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Pitaya Foods Near Top of Frozen Fruit Category

FOOD PRODUCTS: San Diego Company World’s Largest Frozen Dragon Fruit Importer

SAN DIEGO – A company that began by selling to local juice bars out of a La Jolla garage has grown into a significant player in the frozen fruit market.

Pitaya Foods products still can be found in juice bars, but 14 years after its launch it also can be found nationwide at Costco and Walmart and major outlets like Wegmans on the East Coast and Publix in Florida. CEO and co-founder Chuck Casano said the company is growing 20% to 30% annually and is the No. 2 brand in the country for frozen fruit in the 12-14 ounce category.

Chuck Casano
CEO
Pitaya Foods

Casano said its products are in 20,000 distribution sites, including 15,000 retail outlets and 5,000 food service stores such as juice bars and cafes.

In its first seven years, Pitaya Foods sold only frozen red dragon fruit, but after reaching about 7,000 different points of distribution about six years ago, Casano said it was time to offer more.

“We were like, ‘We don’t need more customers,” he recalled. “We need more things to sell them.”

Casano said the frozen fruit category was very fragmented, with one company the king of acai, another the king of jackfruit and another the king of coconut.

“We were the king of dragon fruit, and we thought, ‘What if we can source all of this under one brand?’” he said.

The company still is king of dragon fruit as the largest importer of it in frozen form in the world, but it also sells frozen chunks of jackfruit, acai berry, avocado, watermelon and coconut. It has expanded its product line to sell smoothie bowls and sorbet, and Casano said Pitaya Foods will introduce a children’s smoothie pop that will be available in about 2,000 Walmarts this September.

New York to Nicaragua

This was not always Casano’s plan. After earning an MBA that included two years of study in Spanish, Casano was in New York and about to start a career in investment banking.
“I was supposed to start at Bear Stearns the week they collapsed,” he said. It was 2008, and a global financial crisis was making it impossible to find work in his field.

“That was my kind of sign I wasn’t meant to be an investment banker,” he said.

A friend who had earned her MBA with him was working for a nonprofit in Nicaragua, helping alleviate some poverty there through growth in the private sector.

Casano learned about the nonprofit’s work in addressing poverty in the region by teaming small businesses with MBAs at Columbia University and New York University, helping to create jobs and spurring the economy.

“It turned out that everything exciting was in agriculture,” Casano said. “I spent the year meeting with farmers. I grew up in the suburbs, so this was all completely foreign to me, and I really fell in love with it.”

He also learned that Nicaragua was the second poorest country in the western hemisphere, and many farmers couldn’t even afford pesticides. He saw the country as a huge, untapped resource of organic raw material. He also noticed he was in the best shape of life by eating fresh fruits and vegetables every day.

“I came back to New York, and acai was exploding and coconut water was exploding, and I was like, ‘Where’s my red dragon fruit smoothie that I was having every day in Nicaragua?’”

The problem was that fruit was largely consumed only in Nicaragua, so the market was only as big as the country’s population of 6 million people.

“My thought was, if I can open up the U.S. market, I can sell more of this fruit for these guys, increase their income, help them provide better for their families,” he said. “And so that’s what we’ve been doing for the past 14 years now.”

Bite into Bright

Hearing that his partner in Nicaragua said he had connection to a distributor on the West Coast, Casano and his girlfriend – now wife – were off to Los Angeles. He saw the prospects of selling juice in such a crowded market were not good, so the couple went to San Diego to connect with Ben Hiddlestone, another dragon fruit fan who at the time was married to Casano’s cousin.

The two co-founded Pitaya Foods, a variation on the Nicaraguan name for dragon fruit, “pitahaya.”

“I really kind of fell in love with San Diego and realized that it’s an amazing town to cultivate community,” Casano said. “And we would just kind of foster that energy and it was way easier to connect with people in San Diego than I think it would be in LA. That’s what I think makes San Diego an incredible spot to launch a business.”

Helping Moms, Nicaragua Economy

The company this year worked with the branding company Common Good, which found its key customer to be the millennial mom who wants her children to eat healthy. That led to the company’s national campaign, Bite into Bright, and Casano said the company promotes the idea that making a healthy choice each day can change a person’s mood and make them feel better.

Casano also is proud that the company has not lost sight of its mission to help the farmers providing their produce. The company started with 10 small family-owned farms in Nicaragua, and now has helped more than 1,000 get USDA certified as organic. He said the company also has put more than $30 million into the local community in Nicaragua and has created more than 150 new jobs for single moms to process their fruit.

Pitaya Foods
OPENED: 2010
CEO: Chuck Casano
HEADQUARTERS: Pacific Beach
BUSINESS: Food products
FOUNDERS: Chuck Casano and Ben Hiddlestone
EMPLOYEES: 22
WEBSITE: https://www.pitayafoods.com
CONTACT: store@pitayafoods.com
SOCIAL IMPACT: Pitaya Foods has spearheaded the USDA Organic certification of more than 800 Pitaya farms and created over 170 new jobs for Nicaraguan single mothers.
NOTABLE: Since first selling products to local juice bars from the founders’ car, the company now has 20,000 distribution sites nationwide.

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