Innovation Fueling Produce Consumption

What is Innovation?

Disrupting consumer behavior to move the needle in fresh produce consumption one commodity at a time.

Editor’s Note: With this cover story, we launch an annual Innovation Issue, to be published each November. We invite our readers to participate in the dialogue of “What is Innovation?” by encouraging you to email your thoughts at: [email protected]


Innovation is often defined as a new method, idea or product. However, innovation also can be viewed as the application of better solutions to meet new requirements, unarticulated needs or existing market needs. Such is the case in the produce department, where changes in lifestyle, buying behavior and health concerns, among others, are catalyzing innovation in products and packaging.

“Innovation in produce happens in at least two major ways, production and genetics,” says Kevin M. Folta, PhD, professor and chairman, Horticultural Sciences Department, Plant Molecular and Cellular Biology Program and Plant Innovation Program, University of Florida, Gainesville, FL. “Production faces many challenges, while consumers want higher quality, low prices, variety, flavors and aromas. This scenario means innovations must satisfy many consumer desires while meeting industry production demands. Consumers, however, care most that produce is easy, good, safe, inexpensive and fast; genetics and production matter less to them.”

Apples Get an A

Innovation has brought tremendous change to the apple category. A generation ago, bins were dominated by pretty varieties such as Red Delicious, Golden Delicious and later, Granny Smith. Today, several dozen types of apples take their turn during the extended apple season, which begins in late summer and ends well into the winter.

The Honeycrisp apple stands out among the most innovative and popular. “The apple was commercialized in the early 1990s, and we had a decent amount of fruit available in the early 2000s,” says James Luby, Ph.D., professor, Department of Horticultural Science, University of Minnesota, St. Paul, MN, and a developer of the Honeycrisp. “The apple has a different texture from other varieties, with its crunchy breaking texture that maintains well in storage, has lots of juice and a sweet-tart flavor.”

The marketplace now includes “children” of Honeycrisp. “Our team is trying to bring apples to market sooner in the year by crossing Honeycrisp with early ripening varieties,” says Luby. “Results include Sweetango, Rave (a Honeycrisp-MonArk cross) and a specific brand for Minnesota growers called First Kiss.”

Stemilt, with headquarters in Wenatchee, WA, prides itself on a culture of innovation centered on new varieties, packaging and technologies toward a goal of growing fruit with a better flavor experience. Many of its commercially available apples were developed by the University of Minnesota.

“We are constantly seeking new varieties for the ‘wow’ factor in flavor,” says Brianna Shales, Stemilt communications manager. “Any new variety we consider bringing into our family of signature varieties has to be better than what is out there today or else it won’t make it with the shopper.”

Shales stresses the importance of branding and marketing new varieties in order to get consumers excited about their attributes. “Rave, our newest apple brand, gives us an earlier jumpstart on apple season with a fantastic tasting apple that has that Honeycrisp crunch, but its own unique flavor profile with zing and juice.”

Among the most innovative varieties is the Arctic Golden, a non-browning genetically modified apple, developed, grown and marketed by Okanagan Specialty Fruits, Summerland, British Columbia, Canada. Neal Carter, president, along with his wife, Louisa, cultivated the apple to offer benefits across the supply chain. “Superficial browning from improper handling of apples can occur in the orchard, in the processing facility, at supermarkets and at home. As a result, Arctic apples can reduce shrink, eliminate the need for costly anti-browning treatments on sliced apples and offer exciting new options for consumers,” he says. He adds Arctic apples taste as great as they look and are packaged exclusively as slices in 10-ounce grab-and-go bags.

Grapes Break New Ground

Grapery Cotton Candy

The Grapery, Shafter, CA, works with partner, International Fruit Genetics (IFG), Bakersfield, CA, to find and breed grapes that are unique to the market. (Photos Courtesy of Okanagan Specialty Fruits and Grapery)

Like apples, grape bins were dominated for years by a limited number of varieties. Grapery, located in Shafter, CA, sought to change that 17 years ago when its founders embarked on an ambitious grape breeding program. “We work with our breeding partner, International Fruit Genetics (IFG), Bakersfield, CA, to find and breed grapes that have the potential to taste great,” says Jim Beagle, chief executive. “On the consumer side, I know that what I like may be different from what consumers like, so we interact with them to understand their preferences and to drive our feedback loop about meeting their expectations. We engage consumers in conversation so we can show retailers that flavor matters.”

Beagle stresses the importance of retailers as ambassadors for the company’s brands. “Displays have to be well-positioned, well-stocked and well-managed.”

Andy Higgins, IFG’s chief executive, says the company has been guided since its inception in 2001 by a simple but bold vision “to create and develop the best-tasting varieties of table grapes and cherries on earth through innovating and challenging the status quo.”

