Apples are awesome!
They are versatile; you can make virtually any dessert out of them. They are convenient, providing a snack for any time. They are healthy; what doctor or nutritionist would dispute the dietary fiber and vitamins they hold?
And history tells us apples are also nation builders; John Chapman established orchards in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana and Illinois, as well as parts of Ontario, Canada. These trees would provide the juice to make the hard cider enjoyed by two nations in their infancy. You may know Chapman better by his other name: Johnny Appleseed.
Applewood Fresh Growers LLC, a grower, packer, shipper and marketer of the finest Michigan apples, can trace its roots back to 1935, when Walter E. Swindeman, Sr. – a grocery wholesaler frustrated with the poor-quality apples consistently coming through his customers’ produce sections – vowed to spend his retirement growing quality apples for his customers. This singular commitment to finding a solution for the perennially “bad apple,” so to speak, planted the seed that eventually flourished into Applewood Orchards, now an affiliate company and grower partner of Applewood Fresh.
Today, more than eight decades later, the younger generations of Swindemans, including Scott Swindeman, part owner of Applewood Fresh Growers along with his brothers, proudly carry on Walter’s tradition of producing healthy, hearty, high-quality fruit.
While the apple business has undergone a complete transformation since then, the company’s values remain the same: “We believe that at our core, we are in the business of cultivating relationships, from investing in our grower partners to listening and learning from our valued customers. From maintaining top-of-the-line food safety and security standards to ensuring reliable, efficient transportation from port to port, we are dedicated to service: to this industry, to our growers and customers, and at the end of the day, to the consumers who enjoy our apples with their families. Thanks to strong grower partnerships that culminate in 11,000 acres of prime Michigan apple orchards, Applewood Fresh currently ships 21 apple varieties across the United States on a year-round basis.”
Brian Coates, Applewood Fresh’s Vice President of Sales, says the company sells to major supermarkets like Kroger, Meijer, Aldi, Trader Joe’s, Save A Lot, and any business that wants to add more health and nutrition to their shelves.
Applewood’s webpage lists twenty-one apple types that it currently sends around the country, including varieties of which some people may not have heard. The Gala is there, of course, as are Red and Golden Delicious and the Fuji, but there are also names like Jonagold, MacIntosh and Honeycrisp.
Then there are the newer brand names of apples that Applewood Fresh is just as proud to carry, like EverCrisp®, Kanzi®, KIKU®, and the SweeTango®, a hybrid of the Honeycrisp and the Minnewashta apples. This apple was just developed by the University of Minnesota in 2000 and has only been on the market for about ten years. There is also the Rave®, a Honeycrisp and MonArk hybrid. Coates says research and development of the Rave is giving consumers the chance to buy something new even earlier than they could before.
The Rave “is ready to grow in August, and it’s a really great tasting apple, which is followed right after by the SweeTango. So we’re able to offer something that only a handful of suppliers can offer at that time of year,” he said. “It’s what comes from working with everyone from farmers to scientists to marketers. We’re giving the retailers and consumers a great tasting piece of fruit when there’s not a lot around.”
For new varieties, Applewood always has several tests for taste and to find out what grows better and in which locations. It even tests the older varieties like Fuji, to perhaps give them an improved flavor profile. The goal, Coates said, is to give the consumer a superior tasting piece of fruit while expanding the business, whether it is by forming a partnership with a distributor from as far away as New Zealand or an alliance with distributors in other parts of the country. Diversification is key.
Future ventures include distributing some asparagus, but Coates said that is as far as the company would like to veer from its core business (no pun intended, he added sheepishly). It is working on a licensing deal which he cannot really talk about yet but said the company is working on some big projects that aim to be different from competitors.
He can imagine Applewood getting into some value-added products, such as juices, ciders, or candy apples that consumers traditionally look for in the fall, but for now, the company is staying the course.
Applewood Fresh is aligned with thirty-five growers around Michigan. In choosing a farm, it looks at the quality of the grower and the varieties of apples, as well the willingness to take the data and knowledge that Applewood representatives bring from the marketing side and incorporate that into the growing processes. That helps everyone in the long run.
It also helps to have different growers in different regions of the state. “Every area has a different microclimate,” Coates explained. “Let’s say one year someone gets hit with a freeze and maybe a farm one hundred miles away didn’t get hit with that freeze, it gives us a bit of different protection.”
It is not just Mother Nature that challenges Applewood and competing fruit and vegetable distributors. Politics can interfere as well. When the federal government leveled international tariffs last year, it flooded the market with apples that were originally slated to go overseas. Adding to that, Europe had a larger than usual crop, and it all meant a lot of supply in the apple market, but less demand than usual.
Applewood has stepped up its efforts to educate consumers about the different types of apples available, which is something that Antonia Mascari, Vice President of Marketing, said has been overlooked.
“We do it to ourselves. There are so many different varieties, and everyone is always chasing the next big thing for apples, and we’ve done a poor job of telling the story of the different types,” she said. “So, we’ve been surpassed by some of the competition, like grapes or oranges.”
As strange as it may sound to the average person, there is a multi-faceted competition between producers of different types of fruits. In increasing its social media efforts, Applewood hopes to show consumers that not all apples are the same, and paying just a little more may make the experience even better.
Consumers could be forgiven for thinking that there is not a lot of difference between the apple types these days, and Mascari and team hope that new brands like SweeTango and Rave will let retailers tell the story of the brand and make them want to take a chance on something new, even if it does cost a few cents per pound more.
Newer brands may “get passed up by the consumer, especially if the consumer is paying a higher price per pound and they don’t really know what they’re going to get,” Coates said. “Even though it’s going to provide a better eating experience, some just won’t spend that extra money, and they’ll go with what they know, and that’s where we’re losing traction.”
This is where Applewood Fresh’s marketing efforts kick in. It does its best to tell the story of each type’s flavor profile, what kind of crunch it has, and its best use.
Applewood even provides users with charts that show use rankings. Braeburn is perfect for snacking and pretty good for all other uses. Cortland is great for any use. Rome apples are better for baking than snacking, and those new Rave apples are excellent for snacks and make a great apple sauce too.
“Some like a sweet apple; some like a sour one, but there’s something for everyone here, and we’re so proud of that,” said Coates. “A lot goes into working with customers to market their apples at the regional level. We’re looking at better ways to merchandise as well.”
That includes partnerships through social media. Applewood joined Twitter in 2018 and has partnered with a web site called theproducemoms.com, which promotes nutrition and healthy living for young families. On both Twitter and Facebook, Applewood shares recipes and news about the apple market – such as where prices are headed – and any new varieties in development.
Some of those tempting recipes may look very different. Apple salsa looks great, or you might try apple bacon popovers for breakfast tomorrow. Apple pie in a glass is not just delicious, but convenient, and the apple and pumpkin spice smoothie makes a great fall treat. The variations of apple pie are mind-boggling.
As are the health benefits. Consuming apples has been linked to a lower risk of heart disease and a lower risk of diabetes according to the US National Institutes of Health. Apples are rich in antioxidants, meaning they may help protect your lungs from oxidative damage. Some substances in apples may also help fight cancer. And if you are on a diet, apples are higher in are high in fiber and water. Their vitamin C content can even help you fight a cold or flu.
Your mom was right. Apples are awesome!