AT ROUSES, WHEN LOCAL PRODUCE ISN’T IN SEASON, THE BEST FROM AROUND THE WORLD ARE BROUGHT TO MARKET
From salad dressing to seafood, lighter fluid to lettuce, everyone already knows that Rouses Markets means the best local goods in one place. When it comes to produce, however, not every item is always in season locally. This means that when tomatoes aren’t growing in Louisiana, Rouses has to go out and find the best tomatoes being grown somewhere else in the country — or even the world. You might not realize it, but when you walk into a Rouses down the road, you are also getting your passport stamped in New Zealand, Italy, Chile, Argentina, and elsewhere.
“Whenever it’s not in season here, it’s in season somewhere else,” says Rob Ybarra, the director of produce for Rouses Markets. First and foremost, he says, Rouses always buys local wherever possible. When something goes out of season here, the company casts its net widely, looking not only for the most delicious item grown elsewhere, but also for those most safely and responsibly grown.
A farm’s sustainability and ecology practices are paramount for the produce team when choosing any grower. “Everybody can grow tomatoes,” he says, using one example. “It’s a science. But you have to look at food safety, and whether the growers are doing their due diligence in that regard.”
One reason the locally sourced produce is so great is that many of the Rouses suppliers have been vetted by state and local universities. “How are they growing? What are their growing practices? Are their growing practices safe?” says Ybarra, rattling off a few essential items on the checklist. “There are different ways to measure that, and different organizations that will grade them from a safety standpoint, and from a U.S. sanitation standpoint. And when growers meet the standard, they receive their seal of approval. So that’s what we look for.”
Rouses does the same for the farms it does business with elsewhere in the world, as well. “They have to have meet certain criteria that speaks all about food safety first before we even consider them.”
The produce team at Rouses Markets even encourages suppliers to begin including QR code stickers on their products so that Rouses guests can see where and how the fruits and vegetables were grown.
After the safety standard is met and exceeded, the Rouses produce team gets going on flavor and variety. Different times of year mean different flavors for the local palate. Right now, grapefruits are coming from the Southern Hemisphere. “They will blow your mind,” says Ybarra. “Great tasting, nice sugar level on them, and the skin is thinner, not thicker.” Grapefruit from California has a much thicker rind.
“One of the best tasting grapefruits, in my opinion, are the ones from Mexico.” He says the Rio Grande Valley in Texas has great grapefruits, but farmers there are still recovering from last year’s severe freeze.
The local Rouses area had a short satsuma season, and as that season has ended, Florida’s satsuma season has begun. The team has been meeting with Florida growers, and the fruit, says Ybarra, is just tasting fantastic. “Our main supplier for citrus has been around for close to a century, which is Sunkist. They handle our domestic import season. And so we formed a really good partnership with them. And they provide our mainstays like the navel oranges, like clementines, like mandarins.”
He adds that the team is also starting to source fruit from Florida and Alabama that they are really excited about as well.
It’s not just citrus. Right now, he says, apples are also having a moment.
“Fall is my favorite season because it means apples,” says Ybarra. “That means apples from Washington, which are the first in season. They have tremendous taste, and are some of the best-tasting apples you can buy right now.” The east coast isn’t to be ignored, however. “I just had some Macintosh apples last week from New York that were out of this world.”
He compares apples to ice cream. “If you look at how many varieties — how many new flavor profiles — of apples there are, you’re looking at probably bit more than thirty varieties, thirty flavors. It’s unbelievable!” When choosing which to stock, the Rouses team looks at something called the “Brix level,” which measures the sweetness, the tartness, the overall balance of the apple, just as wine drinkers might do the same for a glass of pinot noir.
When you are browsing the apple display at Rouses, quality doesn’t stop at America’s border. You might not realize that the fruit you are holding is a world traveler.
“When America’s Apple season is over, this summer the apples we carry will come from Chile and Argentina and New Zealand,” he says. “Those are the three main countries that we source apples from.”
When it is winter in the Earth’s Southern Hemisphere, it is summer in the North. Likewise, spring in the North means fall in the South, and vice versa. How does Rob Ybarra and the Rouses team know where, say, the best apples are to be found in the Southern Hemisphere? And not just apples, but the best apples — because those are the only ones Rouses stocks.