The company’s fruit geneticists collect and analyze grape and stone fruit varieties from around the globe. The IFG team then combines and cross-breeds them to produce varieties that are both resilient and flavorful. “We have scientifically analyzed hundreds of thousands of varieties for information about product yield, quality and flavor,” says Higgins. “Typically, it takes eight to 10 years to commercialize a variety. Some of this time and effort is internal while some is spent validating the variety with growers, marketers, retailers and consumers.”

IFG has developed 26 commercial seedless table grape varieties to date, including the highly successful Cotton Candy, Sweet Celebration, Sweet Sapphire (Moon Drops), Jack’s Salute and Sweet Globe grapes.

Next Up…Cherries

Cherries have been limited to a handful of commercial varieties, but IFG and others are working toward expanding consumer options.

“It takes much longer — 12 to 15 years — to develop a new cherry variety, so the cherries we started working on in 2001 are just coming into the market now,” says Higgins.

“We are working on the gene pool to enhance cherries in several ways, including bringing sour cherry flavor into sweet varieties and improving grower attributes to better handle climate change. Cherry growing areas are experiencing extreme weather events; as a result, a really good year is hard to come by. Our breeding focuses on earlier season varieties that don’t require as much chill. This allows cherries to be grown in parts of the world that haven’t had commercial cherries before.”

Stemilt recently introduced a new cherry called Skylar Rae. Shales describes it as “a bi-colored cherry that was discovered growing by chance back in 2005 in Wenatchee, WA. It is the sweetest and firmest cherry we grow, and those two characteristics do not usually go together.”

Evolving VEG Category

Dave Haider and Kristen Koontz Haider

Dave Haider and Kristen Koontz Haider, two of the four co-founders of Urban Organics.

Salad greens are the poster children for innovation, changing the greens landscape from heads of iceberg, Romaine, red leaf and green leaf to flexible bags and clamshells of colorful washed, bowl-ready assortments. It’s no surprise the category continues to evolve.

At the Dole Food Company, Westlake Village, CA, Dole Chopped Salad Kits and Dole Organic Kits are among the company’s fastest-growing value-added lines. Dole notes its new products address the produce industry’s strong shift toward convenience and flavor.

“Chopped salads are one of the biggest innovation trends to hit the salad bowl over the past few years — but traditionally, consumers have had to either dine out or spend considerable time in the kitchen to enjoy one,” says Bil Goldfield, director, corporate communications.

Earthbound Farm, San Juan Bautista, CA, stresses the importance of customer relationships in its business and stays connected with key customers to ensure it offers a full portfolio of products that target consumers’ needs. “We initially revolutionized the category by packaging organic salads for wider consumption, then were the first to bring clamshell packaging to market,” says Meg Stocker, brand manager. “Each step in the evolution of our company has centered around making produce accessible, and giving people fresh, organic choices in the produce space.” Earthbound Farm recently launched organic Chopped Salad Kits, and it has plans for additional launches in early 2018.

Urban Organics Aquaponics

Urban Organics, St. Paul, MN, farms with aquaponics, where fish and plants help each other grow.

Indoor and urban farms are leading the next innovation in greens, with their controlled environments and inputs. Urban Organics of St. Paul, MN, recently announced the opening of its second aquaponics farm. Founded in 2012, the company established its first farm in 8,500 square feet as a pilot facility using tilapia and growing salad greens in water bathed with nitrates from the fish waste. The new farm uses 87,000 square feet and has 14 fish tanks and 50, five-tier racks for greens.

“We offer nine different USDA certified organic blends of greens that can include bok choy, kale, lettuce, arugula, chard and spinach,” says Dave Haider, president and co-founder. “We currently grow about 500,000 to 750,000 pounds annually for supplying to local restaurants and retailers such as Hy-Vee, Lunds & Byerlys and regional co-ops. We are excited about the sustainability aspects of this method of farming. We use 95 percent less water than if we were growing the greens outside, and our two facilities help revitalize the community and create jobs.”

Color It Bright

Produce departments are more colorful than ever, with selections beyond the traditional green, red, orange, yellow and white. Among the most noticeable trends is the move toward purple, led by Frieda’s Specialty Produce, Los Alamitos, CA. Frieda’s adopted purple as its corporate color by accident when a sign painter painted the company’s first sign purple back in 1962. The color converged with innovation in 2013, when Frieda’s noticed more purple foods available in the market.

“We declared 2013 the ‘Year of Purple’ and did a Power of Purple campaign with our Stokes purple sweet potato as the anchor,” says Alex Jackson Berkley, senior account manager. “Then purple took off. Purple foods are naturally purple due to anthocyanin, an antioxidant that creates a natural purple pigment and may have health benefits. Consumers started looking for purple produce, and retailers recognized the color break it provides on a display. Now purple items are staples in the produce department.”

