The woman who sold Canadians on kiwifruit

Karl Wells
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People/agriculture Chris 'Kiwi' Yli Luoma set out 20 years ago to help New Zealand growers sell their produce on a new continent

This may surprise you, but prior to 1988 few Canadians had ever heard of kiwifruit. Now we see the fuzzy, brown vine fruit in every supermarket, produce store and grocery across the nation. They've become so popular we also see them in restaurant dishes, deli salads, cocktail drinks and cookbook recipes.

However, there was a time when this amazing fruit was unseen on Canadian store shelves and Christina Yli Luoma (a Finnish name) - or Chris "Kiwi" as she humourously calls herself - knows that better than anybody.

Christina Yli Luoma.

This may surprise you, but prior to 1988 few Canadians had ever heard of kiwifruit. Now we see the fuzzy, brown vine fruit in every supermarket, produce store and grocery across the nation. They've become so popular we also see them in restaurant dishes, deli salads, cocktail drinks and cookbook recipes.

However, there was a time when this amazing fruit was unseen on Canadian store shelves and Christina Yli Luoma (a Finnish name) - or Chris "Kiwi" as she humourously calls herself - knows that better than anybody.

Yli Luoma is a fresh consultant - or someone, in other words, who has a great knowledge of fresh fruits and vegetables and how to market them. (Currently she markets Zespri kiwifruit, Jazz apples, Japanese Sun mandarin oranges, stone fruit, tomatoes and more for Vancouver's Oppenheimer Group.)

In 1988, Yli Luoma was working for a public relations firm in Toronto. New Zealand kiwifruit growers were trying to figure out how to get kiwifruit into North America. They approached the firm looking for help on the retail trade side and with consumer education.

Yli Luoma and a team developed a marketing strategy that involved talking to merchandisers across Canada, setting up in-store demos, sending out samples, developing pricing strategies and educating retail staff.

Early days

"I remember coming to Newfoundland and doing a seminar on kiwifruit, which was hilarious because I was young and nervous and I was thinking, 'What do I know about kiwifruit? Is anybody going to listen to me?' And so, you stand up there and you say, 'You slice it in half and you scoop it out.' That's been our ongoing message. You know, beginner (slice it and scoop it) intermediate (peel it, slice it, eat it) and advanced (eat it, skin and all.) To get the fuzz off you just rub it on your jeans and then you eat it like an apple. Keep it simple. Slice it in half, scoop it out and you're done. A lot of people don't like the skin, but I always say that kiwifruit is a peach with a tan."

Can you tell Yli Luoma is just as passionate today about pitching as she was in 1988? I asked her why.

"I think if you talk to anyone in this industry - the buyers, the sellers - produce gets into your blood. There's just something about dealing with something that's magic. You plant a seed and you get something. 'Oh my gosh, I got a tomato.' I think it's enthusiasm and passion and having people that will turn around and say, 'Hey, that's an interesting item, we're going to give it to our shoppers.' And I get so much just talking to consumers. They tell me what they like or what they don't like or why they've chosen something."

The success of Yli Luoma and her co-workers in pitching kiwifruit to Canadians is there for all to see. Their marketing has been particularly effective in Atlantic Canada. Newfoundlanders, Maritimers and Quebecers have fallen in love with kiwifruit, more so than any other part of Canada according to Yli Luoma.

(She also described a great divide regarding citrus. At Christmas time Atlantic Canadians prefer clementines, whereas the rest of the country favours mandarin oranges.)

One reason we like kiwifruit down here may have to do with its nutritional value. Kiwifruit, according to Yli Luoma, is a "nutritional powerhouse."

"Gram for gram, kiwifruit is much better than oranges and bananas. It has lots of dietary fibre. It even has a little bit of vitamin E, which is quite uncommon in fruits. It has magnesium and vitamin K. There was a study done about 15 years ago and they compared 27 different fruits and vegetables, and kiwifruit came out Number 1 for nutrient density. By the way, a 'serving' of kiwifruit is usually two kiwifruits."

Kiwi science

Getting fruit all the way from New Zealand so that it maintains its nutritional value is a challenge.

New Zealand growers use science to help them figure out when to ship so the product reaches our supermarkets in peak condition.

They measure the sugar level in the fruit and using that figure, as well as the number of days required for travel, a formula then tells them when to ship.

Wine makers use similar methods in determining when grapes are ready to be picked.

I voiced a concern to Yli Luoma of many consumers.

I asked for her thoughts about supermarket fruit that is flavourless - for example, the peach that tastes like cardboard.

"I think the consumer has to take that fruit back to the grocery store and say, 'This is not good enough.' You reward the store for selling bad produce when you don't return it, because they don't know. The shopper has to communicate with the stores and make sure the buyers hear about it. People buy on looks too much. Buy something that has a scar on it. The scars are just the tree branches rubbing up against it. I'm concerned about all that highly waxed stuff. I say if it lasts too long, there's something wrong."

Wise words from someone who definitely knows her produce, Chris "Kiwi" Yli Luoma.

Green Kiwifruit Salsa

(To accompany grilled salmon)

Ingredients:

5 green kiwifruit, peeled and diced

150 ml diced sweet Vidalia onion or red onion

50 ml limejuice

15 ml packed brown sugar

60 ml minced fresh chives

Method:

Place all ingredients in a bowl and stir until mixed. Serve underneath a piece of salmon or on the side.

You can also place a bowl of salsa on the table and allow your guests to serve themselves.

Karl Wells is a restaurant panellist with enRoute and judge with the Cuisine Canada/University of Guelph Culinary Book Awards. He is also co-host of the Rogers TV show "One Chef One Critic." To reach him, log on to his website: www.karlwells.com.

Organizations: Oppenheimer Group, Cuisine Canada, University of Guelph

Geographic location: New Zealand, Atlantic Canada, Vancouver Toronto North America Newfoundland

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