Creativity and convenience are the hallmarks of today's rapidly expanding packaged produce category.
Eating more fruit and vegetables has never been easier. From carrots and hummus on the go, to a chopped salad for dinner that's in the bag, today's variety of flavorful and convenient produce offerings is unprecedented.
Fresh produce also has never been more accessible. "By packaging produce and making it available in all different types of retailers -- even pharmacies -- you get people to eat more fruits and vegetables," says Jason Kazmirski, produce/floral director for Tukwila, Wash.-based Northwest Grocers. "Put a package of small bananas next to the chips in a convenience store, and you're offering people a healthier choice. It drives the whole category up."
Supermarkets are taking the lead with packaged produce offerings that cover every mealtime from breakfast to dinner, and healthful snacks in between. A review of grocers' weekly fliers reveals just how essential packaged fruits and vegetables have become to the produce department.
For example, the produce section in an October flier for a Wegmans in Malvern, Pa., was far and away focused on packaged offerings. In addition to branded packs of everything from salad mix to avocados, the Rochester, N.Y.-based chain advertised the availability of a new line of store-branded Fresh Cut Snacks in select Wegmans produce and prepared food departments.
An October Stop & Shop flier for a Westport, Conn., store similarly featured an array of packaged produce, including bagged sugar snap peas, spinach and romaine lettuce. The supermarket also promoted individually wrapped microwavable russet potatoes and yams for a special price.
Let's Make a Meal
Northwest Grocers stores, including Red Apple and Thriftway, offer a healthy selection of packaged produce. "We carry a lot of it: snap peas, salad blends, romaine hearts, cut fruit," notes Kazmirski. "Cut fruit as a category has really taken off in our stores in the last year. Broccolini has taken a lift recently, and broccoli slaw and chopped butternut squash are taking off and selling very well."
The grab-and-go, produce-based packaged meal subcategory is gaining notable traction, observes Kazmirski. "I think 2014 is going to be the year of the chopped salad kits," he predicts. "Everything is in a bag that you need to make a meal. I think that will continue. As long as it's easy and tastes good, people are going to buy it."
That's the idea behind the two new vegetable salad kits -- Cantina Crunch Kit and Asian Citrus Crunch Kit -- introduced by Mann Packing Co. Inc., of Salinas, Calif. "Anyone can cook like a pro with these vegetable kits, because everything is included," says Gina Nucci, director of healthy culinary innovation. "We know moms and families are starved for time and looking for solutions that help get healthy meals on the table that the whole family will eat."
Recent sales data from Nielsen Perishables Group FreshFacts supports the trend. Schaumburg, Ill.-based Nielsen found that vegetable kit dollars and volume both gained double digits or more compared with the prior year across all regions for the 52 weeks ending June 28.
Another new product introduction that tempts consumers to put produce at the center of the plate is the new line of stuffed portabella mushrooms from Giorgio Fresh, in Temple, Pa. The line features four stuffed portabella caps per tray.
At Northwest Grocers stores, packaged produce with kid appeal is another strong subcategory. "The Mann Broccoli and Mac is kid-oriented and popular," says Kazmirski. "The snack packs from companies like Crunch Pak with Disney and animation characters on the packaging makes kids want to try them. Stemilt is also doing some targeted things for kids, and so is the Pear Bureau. It's great because it gets them excited about eating produce."
Mann recently relaunched its Veggie Mac-n-Cheese product portfolio. The meal kits, which contain fresh broccoli, ready-to-heat fresh pasta and a cheese sauce, are available in Classic Cheddar with Broccoli and Bacon Cheddar with Broccoli.
Crunch Pak's latest offerings include a Blue Raspberry FlavorZ and a Foodle featuring the Disney character Goofy on the package, which contains carrots, cheese, pretzels and ranch dressing. Additionally, the Cashmere, Wash.-based company has partnered with Marvel Entertainment to offer a new assortment of sliced apple products in 2014 specifically targeting boys and featuring Marvel's Ultimate Spider-Man and The Avengers.
"I'm sure it's the future," says Kazmirski about packaged produce. But he also expresses concern that packaged produce doesn't allow him to differentiate from his competitors as much as he'd like. "As an independent grocer, you want to stand out," he asserts. "You want to be different and fresh out of the package."
With this in mind, Kazmirski is always looking for creative new products in the packaged produce category. "Like Gator Eggs, the avocados that come in the egg carton -- they're great for kids," he enthuses.
Gator Eggs are single-serving-size avocados packaged in a 6-count carton. The item, which debuted at the Produce Marketing Association (PMA) Fresh Summit in New Orleans last month, is the brainchild of Megan Shanley, director of sales and marketing for Shanley Farms, in Visalia, Calif.
Shanley, the daughter of Shanley Farms founder Jim Shanley, thought consumers might benefit from enjoying an entire fresh avocado in a single-serve format. Packed and shipped by Fallbrook, Calif.-based Del Rey Avocado Co., Gator Eggs come in an egg carton-style pack featuring a kid-friendly cartoon alligator on the front. "I'm really targeting moms with kids, and health-conscious people on the go," says Shanley. "It's less than 100 calories per avocado."
One Great Idea
Single-serve snacking is the idea behind a plethora of packaged produce introductions that has met with enthusiastic consumers looking for healthful snack options.
Green Giant Fresh supports the trend with convenient snacking items, including baby carrots, snap peas and blueberries, says Jennifer Fancher director of marketing for the Salinas, Calif.-based company, who predicts that "single-serving formats" will be one of next year's hottest trends in packaged produce.
Fancher says that Green Giant Fresh is also focused on "making whole fresh vegetables more convenient" by offering green beans, corn, Brussels sprouts, sweet baby broccoli, Little Gem lettuce and asparagus in modified-atmosphere bags and resealable pouches.
"I think 2014 is going to be the year of the chopped salad kits."
--Jason Kazmirski, Northwest Grocers
"I'm really targeting moms with kids, and health-conscious people on the go."
--Megan Shanley, Shanley Farms
Brussels Sprouts Mania
Trendy restaurants from New York to San Francisco have been serving Brussels sprouts in a variety of tasty preparations for a number of years, and now the once maligned leafy green vegetable is so widely accepted it even graced a seasonal pizza from California Pizza Kitchen earlier this year.
According to Nielsen Perishables Group FreshFacts scan data, total sales of Brussels sprouts grew for the third year in a row. In the past 52 weeks ending June 29, Brussels sprouts category sales volume grew 24.5 percent over the same time the prior year. Fixed-weight packages increased 31.9 percent during the same period.
Ocean Mist Farms, in Castroville, Calif., one of the largest grower/shippers of Brussels sprouts in the country, is expanding its value-added Brussels sprout product line that's ready to use, cook and serve. The line extension features three fresh-cut formats: SuperShreds SuperFood, Quick Cook Sprouts and Baby Sprouts.
All three are packaged in a microwavable steam pack that gives users the option to pre-season the contents according to flavor preference, reseal with the zip lock and steam by microwave, all within the same bag.