Innovation on the Outside

Packaging alone won’t contribute to long-term sales, but innovative packaging can capture a shopper’s attention, add value and convey convenience. Dan’l Mackey Almy, president and chief executive of DMA Solutions in Dallas, notes “the innovation in packaging has evolved tremendously over the past few years. With the demand for convenience items at an all-time high, we’ve seen produce items come packaged in portable cups, portable bags, microwaveable bags, as well as packaging to include dips and spreads.”

Del Monte recently developed new packaging for its Del Monte Fresh-Cut Grab-N-Go fruit and vegetable lines that include non-spill, resealable containers that fit conveniently in car cup holders.

Many Green Giant pouch packages feature an easy-carry handle and zip-top closure, and are steam-in-pack ready. High-impact graphics catch the eye of the consumer, and also offer recipes and usage ideas to help home cooks get creative.

Growth is expected in snack items and kits, which “redefine convenience and meal solutions,” says Green Giant’s Dixon.

“We introduced Del Monte Smoothie Kits as a healthy option to eliminate prep work and make it even faster and convenient for consumers to prepare delicious and nutritious snacks and meals,” says Dionysios Christou, vice president of marketing, Del Monte Fresh Produce N.A., Coral Gables, FL.

Pure Flavor, Leamington, Ontario, Canada, offers snack-friendly products such as grape tomatoes, mini peppers and cocktail cucumbers, each packed in 4-ounce oval clamshells. Merging convenience, portion control and on-the-go-eating, Tasteful Selections, a specialty potato brand from RPE, Bancroft, WI, recently introduced its SteamPak Mini, a single-serve, 5.8-ounce, microwavable package.

Innovative Marketing

“Innovation in marketing is essential if a company wants to stay ahead of competitors,” says John Stanton, Ph.D., professor, marketing, Saint Joseph’s University, Philadelphia. “The market is changing so quickly that yesterday’s choices may not be good enough. For example, keep track of the more exotic produce in meal kits to make sure it’s in the produce department as well.”

Stanton also advises the industry to up its game with in-store marketing. “Consumers are accustomed to outreach that is not currently used in produce, such as signage on carts, floor graphics and POS signage; this is where I give the produce industry an F. You can’t just put the name of the item and the price on a sign. You have to at least talk about freshness and ease of preparation.”

The Wonderful Company, Los Angeles, stands out for its prominent branding and marketing programs that have turned commodities such as pomegranates, Mandarin oranges and pistachios into must-have items. The company invests millions of dollars each year and contributes significantly to sales in the produce department. “We enjoy trying new things in the store, including POS displays big and small,” says Adam Cooper, vice president of marketing. “We create brand awareness and love for our brands. We innovated with pomegranate, first with the great benefits of pomegranates and juice, then with a beautiful bottle that stands out on the shelf, and now with arils in a ready-to-eat convenient cup. Because we are vertically integrated, we control the whole process from tree to table, including going into stores to help the staff put up great displays.”

Dole echoes the value of marketing innovations. “Even the most innovative new products are only truly successful if they are supported with a similar level of innovation in packaging, marketing, in-store support and shopper marketing programs,” says Goldfield. “Every Dole new product launch is supported by an integrated marketing, public relations, social media, influencer and retailer support effort to maximize consumer trial and the chances for adoption.”

Innovate for Tommorrow

Since innovation can take 10 years or more from concept to consumer, it may be instructive to look at consumers with the longest shelf life, i.e., Millennials. Among the questions to ask are what prevents them from buying and eating more fruits and veggies and how can the produce industry respond? Current trends and practices suggest communication with shoppers and use of media to reach them will continue to grow.

“Even the most innovative new products are only truly successful if they are supported with a similar level of innovation in packaging, marketing, in-store support and shopper marketing programs.”

— Bil Goldfield, Dole Food Company

Food waste and sustainability are likely to remain on the forefront. Blurring of lines between center-of-the-store items and the produce department may lead to solutions, for example, reduced shrink in fresh tomatoes by also offering canned salad-ready cut tomatoes, or stocking innovative companion products that improve the produce experience. Two such products are the BluApple, which absorbs the ethylene gas emitted by fruits and vegetables and slows ripening and rotting, and VeggieZips produce storage bags and liners that help control humidity.

University of Florida’s Folta predicts modern breeding with DNA genomics-based selection will bring new, improved varieties to market in a year or two rather than the current ten-year timeline. “Additionally, innovation in postharvest biology helps get fresh produce to the shelf in better shape, and that will appeal to the consumer.”

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