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    C-Stores Going Bananas

    Retailers find sales of individual bananas very appealing.

    PRUNEDALE, Calif. -- The bananas sell for 69 cents a piece, right up there next to the lighters, the chocolate-covered cherries and countless candy bars at the Valero gas station on San Miguel Canyon Rd. in Prunedale, Calif.

    You can pick up a few while you're filling your tank, getting your cup of coffee in the morning or even buying disposable razors.

    According to a report in the Santa Cruz (Calif.) Sentinel, bananas are making a killing in somewhat of a surreal scene inside this gas station turned convenience store/de facto produce stand.

    "At first people laughed," Daryl Chang, the store's manager, told the newspaper. "Now all the bananas are gone, and I keep having to order more."

    Since Chang began selling the Chiquita bananas a month ago, customers have been peeling through them at a rapid rate, buying as many as 44 a week.

    And the potassium keeps piling up along with the bottom lines of the seller, the packer, the distributor and the grower.

    It's just the very beginning of a campaign launched last month by Chiquita International Brand Inc. to sell individual bananas at 3,000 convenience stores across the country, tapping into a market where the sight of a fruit isn't exactly commonplace.

    "Sometimes people just don't have the time to go to the grocery store in the middle of the day, so we're bringing the bananas to them," said Mike Mitchell, spokesman for Chiquita in Cincinnati. "People have told us through our research that they would buy more bananas if they were more readily available, and we're doing just that: trying to make them more available."

    A few places where they are now being sold in the United States are "the Shell, the Conoco and the Circle K," he told the newspaper.

    Bill Ringe, president of Agri-Culture, an educational organization in Santa Cruz and Monterey counties, said he thought Chiquita's foray into convenience store circles was a positive one.

    "If a person decides to buy one banana rather than one candy bar, then it's good for the agricultural industry," Ringe said. "We'd have a healthier and leaner society if people started snacking on fruits or vegetables.”

    At Watsonville Coast Produce, the largest wholesaler of fruits and vegetables between San Francisco and Los Angeles, nobody's losing sleep over whether the Chiquita bananas will cut into their business.

    "Right now, the bananas are doing well because all the rain hurt other harvests and slowed down other crops," said Gary Manfre, one of the owners. "The peak season for bananas is coming up in June in Central and South America, so you're going to see more and more of them."

    The banana distributor is South San Francisco-based Core Mark International, a major supplier to the convenience store industry. Core-Mark reports some of the larger stores and gas stations are selling as many as 60 a day in California.

    "So far it's landing well," Milton Draper, director of investor solutions for Core-Mark, told the Sentinel. "People are seeing value in eating bananas as a healthy alternative. One customer sold 23 cases in two weeks. That's 500 fingers. That's what we call them: fingers."

    The presence of fruit inside convenience stores is not entirely new, but attempts are usually based upon customer request and often fleeting.

    But in the case of Chiquita, never before has such a large endeavor been launched, according to Mitchell. Usually, the decision to sell fruit and vegetables is left up to the owners of the franchises or even the store managers.

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