Fresh Cut Salads : New Challenges and Opportunities

Fresh Cut Salad Bags

Convenience reaches even higher levels.

Mann's Slaw

Top Photo Courtesy of Mann Packing

Innovation in the fresh-cut salad category has brought about new products that go beyond leafy greens, increasing both the convenience of fresh produce and consumption. The next trend could be products that include enough protein to make for a healthy, convenient and filling small meal.

“Our Bistro Bowl salads, as well as our soon-to-launch Fresh Prep’d brand of fresh meals, including soup kits and wrap kits, are the perfect one-stop complete meal solution,” says Alan Hilowitz, company spokesperson for Ready Pac Foods, Irwindale, CA.

A Bistro Bowl contains the chopped lettuce, poblano peppers and fire roasted corn with enough pulled pork to make a meal with six grams of protein.

Innovative minds must think alike because a five-hour drive up the coast from Ready Pac is Salinas, CA-based Mann Packing, which is also having success with fresh-cut vegetable-based bowls that pack a protein punch.

“When we can save our customers time and also allow them to put good food in their bodies, that is a win-win for all.”

— Laura Himes, Wal-Mart

“Our Nourish Bowls have resulted in a 27 percent expansion in sales and 42 percent of dollar growth contribution to the category,” says Jacob Shafer, senior marketing and communications specialist at Mann Packing, Salinas, CA.

The vegetarian Southwest Chipotle bowl, with cauliflower, kale and kohlrabi, has enough black beans and shredded cheddar cheese to add up to 11 grams of protein; while the vegan Sesame Sriracha bowl with broccoli, kohlrabi, cabbage and snap peas has enough rice to make for seven grams of protein.

Mann Packing is a women-owned company with a history of coming up with products that creatively link the harvest of the Salinas Valley with the changing trends and needs of the country’s kitchens.

These companies responded to a rarely discussed challenge facing the entire produce sector: Consumers are eating fewer vegetables because they are too busy to prepare meals that include sides and salads.

“After a brief rise through 2009, per capita fruit and vegetable consumption has declined 7 percent in the past five years. This has been driven primarily by decreased consumption of vegetables and fruit juice,” reports Produce for Better Health Foundation’s State of the Plate: 2015 Study on America’s Consumption of Fruits and Vegetables.

The Produce for Better Health Foundation, Hockessin, DE, launched in 1991 with the support of 60 produce industry companies and commodity boards to partner with the National Cancer Institute to sponsor the 5-A-Day for Better Health program.

“Sizable declines for vegetables — fewer eating a week per capita versus just five years ago — have been driven by lower side dish ‘as is’ use at in-home dinner meals,” states State of the Plate. “Lettuce and salad-related vegetables, like tomatoes, have been hit the hardest, as have onions, potatoes and mixed vegetables. Consumption at lunch has declined as well, though vegetables at breakfast have increased slightly.”

The Declining Vegetable

Ready Pac Bistro Bowls

Photo Courtesy of Ready Pac Foods

Fresh-cut burst on the scene during nearly a quarter century of increasing vegetable consumption as consumers looked to eat healthy.

“According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service, annual per capita disappearance/consumption of fruits and vegetables, in both fresh and processed form, increased 8.4 percent from 1976 to 2009, reaching 675 pounds,” says Roberta Cook, University of California Cooperative Extension specialist in agricultural economics, in her report, Tracking Demographics and U.S. Fruit and Vegetable Consumption Patterns.

In the later years, salads and other conveniently packaged vegetable products fueled much of this growth, as fresh-cut produce rose to become a major category almost overnight, riding the twin waves of convenience and better-for-you food.

According to Cook, first came triple-washed iceberg lettuce or cabbage that let consumers simply reach into a bag for the major ingredient in their green salad or coleslaw. Then microwaveable pouches of washed and cut vegetables hit the store shelves, making healthy sides effortless. Finally, fruit got into the act with pre-cut chunks.

Fresh-cut sales skyrocketed from $3.3 billion in 1994 to $8.9 in 2003, $11.8 in 2005 and $15.5 billion in 2007, according to Cook, with $6 billion of that in retail, as all the major markets developed eye-catching displays. Supermarkets seized on the opportunity to add an exciting new category to the produce department.

“We have a robust fresh-cut produce program where customers can find single-serve and multi-portioned servings,” says Maria Brous, director of media and community relations at Publix, Lakeland, FL. “Varieties include single fruit bowls, like watermelon, pineapple and cantaloupe, as well as mixed varieties, like mixed fruit bowls and tropical fruit bowls. We also introduced a cut vegetable program.”

But now fresh-cut producers and supermarket retailers face the challenge of recent decline in fruit and vegetable consumption.

“Vegetables have long been affected by shifts occurring at the dinner table,” says the State of the Plate report. “Americans have been looking for convenience at the dinner occasion, and one way to make things more convenient is to include fewer side dishes in their dinner meal and to include them less often.”

Fresh-cut vegetable producers have increased sales by developing offerings that are nutritious, filling and convenient.

Ready Pac has taken pride in its ability to innovate to meet new challenges in offering vegetable-based products that encourage people to eat healthy foods.

The firm was started 48 years ago, on the eve of a period of greater and more varied vegetable consumption. In 1980, the company introduced bagged clipped spinach as its first fresh-cut produce. Most recently, the company has responded to the decline of vegetable sides by developing lines like its Bistro Bowls.

