza place, put a higher premium on quantity, consistency, and low price than intense flavor, as compared to the average consumer who needs a few tomato slices for a cookout. 

Apples are also used for processing applications, but notably, Honeycrisps are not. The cost of producing Honeycrisps is simply too high to encourage wide utilization for juicing, canning, or other uses. 

The unique demand for Honeycrisps in the fresh market has notably been a particular boon for small- and medium-sized growers who have struggled to compete in an increasingly vertically-integrated apple supply chain. That’s simply because a grower with a couple of hundred acres of Honeycrisps often has more bandwidth for babying finicky trees than a large grower with thousands of acres to manage. Honeycrisps offer meaningful returns for the extra management input, while other varieties, which offer more in the way of hardiness and yield, tend to offer slimmer margins overall.

Find your niche

In this way, Honeycrisps offer a valuable proof point for the existence of unique niches. Even in the relatively small world of Washington apple production, variety selection gives small- and mid-sized growers opportunities for advantages over bigger, often better capitalized competitors. 

Taking it one step further, even within the world of unique variety production, quirks of geography, resource access, and production preferences mean that some growers can produce, for example, organic Honeycrisps, an even higher margin product

I think there’s also more possibility than is currently being realized to offer similar, flavor-first products in other sectors. And this creates related opportunities for breeding and production technologies and practices that help growers unlock profitable niches and please customers, wherever they are on the value chain, while also solving for resilience and profitability in-orchard.

Who knows, maybe a flavor-first, consumer-targeted tomato variety might even have the potential to inspire the kind of cult following that Honeycrisps have earned.

No items found.

Want more content like this? Sign up for our weekly insights.

Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.

Key takeaways

  • Honeycrisp apples have earned a premium, despite being very hard to produce
  • Knowing who your actual customer is, is key to unlocking a niche
  • There are tradeoffs in solving for efficient production vs. consumer-facing characteristics

Get this report