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30 Dates Has September ...

Whether Harry & David introduced kiwi fruit to the United States may remain a subject of debate.

But when kiwi — or any other fruit — is furnished in monthly installments, it's clear the Medford company has a proprietary product.

Brothers Harry and David Holmes trademarked the phrase "Fruit-of-the-Month Club" in 1940, three years after creating the program to sell their fruit as gifts year-round, not just for the holidays.

The club also was intended to foster Harry & David's relationship with customers, "reminding" them of the brand every month, said spokesman Bill Ihle.

"The business was highly seasonal at that point," Ihle said. "A lot of the things that we take for granted ... didn't exist then."

Plums in February, nectarines in March and pears in April: Fruit eaten fresh and ripe when Rogue Valley orchards have yet to blossom is a hallmark of the modern-day Fruit-of-the-Month Club.

The concept didn't exist when John Roberts joined Harry & David in 1969 as the food processing manager. By the time Roberts, now 67, controlled the company's fruit buying in 1985, the company was importing fruit regularly from the Southern Hemisphere.

"It was a treat to get Comice pears in June or July," said Roberts, who retired from Harry & David in 2008 and lives in Jacksonville.

The company looked largely to Chile as prime territory for establishing acreage of its famed Comice pears, Roberts said. The South American country also grew copious quantities of top-quality plums, peaches, nectarines, cherries and grapes, he added.

Because stone fruit is so perishable, Roberts said, Harry & David started shipping by air from the Southern Hemisphere to Miami, where the products were packed. The practice cost Harry & David about $200,000 for each plane loaded with fruit that made the 10-hour trip, he added.

"It's just very inefficient to fly fruit," he said.

Yet the company continued to develop orchards south of the equator, purchasing New Zealand pears in April, along with the country's namesake kiwis and its unique apple varieties, such as Jazz. Neighboring Australia also grows "great" apples, particularly near the cities of Perth and Melbourne, Roberts said.

"Those are what people really want," he said. "We used to get Valentine's Day cherries out of Tasmania."

The exotic didn't end there as Harry & David invested in South African oranges and baby pineapples. Brazil supplied a plethora of papayas. Roberts' world travels also revealed the vast, mostly uncharted territory of tropical fruits.

"The tropical fruits are the last frontier," he said. "We'd see things and bring 'em back."

Some of those, such as apple bananas from Hawaii, became beloved offerings. Some, like South America's cherimoya — a knobby-skinned fruit once favored by the Incas — starred in the Fruit-of-the-Month Club to mixed reviews. Still others, including Mexico's mamey sapote — a marriage of sweet-potato and maraschino-cherry flavors — never got the chance, which Roberts said he regrets.

Fruits that didn't make the club's cut still went through Harry & David's procedures for quarantining, heat-treating and even irradiating tropical produce while the company expended considerable effort to acquaint customers with unfamiliar fruits.

"You just don't jump in and go, 'Here's your lychees,'" Roberts said. "But instant gratification was what they wanted."

These days, the Fruit-of-the-Month Club still deals in instant gratification — at least when mere days to receive mail-order fruit are measured against the months before it usually appears in grocery stores. Although exotic produce has become more common in supermarkets, Harry & David's quality still sets its fruit apart, Roberts said, adding that the company supplied between 120,000 and 150,000 monthly gifts near the end of his tenure.

Although more customers started trading the club's "light" version and its half-size portion for the original, the program remains one of Harry & David's key products, Roberts said. Ihle declined to discuss sales figures or revenue for Fruit-of-the-Month but said that in its various sizes, durations and combinations, it spans all demographics, from parents purchasing it for college-bound children so they can eat well, to those children later bestowing it on elderly parents for the same reason.

Reach reporter Sarah Lemon at 776-4487, or e-mail slemon@mailtribune.com.

30 Dates Has September ...