If you’ve been within six miles of a Trader Joe’s in the past month, you’ve probably felt, deep in your soul, that something was amiss—that the balance of yin and yang is off, that there’s a disturbance in the Force. You walk through the doors into air conditioned bliss, past the $3.99 bouquets, past the organic bananas, past the edamame hummus, and that’s when you realize that you’re completely surrounded by mango products.
“The secret to your Summer 2016 happiness lies not in fame, fortune, or political power, but in mango,” writes some anonymous copywriter in Trader Joe’s long-winded catalogue of witty self-promotion, the Fearless Flyer. “We think you’ll agree that our Mango-Madness is more than just madcap; it’s mouthwateringly delicious.”
I’ll get to the mouthwateringly delicious part later, but first let’s establish that, yes, it is indeed madcap. Think of this move as the mango version of rule 34—if it exists, Trader Joe’s is selling a mango flavored version of it. Pizza—they’ve got Mango Strawberry Flatbread. Popcorn—check. Shaving cream—yes, they went that far. Actually, you know what? Let’s run through the full list of every mango product they have on their shelves, just for perspective.
- Mango Macarons
- Mango & Cream Ice Cream
- Mango & Cream Bars
- Mini Mango Pies
- “This Mango Walks Into A Bar…” cereal bars
- Sweet & Spicy Mango Dressing
- Orange Peach Mango Juice
- ¡Mango! ¡Mango! Fruit & Yogurt Gummies
- Mango Ginger Seed Crisps
- Mango Taffy
- Mango Strawberry Flatbread
- Mango Coconut Pudding
- Mango & Strawberry Flatbread
- Mango Mango Mochi
- Salad Palette with Mango
- Mango Body Butter
- Honey Mango Shave Cream (told you)
- Tropical Mango Salad Kit
- Mango O’s
- Mango Babka
- Mango Black Tea
- Mango Flavored Green Tea
- Mango Tangerine Candle
- Mango Joe-Joe’s
- Mango Coconut Flavored Caramel Corn
- Mango Lemonade
- Mango Galette (which is basically a pie)
- Mango Bar Bites
- Mango Waffles
- Just Mango Slices (these are crazy good)
- “Soft and Juicy Mango” dried mango slices
- Chile Spiced Mango slices
- Freeze Dried Mango
- Mango Nectar
- Mango Passion Granola Cereal
- Mango licorice
- Mango ginger chews
- Mango Salsa
- Mango Chili Chicken
- Grilled Jerk chicken thigh Skewers with Mango Chutney
- Mango Passionfruit juice
- Ballast Point Mango Even Keel beer
- KBC Mango Pale Ale
- Mango Margarita Mixer
- Mango Sorbet Bon Bons
- Mango Jicama Slaw
- Oh, and actual mangos
For those keeping score at home, that’s an insane amount of mango. And honestly, I could totally have overlooked something there because a lot of that stuff isn’t even advertised in the Fearless Flyer or on their website. It’s overwhelming, a Cambrian Explosion of mango-flavored products that’s only rivaled by one other seasonally-marketed gustatory blowout—pumpkin spice.
“This is the first time we’ve done this with mango,” said crew member Vanessa, as I was purchasing 9,000 calories worth of mango products (for research). “I guess it’s because mango is, like, you know, what you eat in the summer. You know, like, how in Thanksgiving, there’s pumpkin.”
There it is. Trader Joe’s is trying to manufacture seasonal demand for what they believe is a summer-friendly flavor by flooding the market (their markets, at least) with mango. And it makes perfect sense.
Starbucks debuted the Pumpkin Spice Latte in the fall of 2003, and in the years since, that humble blend of cinnamon, nutmeg, and clove has brought in a billion dollars in revenue for the company. It wasn’t long before everyone else, Trader Joe’s included, had gone off the rails with pumpkin spice products, stoking the fires of a national craving that only increases year over year. Per an oft-cited stat that I cannot for the life of me find the original source for, restaurants’ pumpkin-spiced food offerings increased by 234% between 2008 and 2013. That’s a lot of percent.
The unfortunate news for Big Seasonal Flavor is that those sales are all confined to the autumn and winter months (though in 2014, Starbucks started PSL season in August). Summer, by and large, is a flavor-devoid swath of the calendar ripe for exploitation. And with the title of Flavor of Summer up for grabs, Trader Joe’s is putting all their chips on mango.
Why mango? Well, let’s break it down. The flavor has to be something refreshing, something cool. Watermelon is an obvious choice, except that it sucks. Lemon is too common. Pineapple is great when it’s fresh, but we all ate way too many of those limp canned pineapple rings as kids, and now it’s time to move on.
But mango is sweet, tart, and somehow hasn’t been totally bastardized by the artificially-flavored candy industry the way strawberry, cherry, and orange have (think about it, there’s no mango Jolly Ranchers, no mango Starbursts). It’s a more expensive fruit, so still feels a bit like a treat, and because it comes from the tropics, it channels summer vacation vibes. Like pumpkin, it’s more exotic than your everyday table fruit (no offense, apples and bananas), but it’s common enough to be widely loved—and mango consumption per capita is on the rise according to the USDA.
Now, when it comes to the whole mango-is-the-new-pumpkin-spice thing, the likelihood of mango attaining that level of mania seems slim. It’s been a staple of the fro-yo game from the get go and never took off as a craze. And though sales of the flavor generally increases as the summer months approach (according to a contact at the Gold Coast Ingredients flavor company, at least), it may not be versatile enough for widespread use.
As my colleague Josh—who knows things about food science—pointed out, the taste people associate with pumpkin spice has less to do with pumpkin, and more to do with spice. It’s that cinnamon/nutmeg/clove trifecta that we’re all obsessed with, and those flavors work extremely well in a range of baked goods, sweets, and even savory foods.
Mango, on the other hand, is a lot less versatile. It does well as a puree (try the Mini Mango Pies) and amazing as a juice (the Mango Lemonade is heaven) or just straight up fresh or dried. But replicating the taste we love in nonperishable snack foods is tough, be it via freeze dried mango (the Mango O’s are decent, I guess) or mango powder (the Mango Joe Joe’s elicited grimaces among my small band of taste testers, and even Vanessa the cashier admitted they weren’t great). The further you stray from fresh mango, the more risk you run of it being gross.
And the deck is stacked against summer flavors to begin with. The pumpkin and peppermint flavor seasons are underpinned by centuries of conditioning (the pilgrims actually ate pumpkin at the first Thanksgiving, per actual history, and the candy cane originated as early as 1670, per unreliable anecdote). And because the winter months bring us the most sentiment-centric holidays, the flavors we associate with them become a self-propelled nostalgia machine.
But as we saw with the bacon craze, sometimes supply generates demand. Just putting enough mango out there could create a movement. And of course, mango doesn’t have to become a phenomenon for this to be successful—it only has to turn a profit. Because Trader Joe’s is the the grocery chain equivalent of the League of Shadows and will never talk to journalists or reveal anything about their company to anyone ever, we won’t know whether this experiment is successful until early next summer. If the mango rollout happens again then, you can bet it’s here to stay. Who knows, maybe ten years from now, it will be the influx of Trader Joe’s mango products, and not Memorial Day barbecues, that officially heralds the arrival of summer.