Expanding options put squeeze on OJ

It may be the end of an all-American, breakfast-eating, mimosa-drinking era.

Orange juice is becoming passe, according to recent Nielsen data published by the Florida Department of Citrus, which noted that OJ sales -- at 36.11 million gallons sold in the month ending July 5 -- are at the lowest they’‍ve been in 15 years, the oldest data available.

In its place, various, more elaborate juices are gaining popularity, offering less-sugar and healthier options. Standard orange juice has been replaced by flavored water, cold pressed juices and even sodas. Rising costs of orange juice because of disease to fruit trees and climate changes also is a factor.

“Fifteen years ago if you said bottled water would sell better than orange juice, people would’ve laughed,” said Dan Sleep, supervisor and senior analyst for the Florida Department of Agriculture. “No one’s laughing now.”

The decline in orange juice sales is not necessarily a matter of selling a “dying product,” he said. It’s simply being eclipsed by a wide variety of products and options.

“So how do you grab the consumer’s attention and have them pick that product off the shelf?”

One of these products is natural pressed juices, which provide an abundance of vitamins and a variety of fruits and vegetables. Many of these juices don’t include oranges.

At The Pittsburgh Juice Company in Lawrenceville, juices containing oranges only recently made an appearance on the menu. That’s because oranges are not alkaline fruits -- because they’re more acidic, they lack oxygen, which targets diseases, owner and manager Naomi Homison said.

“We just focus on fruits and vegetables with a lower sugar content and that are higher in vitamins,” Ms. Homison said.

GOODLife Juices in Pittsburgh in Sharpsburg maintains the same perspective.

“We don’t recognize it as one of the nutrient-dense fruits that we’re targeting,” owner Sherry Quinn said. There’s also a stigma associated with the ubiquity of oranges, she said, which can be found in several forms and in several places.

“People are looking for variety, they’re looking for nutrient supplements and they’re trying new beverages. There’s a huge rise in raw, unpasteurized juices,” she said.

These fresh juices also have less sugar, which has precluded many from consuming Florida orange juice. 

“The sugary flavor was good when I was growing up, but I just lost the taste for it,” said Treman Smith, 23, of Oakland. Though he still buys orange juice on occasion, he prefers freshly squeezed orange juice. 

Beyond competition from other juices, the orange juice industry is also battling something even greater: nature. The state’s orange groves were trying to recover from several hurricanes that whacked the state since 2004 when they were hit with orange greening disease. It has wiped out several Florida groves and put growers out of business. The U.S. has turned to Brazil to provide orange juice. With less supply, the price of orange juice has spiked, likely deterring consumers and driving down demand.

Retail prices for the beverage hit a fresh record. In the four weeks ending July 5, prices averaged $6.42 a gallon. Ten years ago, that figure was $4.40 a gallon.

Dick Roberts, spokesman for Giant Eagle, acknowledged that orange juice sales have declined at the supermarket chain. 

“Like all retailers, Giant Eagle has been impacted by ongoing national consumer trends related to orange juice consumption,” he said. 

The increase in price, however, doesn’t faze some Pittsburgh residents. 

“I’‍m not bothered unless I buy $100 worth of orange juice, which I don‘‍t. It’‍s all relative,” Victor Yakin, 51, of North Huntingdon said. “I worry more about gas prices going up than I do about orange juice.” 

In fact, price of Florida-based orange juice is usually cheaper than local, organic orange juice. 

Last month, Scott resident Candy Link, 49, spent $42 on three quart of local, organic orange juice from the Strip District for an office party. 

“So yeah, in comparison, Tropicana is not that bad,” she said. 

Recently, the Florida Department of Citrus received more than $125 million to research and eradicate orange greening.

“We continue to be America’s favorite juice but we’re in shorter supply,” said David Steele, spokesman for the Florida Department of Citrus.

Another looming threat to the industry is the decline of the traditional “meat-in-the-morning, breakfast-consuming family,” according to Mr. Sleep. Fewer families are sitting down to eat breakfast and, traditionally, orange juice. Instead they‘‍re reaching for on-the-go options or skipping breakfast altogether.

In fact, 31 million Americans -- or 1 out of 10 people -- skip breakfast, according to a recent report by NPD Group, a leading marketing research company. Those who do eat breakfast are spending an average of just 12 minutes on the meal. 

Breakfast accounts for nearly 60 percent of the restaurant industry’s growth over the past five years, according to NPD Group. Some Starbucks, for example, are expanding breakfast options and Taco Bell recently introduced a Waffle Taco.

Still, orange juice is going strong at traditional breakfast places, such as Bob’s Diner, which has locations in Carnegie, Kennedy and other local spots.

“We’re a traditional diner and orange juice is a traditional thing. I haven’t seen any decline or decrease,” he said of the orange juice, which is sold at $1.50 for a small glass and $3 for a large glass, compared to a $1.95 cup of coffee.

Though the future of orange juice looks bleak, Mr. Sleep remains positive and confident in an inevitable resurgence of interest, still a few years away.

“We are the Citrus State. We still supply 65 percent of all citrus in the US. That’s not going to go away,” he said. “Farming is a multi generational investment. They’re not thinking about next week next month next year; they look at the next decade ... I guess they have a healthy respect for what's going on and an awareness of their future. Citrus is going to be just fine and we will be here for a long, long time.”

Kate Mishkin: kmishkin@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1352.


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