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PHOENIX (AP) — With its bulky size, the watermelon is often reserved for big family meals and large picnics.

But that doesn't have to be the case anymore.

Two companies have recently unveiled a watermelon the size of a cantaloupe that they hope will appeal to single people and couples.

"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."

The perfectly round petite watermelons weigh about 6 pounds. They made their debut last year and are now available at select retailers nationwide.

The small watermelon was a long time coming.

It took roughly 10 years for food scientists to breed the diminutive watermelons 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.

After the seeds were developed, farmers grew the fruit in hot climates ideal for watermelons, including in Yuma, Ariz., and on several farms in California.

The Perishables Group, a company that markets a rival small watermelon called the "PureHeart," plans to expand to Florida and South Carolina as demand increases, said company President Bruce Axtman. The melon marketed by the Perishables Group was developed by a Swiss firm, Syngenta Seeds.

Besides being a new product, the petite watermelon also 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 Syngenta — 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," Axtman said. "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."

The petite watermelons have received a lot of positive feedback since their debut last year, according to both companies.

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."

Production for the PureHearts has reached up to 200,000 melons a week this summer. The PureHeart, which retails for about $3.99 each, is considered a premium item compared to regular watermelons, which weigh up to 30 pounds and cost between $2.99 and $6.99.

Copyright © 2003 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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