Published July 20. 2014 4:00AM Updated July 21. 2014 12:48PM
San Antonio - To hear Emiliano Escobedo tell it, the avocado industry knew it had scored with the American consumer when guacamole became a mainstay for watching the Super Bowl.
It also caught on for college basketball's March Madness - and Memorial Day, the Fourth of July and Labor Day.
"I always say avocado people are party people," said Escobedo, executive director of the Irvine, California-based Hass Avocado Board. "You can't go to a party and not have guacamole."
But the avocado story isn't just about guacamole.
Not long ago, East Coast and Midwest shoppers, curious about avocados, found only flavorless, hard-as-baseball fruit that, when sliced, didn't look or smell anything like what they'd tried at a Mexican restaurant.
These days, the fruit can be found ripe throughout the country, year-round.
It's a condiment for sandwiches at Subway and part of the Santa Fe Breakfast Skillet at Denny's. It's a burger topper, salad ingredient, and touch of flavor and color in a sushi roll.
Avocado consumption in the U.S. has skyrocketed, Escobedo said, growing about 1,200 percent since the start of the millennium 14 years ago. Last year, more than 3.3 billion avocados were consumed in the United States, which works out to about 10 per person.
USDA statistics show 38,676 metric tons of avocados were imported from Mexico in 2004, for a value of $59.9 million.
In only the first five months of this year, 258,430 metric tons came in from Mexico, for a value of $567.8 million.
"It keeps on growing and growing at double-digit growth," Escobedo said. "The growth in the demand in the United States has been consistent."
One of the key reasons for the soaring popularity was the 2005 end of restricting imports from Mexico, something growers in California - by far the largest U.S. region for avocado production - feared. Previously, Mexican avocados were only allowed in some states on the East Coast. That changed once Mexican growers were able to demonstrate that their product could be exported with no threat of spreading pests to U.S. groves.
With availability came affordability for inland U.S. consumers, who were getting more exposure to Mexican food because of the nation's growing Latino population.
As avocado sales grew, so did the budget for advertising, thanks to a government-mandated program that assesses producers a 2.5 cents per-pound fee for marketing.
The industry also has poured funding into research on the nutritional benefits of the fruit, and has touted it as nutrient-dense, with more than 20 vitamins and minerals.
"There's been a change in perception," Escobedo said. "Even 10 years ago, a lot of consumers thought avocados were fattening. That's changing. . . (The message has been) that it's a 'good fat.' And a lot of that has been the result of our work."
California's avocado industry started in the early 20th century, but took off when a postman named Rudolph Hass grafted the variety that's now the worldwide standard, and grown in Mexico, Peru, Chile and California.
In the early 1980s, Gil Henry developed a forced-air ripening system.
As soon as the market opened to Mexican avocados, Henry took his system to what's now an approximately 20,000-square-foot facility in San Antonio's produce terminal, making it a distribution hub for avocados coming across the border at Laredo.