Watermelons Get Downsized

A "PureHeart" petite watermelon is shown next to common refrigerated groceries in this undated handout photo. Two companies have recently unveiled the watermelons, the size of a cantaloupe, that they hope will appeal to single people and couples
With its bulky size, the watermelon is usually reserved for big family meals and large picnics. But that could be changing, with two companies unveiling a downsized version aimed at people who might hesitate to buy the standard variety.

"It's the perfect melon for today's smaller families. Otherwise, they'd eat half of it (a regular watermelon) and throw away the other half," said Gary Koppenjan, spokesman for Seminis Seeds, an Oxnard, Calif.-based company that developed the "Bambino," one version of the petite melon.

"We chose a size that was easy to handle, an individual melon that can feed one or two people."

At about 6 pounds, the petite watermelons are roughly the size of a cantaloupe. Regular watermelons run about 15 to 25 pounds for the seedless variety and up to 30 pounds for those with seeds.

The smaller watermelon was a long time coming, and represents a new direction in the way produce companies develop fruits and vegetables.

Instead of growing a unique breed and then deciding how to advertise it, Seminis and Switzerland-based Syngenta Seeds — the world's top commercial seed producers — reversed the process.

They each collaborated with retailers, marketers and distributors and began with an idea they believed would draw widespread interest. They followed up with extensive polls and market research.

"We start with the consumer," said Bruce Axtman, president of the Perishables Group, which markets Syngenta's melon. "What do they want? Do they want better taste, or in this case, a smaller size? We think by doing this, we bring exciting new things to consumers."

It took roughly 10 years for food scientists to breed the melons, through a selective process that called for repeatedly growing melons that possessed the desired qualities — small size, deep red flesh, no seeds — without using genetic engineering.

Both melons sell for $3.99 each, making them a premium item compared to regular watermelons, which cost between $2.99 and $6.99. They debuted last year and are available nationwide.

Production of the Syngenta's "PureHearts" reached up to 200,000 melons a week this summer. Seminis would not reveal production numbers for the Bambino.

At a Safeway supermarket in Phoenix, 72 PureHeart watermelons sold out in about two days, said Israel Odeh, a Safeway employee.

"Not a lot of people have seen it," said Odeh, who's had customers ask him about the watermelons.

Dawn Ligidakis recently bought two PureHeart watermelons at Safeway.

"My 3-year-old really wanted it," Ligidakis said. "The produce guy cut it open in the store, and it was really sweet and it was really good."

Axtman estimated that the PureHearts make up about 2 percent of all watermelon in its first year of commercial production.

He hopes the percentage will jump in the next five years and follow the path of other popular products in the produce aisle, such as the bagged salad.

"It's always very exciting when you can give consumers another choice," said Wendy McManus, director of marketing for the National Watermelon Promotion Board. "When we reach a point when a consumer is deciding what kind of watermelon to buy, other than 'Will I buy it or not?,' it's a great thing."

That was the case in the late 1980s, when seedless watermelons were introduced. Now they make up about two-thirds of all watermelons grown in the United States.