A value proposition
By Elizabeth Louise Hatt
Produce companies are helping consumers eat healthy and quickly with value-added products and snacks. Cooking dinner for a family each evening is a harder task for consumers than it once was. For a family with both parents working and after school activities for kids, finding time to eat dinner together as a family is difficult enough—without even adding meal prep into the equation. Tack onto that the desire to eat healthy meals full of fresh foods and consumers are faced with quite a conundrum. Cue the value-added and convenience produce offerings. “The value-added produce category allows consumers the option to prepare a fresh medley of produce without the hassle of slicing and dicing,” says Bob Borda, vice president of marketing for Bakersfield, Calif.-based Grimmway Farms. “Since these products remove the prep time away from the time equation, consumers are more apt to purchase fresh produce as a convenient fit to their healthy lifestyle.” Grimmway Farms targets moms specifically with its Simply Delicious microwaveable seasoned petite carrots. “It is a healthy side dish prepared in four minutes with little to no clean-up,” says Borda. “This semi-prepared meal greatly reduces the prep time of vegetables, but still provides the nutritional and flavor profiles that the time-starved consumer is looking for.” Chopped vegetables or side dishes are one of the most common packaged produce options on shelves right now—and those are being constantly innovated, say industry observers. For example, Ocean Mist Farms just upgraded its bagged Brussels sprouts with a “quick cook” format—they are halved to cook quicker. An interest in eating healthy is what drives consumers to the produce department, but it is the convenience element that gets many products into the cart over their unpackaged counterparts. Yet, according to observers, the definition of “convenience” continues to evolve, broadened to now include other eating occasions, such as snacking. “Meal time speed has always been a strong selling point, but with our potatoes being more frequently used for snacking, and as part of recipe preparation, we see more and more diversity in what our consumers are calling convenient,” says Ralph Schwartz, vice president of sales, marketing and innovations for Potandon Produce, based in Idaho Falls, Idaho. The number and frequency of snacking occasions continue to grow among consumers, say observers. Recent research suggests that snacking is on the rise and often takes the place of the traditional meal occasion. This has caused convenient snack items to evolve into something more akin to balanced meals. Officials at Taylor Farms recognize the need to market fresh, healthy snacks while being mindful that protein is a strong component to keeping customers satisfied, says Vicky St. Geme, vice president of marketing for the Salinas, Calif.-based company. She adds that many of Taylor Farms fresh fruit and fruit snacks include “heart-healthy nuts and protein-rich cheese.” Fresherized Foods, maker of Wholly Guacamole and Wholly Salsa, caters to calorie-counting snackers with its 100-calorie, portable guacamole Minis. “We know that the 100-calorie snacks in other parts of the grocery store have done really well,” says Jennifer Sawyer, marketing manager for the Saginaw, Texas-based company. “Some people use guacamole as an alternative to mayonnaise, so this is a great way to portion it out. You open it and you know exactly how much you are getting and what the calories are.” The epitome of “produce snacking,” however, is the grab-and-go segment. The eat-on-the-go packaging format has opened the door of opportunity for a wide-range of retail outlets to capitalize on produce snack sales. Fresh cut is everywhere, from Walgreens to Walmart to fast food restaurants says Tony Freytag, senior vice president of sales and marketing for Cashmere, Wash.-based Crunch Pak. Crunch Pak is active in the grab-and-go segment, making apples even more convenient than they are in their natural state, says Freytag. With produce snacks available at a variety of stores, grocers have to make an extra effort to convince consumers to stock up on snacks at their location, instead of picking something up at a competing class of trade. Supermarkets should create a destination that groups all items, and complementary items, together in a well-signed area, says Freytag. “Displays drive sales. Retailers should maintain an assortment of different sizes and adjust according to shopper demographics,” he says. “If space allocation is under sized, the category will fail to grow, despite the innovative packaging and product mixes. Even though we are in the perimeter—fresh food—our big competition is at the center store, so we have to look like, act like, think like the major package food companies,” he adds. Borda agrees that a destination location is the best way to drive sales at retail, adding that retailers can increase the value with cross-promotional opportunities. “Whenever you have a chance to promote your produce with a complimentary seasoning or dressing, you have further broadened the usage of your products,” he says. Signage is another effective call to attention, say observers. With such fast-growth in the category, there is almost always something new to the shelves that consumers are unfamiliar with. “The most profitable merchandising tactics include having clear signage talking about the advantages of value-added products and having a regular promotional strategy with small discounts to drive trial and repeat business,” says Randy Shell, vice president of marketing and new business development for RPE Produce, based in Bancroft, Wis. “Retailers should hold demos, set up secondary displays, make temporary price reductions and have good signing to promote potatoes in-store.” Packaging perfected Keeping produce fresh is not easy. Innovations in packaging capabilities have helped the value-added segment come a long way. Microwaveable packaging and bags may have had the biggest impact on the evolution of value-added fresh foods, say observers. “Microwaveable packaging has become vital to the value-added produce category—creating faster cooking times and fewer dishes for the end user has certainly been an innovation when compared to traditional preparation of potatoes, scrubbing, peeling and the like,” says Shell. Breathable film is another evolution has evolved the shelf life, allowing for new salad ingredient blends, says St. Geme. Taylor Farms vegetable trays feature its proprietary micro perf film developed to extend shelf life. Fresherized Foods uses high-pressure processing (HPP) to package its guacamole, which allows the company to avoid chemical preservatives. “It maintains the nutritional value, the consistency and the flavor of the product. All of those things may be compromised if we used a different processing form,” says Sawyer.