Justin Parnagian, CEO of Fowler Packing, holds the Peelz mandarins his company grows and packs. The company had been packing mandarins under the Halo brand, but now they’re doing so under the Peelz brand. Photo contributed
Written by David Castellon
Back in the mid 1990s, Fowler Packing was one of the first South Valley growers to plant groves of mandarins.
Within a few years, it partnered with two other growers, Sun Pacific and Wonderful Brands’ Paramount Citrus, putting out in 2001 bags of mandarins that hit grocery produce shelves under the brand name “Cuties,” complete with a logo of a smiling mandarin on the labels.
If you’ve been a parent since then who has packed your children’s lunches, chances are you know what a success Cuties have been, as have another brand of mandarins in a bag, Halos.
Fowler Packing has been a big part of both successes, having grown, packed and shipped bags of tangerine-sized mandarins originally under the Cuties label and later with Wonderful under the Halos brand name.
But that changed earlier this year when Fowler Packing broke ties with Wonderful, for undisclosed reasons.
But Fowler Packing, south of Fresno, is the third largest producer of mandarins in the country and had no plans to abandon that lucrative market, said Justin Parnagian, CEO of Fowler Packing and grandson of founder Sam Parnagian.
So over part of the summer, the company developed a new brand name for its mandarins — Peelz — along with new packaging.
They also contacted the retailers that had been buying their Halos fruit, contracting with them to instead buy Peelz, the first of which began shipping on Oct. 29.
Parnagian estimates they will ship 33 million five-pound boxes of Peelz this season, which usually runs through May of the following year. That’s about three million more boxes than in the prior year, when his company produced fruit under the Halo brand.
But the increase isn’t due to greater sales expectations for Peelz, but rather his mandarin trees are expected to be more productive this season than last.
Parnagian said last week that in terms of retailers, he hasn’t lost any stores due to the change, though he didn’t yet have initial store sales figures on Peelz. But he seemed confident Peelz would find fans.
A big part of that confidence stems from the success of Cuties and Halos. Fowler Packing first started planting mandarins — which originated in China — in Fresno County in 1996, as did other growers in Kern County. They figured out quickly they were on to something big.
“We identified them as almost the perfect snack,” seedless, sweet, juicy and portable, Parnagian recounted.
But what really made the mandarins stand out was that unlike navels, Valencias and many other citrus varieties, they’re easy to peel.
“There is a portability in eating it. You don’t need a knife. You can just use your hands,” something children could do without the need for grown-up help.
Parnagian noted that adults also liked the mandarins because they can easily be peeled at desks and worksites, and the consumers don’t have to contend with seeds.
Even with a new name, “At the end of the day, it’s the same kind of fruit you got out of Cuties, out of Halos,” Parnagian said.
One thing that is different is how Peelz are being marketed compared to Halos and Cuties, both of which had campaigns geared toward children, complete with cartoon logos of smiling mandarins, much like breakfast cereals and other snack foods.
Parnagian said “Cuties” was a fantastic name that has become so engrained among children that they often ask for Cuties or Halos by name, even if they’re asking for non-branded mandarins, in the same way many people refer to just about any brand of tissue as “Kleenex.”
The three producers initially controlled about 95 percent of the marketplace.
“It was lightning in a bottle,” Parnagian said.
Then the three producers broke ties in 2013, with Sun Pacific buying the Cuties name for its mandarins and Wonderful and Fowler Packing producing a separate line under the Halos brand.
In recent months, “We saw it was time to part ways,” was all Parnagian would say of the split with Wonderful in July.
“Within a couple of weeks, we came up with a brand name.”
In its marketing, Peelz isn’t focusing on children, but rather on the adults who buy fruit for their families or themselves, so there is no smiling cartoon mandarin on the bags, though there is a smile on the bag.
As for the reason for the marketing change, “We haven’t seen consumption grow among millennials and older generations. So we want the labels and our advertising and our messaging to speak across all generations,” Parnagian said.
“I think we want a broader reach,” he added. “We want to appeal across the [age] spectrum.”
As such, the company is developing a web page and Instagram account for Peelz to promote how adults also can enjoy mandarins.
Now Fowler Packing is waiting to see if lightning in a bottle will strike again.