How millennials are reviving the ‘underdog fruit’

Sunsweet prunes in Yuba City, Calif., where millions of plums are processed into prunes.
Sunsweet prunes in Yuba City, Calif., where millions of plums are processed into prunes. TNS

A lot can happen in the prune business over 100 years.

You can lose your biggest export market in the run-up to World War II, yet rally in the postwar era to see almost half of your product shipped abroad.

Your prunes can seem lost amid California’s massive agriculture industry, but a 21st-century surge boosts annual sales to about $325 million.

You watch your product go from being perceived as a staple for senior citizens to an emerging go-to snack for health-conscious millennials.

That’s only part of the story of Sunsweet Growers, marking its centennial this year in Yuba City, where its headquarters includes 1.2 million square feet under roof — the largest plum-processing center on the planet, employing more than 700 people. The nearly 300-grower entity also touts itself as the largest dried-fruit cooperative in the world.

“I think for most of us, it’s the underdog fruit,” said Dane Lance, Sunsweet’s president and CEO. “It’s something that’s absolutely natural, preservative free, … and the healthy attributes are known in a time frame where people are looking at ways to manage their health.”

Lance is quick to say that prunes, and especially Sunsweet’s popular prune juice brand, were long regarded as products for older consumers. Much of that was linked to prunes’ high fiber content, making them a natural laxative.

That also provided material for 1960s to ’70s-era comedians, including Johnny Carson. Among the multiple prune juice jokes Carson made as his on-air character Carnac the Magnificent: “What do you call a drink made with un-cola and prune juice?” “Unleash.”

Things have changed. Lance said Sunsweet’s market studies show that “we’re getting much more traction” in the 15-to-25 age group, and “Sunsweet Ones,” individually wrapped pitted prunes, are extremely popular in the 25-to-35 age group. Young consumers like prunes’ portability, fat-free content and low calorie count of 100 per serving.

However, Sunsweet also touts good news for older consumers: Studies have cited prunes’ contribution to bone health, a byproduct of potassium, magnesium and vitamin K in the dried-plum product.

Today, Sunsweet’s numbers are eye-popping: producing 40,000 cases of fruit and juice daily and processing 60,000 tons of prunes a year, accounting for 25 percent of the global market. Forty percent of the product is exported aboard.

In 2001, Sunsweet growers were getting about $700 a ton for their crop. Today, they’re getting about $2,500 a ton.

“It was an incredible experience, but the credit really goes to the growers,” Thiara said. “And yes, it was work, but looking back, it was also a lot of fun.”