Convenience energizes fresh produce

by Donna Berry
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With the Dietary Guide-lines for Americans 2010, along with MyPlate and other nutritional marketing efforts emphasizing that in-creased fruit and vegetable intake will positively impact health, Americans are looking for easy ways to work more produce into their diet. To simplify their efforts, retailers are embracing the growing number of washed, peeled, sliced and diced fruit and vegetable offerings merchandised in the produce department as grab-and-go, ready-to-eat meal and snack solutions, as well as convenience cooking items.

In fact, many supermarkets are retooling produce sections in order to offer a wider range of such convenience and value-added products, from single-serve salad bowls com-plete with dressing and fork to pre-chopped mirepoix (a combination of chopped onions, carrots and celery) for soup making to peeled butternut squash cubes for easy roasting or stir-frying.

The single-serve salad seg-ment has grown 18% versus a year ago, according to Ready Pac Foods, Irwindale, Calif. And with a leading national brand in the category — the Ready Pac Bistro Bowl — the company decided the time was right to expand the line with some on-trend ethnic flavor combinations. Containing fewer than 230 calories, each Bistro Bowl is packaged in a light-weight recyclable plastic container and includes greens and other vegetables, along with one or more protein components, dressing and a fork, making it easy for consumers to take the salads to go.

Packed with nutrients and savory ingredients, the new offerings include an Asian style chicken variety (romaine and iceberg lettuces, roasted chicken, shredded carrots and cabbage, diced celery and wonton strips with carrot ginger miso dressing); Mediterranean (romaine lettuce, garbanzo beans, green olives, sundried tomatoes and feta cheese with roasted red bell pepper vinaigrette); and Caesar Lite (romaine lettuce, roasted chicken, crunchy flatbread and shredded Parmesan cheese with yogurt Caesar dressing).

“By adding these new, ready-to-eat salad varieties that follow current culinary trends, we continue to provide our customers with healthy, convenient and great-tasting food options,” said Tristan Simpson, director of marketing.

Ready Pac Foods also offers Ready Snax Pacs, which range from 110 calories to 300 calories, depending on variety. Combinations include apples, granola and yogurt and vegetables, hummus and sunflower seeds.

Topco Associates L.L.C., Rosemont, Ill., a cooperative buying organization, now offers its member retailers a line of single-serve salads sold under the Dining In brand. Varieties are Asian style chicken, chicken cranberry walnut, Cobb and Santa Fe style chicken.

A premium worth the price

One retailer said such convenience products bring new shoppers to the produce department. But it’s important to get the salads and snack kits in front of consumers. To do so, retailers must be creative with merchandising so the products don’t get swallowed up amongst the bags of lettuce and refrigerated dressings.

A second retailer said such products are especially appealing to smaller households, as the single-serve salads are anything but simple. Because they contain so many components, to buy each separately can be expensive and also often result in waste, as the items may sit in the refrigerator for an extended period of time and don’t get used beyond the initial salad or two.

“Customers are looking for anything that generates meal ideas and saves them time,” said the second retailer. “They are a convenience to the customer and a retailer gets a larger ring in produce for the product.”

Mr. Simpson said many consumers are purchasing the salads on the weekend and packing them as lunch for the work week. Though they may cost a premium on a per-pound basis, as compared to purchasing all the individual components and constructing the salads at home, the premium provides convenience and allows for variety. Further, for many consumers, such pre-made salads purchased at the supermarket cost less than those available through food service channels or pay-by-the-weight salad bars.

Freshness is a priority

Commercially packaged products will be gas flushed and sealed to maintain freshness, with some packages containing an oxygen-scavenger packet. Retailers that make their own pre-made salads on premise use specialized packaging systems designed to prevent browning of lettuce and moisture migration, as well as deterioration of the other components.

For example, the UltraFresh-System was designed for retail packaging of fresh-cut produce. Distributed by Bunzl Distribution, St. Louis, the system features a thermoformed tray combined with a food safety pad. The tray includes an insert to channel liquid away from the product while the food safety pad absorbs excess moisture inside the package and emits a carbon dioxide, reducing the growth of microorganisms such as yeast and mold. Together, the tray and absorbent pad maintain the appearance of the fresh-cut product and extend shelf life by slowing the produce’s respiration rate.

“The UltraFreshSystem is a cost-effective package that delivers superior merchandising appeal and extended shelf life,” said Rodger Fuller, vice-president of global rigid plastics, Sonoco, Hartsville, S.C., the manufacturer of the tray. “Produce processors can also count on less shrink, better margins and reduced packaging costs.”

Mr. Fuller explained that the design of the tray lowers stacking height, increasing shipping density and reducing costs for shipping and storage. The tray’s composite surface also results in a faster seal at lower temperatures, which minimizes the risk of cross contamination and operator liability. And because it is made with less plastic, the custom-designed tray creates less waste and a smaller carbon footprint.

Retailers with salad bars — which provides them with ample components to assemble packaged salads — will often use such packaging to offer consumers pre-made salads for later in the day or tomorrow’s lunch. It allows a retailer to create signature salads that they may call their own.

More fruit concepts emerge

A bit more fragile than many vegetables, fruits are starting to be offered in more convenient ready-to-eat, ready-to-use forms.

For example, in efforts to get more Americans to enjoy the taste and versatility of fresh pomegranate without the mess that often accompanies the scooping of the arils from the fruit, POM Wonderful, Los Angeles, now markets pre-packaged fresh pomegranate arils (fruit covered seed). The company is marketing them not only as a crunchy, healthy snack, but also a culinary condiment that provides sweet overtones to savory entrees or zest to desserts. They may be added to tossed salads, yogurt, cereals and even cocktails.

“Let’s face it, extracting the edible arils from a pomegranate can be inconvenient and time-consuming for many fans of the fruit,” said Matt Tupper, president of POM Wonderful. “Our new ready-to-eat product eliminates that prep work, making enjoying pomegranates easier than ever.”

Most retailers agree such convenience produce items are incremental growth for their stores. Offering more variety and increased options to offer their customers is viewed as a positive.

Adding sizzle to a salad

Merchandised near the produce department or in the ambient salad dressing aisle, new Kraft Sizzling Salads from Kraft Foods Inc., Northfield, Ill., are a chef-inspired line of entree salad kits. They provide consumers the tools to create warm entree salads at home in four simple steps and in less than 20 minutes.

Each kit contains a perfectly paired cooking sauce and dressing with recommendations on the meat and veggies to purchase to complete the meal. The kits come in four flavor varieties: Asian, Caesar, Southwest and Tuscan.

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