Another strategy the company is using to reach consumers who don’t have time to prepare vegetable sides is to make it as easy as possible to use fresh-cut products. “Ready Pac Foods is able to provide our customers with culinary expertise, delivering delicious recipes that will satisfy any type of consumers’ cravings, as well as quality products and longer shelf life, helping to reduce waste and maximizing sales,” says Ready Pac’s Hilowitz.

But tomorrow’s fresh-cut section will likely not feature the same mix of products seen today.

“Leveraging the trend of warm veggie-based meals, retailers have been partnering with Mann to grow their overall category by focusing on new innovation items,” says Shafer. “Mann’s growth strategy is to provide a comprehensive value-added vegetable assortment that can apply to all usage, meal occasions and household sizes.”

Shafer sees growth in the 6 to 8 percent range for these vegetable-based meal products. The future growth of the fresh-cut category could well be in items that provide a convenient complete meal or eating event.

“When we can save our customers time and also allow them to put good food in their bodies, that is a win-win for all,” says Laura Himes, merchandising manager of produce for Wal-Mart, Bentonville, AR. “Most growth in this segment has stemmed from the single-serve bowls and the salad kits. We have seen great innovation in this space and more emphasis on healthful ingredients.”

Congested Shelves

Produce has become a busier and more interesting place as consumers demand, and farmers provide, many more varieties of most of the major fruits and vegetables. But as everything in the produce department — from apples to citrus and potatoes to grapes — has grown more complex and varied, competition for shelf space has become fierce.

“As the importance of the perimeter of the store grows, prime shelf space becomes very limited,” says Hilowitz. “This is true not only related to space, but also the large variety of the type of products consumers are looking for in their salads or as cooking ingredients.”

Within the fresh-cut category, retailers face the further challenge of deciding how much of this limited shelf space is dedicated to grab-and-go items, and those that consumers take home to the kitchen.

“Space is always a concern, as we will need to balance grab-and-go offerings with the traditional produce customers like to take home to fix on their own,” says Himes.

Retailers do well to constantly monitor product sales to see which fresh-cut items are justifying their shelf space, and which are not.

“At Publix, we have a robust program that monitors the sales of each item. If an item does not sell within the established criteria, it is discontinued,” says Brous. “In general, there is a defined amount of space within a retail location, and retailers are charged with carrying the products that are representative of their customers and meet their expectations.”

For producers, it is important to develop packaging that catches the eye, entices the mouth and informs the cook.

“It is critical that packaging is designed in a way that clearly communicates either the type of produce or the flavor profile for easy identification, since consumers have limited time for at-shelf purchase decisions,” says Ready Pac’s Hilowitz.

The Elusive Consumer

It is also important to reach consumers with the message of convenience, plus good nutrition before they even enter the store.

“Pre-cut produce and bagged salads and blends are all pre-planned purchases, so it is important to provide consumers with fresh meal ideas or suggestions that could help them manage their daily busy schedule,” says Hilowitz.

In order to maintain strong product demand, fresh-cut companies invest in marketing efforts both inside and out of the store.

“We promote the products regularly through consumer engagement and advertising,” says Mann Packing’s Shafer. “We continue to drive trial and are always looking to feature Sugar Snap Peas at special events, in cross-promotions.” This marketing program includes social media and the internet to reach potential customers.

“Mann’s has a wide range of marketing materials available to retailers, including recipe ideas in its Girlfriends Guide for Moms series,” says Shafer. “The guides feature creative consumer usage ideas. Further product support comes via how-to videos on our YouTube page, a variety of social media promotions and contests to engage consumers, and a dedicated website for the United States and Canada.”

With an increasing number of consumers shopping convenience stores, suppliers of fresh-cut products have developed a number of strategies for getting their products into these stores and reaching customers.

“Convenience and small format stores are quickly seeing the need to carry fresh food products to cater to today’s consumers’ needs for healthier, convenient, tasty and satisfying meals,” says Ready Pac’s Hilowitz.

Ready Pac finds success in the convenience store sector, in particular, marketing its Bistro Bowl product line, which allows customers to purchase a single item that provides a meal healthier and more interesting than they are likely to find at a fast food outlet.

For their part, progressive retailers pay attention to the challenge of reaching their customers with information as many ways as possible, both in the store and beyond.

“At Publix, we view our customers as an extension of our family,” says Brous. “We connect with them within our stores, online and within the communities we live and work. Our customers hear and see us in radio and television advertising, as well as billboard presence. In addition, we connect online via our website and social platforms. We consistently communicate around our products, services, service, quality and commitment to our communities.”

Fresh-cut suppliers and retailers are meeting the challenge by showing consumers that salad products do fit with time-starved lifestyles.

“Packaged salads continue to grow at a high rate due to the customer’s demand for convenience and ready-to-eat meals,” says Wal-Mart’s Himes.

The concentration of fresh produce purchases among people with higher education and income, however, suggests there is room to vastly expand the market.

“Analyzing fresh produce expenditures by demographic group reveals some striking patterns,” says University of California Cooperative Extension’s Cook. “For example, households whose members have not attended college spent on average $369 for fresh produce compared with $521 for households with members with bachelor’s degrees, and $651 for those with post-graduate degrees.”

According to Cook, “The national average of annual household expenditures on fresh produce was $429 in 2009, while households earning $100,000 or more spent $712. Households earning more than $70,000 represented 32 percent of U.S. households in 2009, yet accounted for 49 percent of total food spending.”