The answer, he says, is experience.
Rob knows produce from the Gulf South and worldwide because he has been doing this for forty years and counting.
“I’ve tasted all kinds of apples, and all types of alternatives for the winter, the summer, in the northern hemisphere and south,” he explains. “To use apples as an example, I have tasted apples from just about everywhere — and I’ll tell you which orchards in the United States grow the best-tasting apples from New York, from Oregon, from Washington.” He knows this because he and the team actually go out and taste them. Rouses keeps tasting and inspection teams ever on the move, traveling to states and countries and profiling the quality of produce on offer. They measure the Brix, a method of determining how much sugar a food or drink contains, of the fruits from farms — and not only the apples. It could be strawberries, cantaloupes, watermelon — you name it.
As for his favorite apple, he prefers Honey Crisp. But he is always keeping an eye on the thriving apple industry. “There are some apples that are coming up in popularity, including Envy apples and Cosmic Crisp apples. “What I hear from producers is that Jazz apples and Pizzazz apples this year are going to be some of the best-tasting apples that we that we’re ever going to have.”
He is particularly excited that the Jazz apple is having a great year, because, he says, “What better than Jazz apples for our own customers in New Orleans in Louisiana with Mardi Gras coming? I think it’s going to be a great celebration. We’re going to celebrate Jazz apples with Mardi Gras season, and I am so excited about that.”
Apples and other produce travel here on ships, barges, planes, trains, and automobiles. One fruit that flies first class, says Rob, is the golden dragon fruit from Ecuador. “I’ll tell you that if you’ve never had a golden dragon fruit from Ecuador — look, I don’t think I’ve ever tasted a better fruit than that. It is off the charts, and now is the time for them.” The purple dragon fruit, he says, is popular with chefs because of how beautiful they are on the plate. But flavorwise, he says it’s gold all the way.
“It is also probably the healthiest fruit you are ever going to taste and eat and enjoy,” he says, describing them as a cross between a kiwi and the greatest strawberry you’ve ever had. “When I head to the store later on, if I see golden dragon fruit, I’m going to grab some. I can’t stop eating those things!”
Tomatoes are another produce item really growing in popularity. “We source tomatoes from greenhouse growers in the United States, Canada and Mexico. Again, it’s about the best seasonal product.” Greenhouses move production as the seasons change. In the winter season, they come from the Southern Hemisphere.
“It’s the beefsteak, it’s the Roma tomatoes, it’s the grape tomatoes — those are the tomatoes that that are in season,” he says. “When Florida comes in season we get Florida tomatoes. When we have local tomatoes, we’re definitely all over that, because our local tomatoes are the Creole tomatoes. That’s an unbelievable tasting tomato.” Rouses customers can’t get enough of those locally grown Creole tomatoes.
There are some up-and-coming varietals that are growing in popularity, too.
“Tomatoes are becoming like apples — they’re getting sweeter and sweeter,” he explains. “There’s one called a Cloud Nine tomato that you have to actually try just to know how tasty it is. The ones we carry have won awards.” Orange and yellow tomatoes are also a favorite for shoppers.
“If you just can’t eat tomatoes because of the acid, the orange and yellow ones are actually lower in acid and much easier to eat because of it. But I’ll tell you what: Tomatoes have really been, to me, one of the surprise fan favorite categories in recent years, because a lot more people are eating them for health reasons,” he says.
It’s not just the produce that makes him happy to go to work each day. It’s also the farmers who grow it.
“When you hear from the grower, the actual farmer of the fruit, and you hear in their voice how excited they are — that’s what gets me excited. Just hearing them and their voice and their enthusiasm and pride in their product: It just makes me happy. It makes me happy because I know that our loyal customers are going to be happy, and everybody’s going to have a good eating experience.”
That, he says, is a win-win. “Our grower is going to be able to partake in a good sale, we’re going have a good sale for our customers, and then our customers are going to eat something that’s really good, and really good for them. It’s a win all the way around.”