KANSAS CITY - Demand for packaged fresh produce has been trending up for years, driven by food safety concerns, the need for convenience and a variety of other factors.

For many produce shippers and their retail partners, COVID has only accelerated that demand.

Consumers are gravitating to their comfort zones during this time of massive change, and one of those within fresh is the protection of packaging as a barrier to the environment, said Tom Byrne, president of Salinas, Calif.-based Growers Express/Green Giant Fresh.

“There are certainly consumers who feel compelled to purchase what they feel comfortable with and appeals to them, whether that be in bulk where they can inspect and decide or within a packaged product where there is an added layer of safety,” he said. “Packaged produce isn’t a new phenomenon but one that can help in times of worry around safety and also when consumers are looking for more value-added, time-saving preparation items.”

Items from Green Giant Fresh that fit that description include pre-cut Green Giant Fresh Butternut or Spaghetti Squash and Broccoli Slaw, he said.

The Green Giant Fresh roster of items is diverse in that it covers both bulk items like avocadoes, corn, and asparagus, but also value-added packaged items like Cauliflower Crumbles and halved Brussels Sprouts, Byrne said.

The company’s product lineup has not been adjusted specifically for the pandemic, he added. Instead, Green Giant Fresh has remained focused on delivering the best quality items under a brand name that has earned consumers’ trust for decades.

Demand for packaged produce ramped up quickly in March as consumers felt concerned about the risks of others touching the fresh produce on display, despite clear indications from health authorities that the virus cannot be transmitted through food, said Karin Gardner, executive director of Vancouver, BC-based Oppy.

“It was a scary time and understandable that people would take any precautions they felt they could to protect themselves,” she said. “Packaged fruits and vegetables provide a level of comfort while also presenting a family-friendly offering of a little more fresh produce to go around while households were initially locking down together, and the habit of buying more packaged produce has continued.” 

Oppy has adjusted its product roster to provide more packaged product “to some degree,” Gardner said. The company is broadening its range of apple and grape packs, for instance, notably debuting Ocean Spray grapes not only in bags but also in two-pound clamshells, which are selling “very well,” she said.

Other, more established items continue to perform well in the packaged category for Oppy.

“The item knocking it out of the park just now is the one-pound Zespri SunGold kiwifruit pack,” Gardner said in late August. “It checks all the boxes, being full of in-demand vitamin C and other nutrients, delivering an amazing flavor and arriving ready to cut and scoop in a fully recyclable container.”

About 40% of what Oppy sells is in some kind of consumer pack — citrus in mesh bags; berries, grapes and kiwifruit in clamshells; apples in poly and pouch bags (just to name a few).

“Wiggle room” on shelf life and shrink

The coronavirus has changed demand for packaged product “to some degree,” said Tom Thompson, vice president of strategy for Owatonna, Minn.-based Revol Greens.

The demand curve was up and down at the beginning of the pandemic, as grocers were determining how to predict inventory needs, he said.

As the pandemic progressed, demand patterns begin emerging, with certain packaged produce categories in particular benefiting. 

“The benefit of packaged produce is that when fresh produce is harvested, packed, and delivered within a 24 hour window, it has an impact on shelf life and shrink,” he said. “With the uncertainty around demand, we saw a greater shift towards categories such as packaged salads due to the wiggle room it gave grocers to withstand the ebbs and flows of demand.”

Another effect of the pandemic for Revol: as restaurants shut down during the pandemic, the company switched more of its business to grocery.

“Our growing system can make that quick shift from an assortment standpoint in a matter of two or three weeks,” Thompson said.

One of Revol’s best packaged salad sellers is its MIGHTY Spring Mix, a mix of spring mix and spinach.

The company also sells a lot of Romaine Crunch, which is grown in a controlled environment and packaged on-site so to mitigate some of the food safety risks that the industry has seen on field-grown romaine over the past several years, Thompson said.

Even before COVID struck, demand for packaged product was going up, Thompson said — for a number of reasons.

“The first reason is that in our space, consumers have dozens of varieties of lettuces and blends to choose from.  Packaging is important to have real estate to convey education around those options.”

Another reason, he said, is the protection of the quality of the product packaged provides.  Salad mixes are a heavy assortment category, and on the bulk side of lettuces, there can be a lot of food waste that consumers and grocers are looking to shrink. Thus, Thompson said, the shift towards packaged.

Balancing convenience with sustainability

Before COVID, the packaging conversation focused on sustainably by reducing plastic use, and Oppy and other companies were seeing a lot of innovation in that area, Gardner said.

The groundswell of plastic-free options saw growers, marketers and retailers embracing more paper, corrugate and alternative biodegradable and compostable packaging options. Oppy, for instance, launched its KeeWee pack made of bagasse fibers earlier this year.

The pandemic put that on hold to some extent, but Gardner expects the trend to reassert itself once things get at least closer back to normal.

“While attentive to the preference for plastic currently, we believe that once the pandemic subsides demand for more sustainable options will return,” Gardner said. “Exploring these alternatives are among the key focus areas for innovation at Oppy.”

While demand for packaged product is going up, so is consumer demand for responsibly produced packaging. With that in mind, Revol is working closely with its customers to find sustainable packaging solutions, Thompson said.

Revol is a relatively new company, so its packaged product mix hasn’t changed all that much, Thompson said, but it is much broader.

The company’s greenhouse-grown product is an increasingly viable alternative to field-grown product, and with the success of its program, Revol has been challenged to grow more variety to mirror all of the blend options consumers are accustomed to.

Innovation, mid-pandemic 

The net impact on produce overall was positive as consumers recognized the need for nutritious foods during shelter-in-place orders and as stores remained open and operational, said Bil Goldfield, director of corporate communications for Charlotte, N.C.-based Dole Food Co. 

“Dole experienced increased demand in both packaged and commodity produce at the onset of the pandemic,” he said. “However, activity has since returned to normal levels.”   

Dole had already earmarked 2020 as a significant year for packaged product innovation and new-product introductions.

When COVID hit, the company had to make sure it had the grower, R&D/innovation, marketing, plant-level processing, trucking and logistics management support in place to allow it to deliver on this launch promise to its retail customers and consumers, Goldfield said.

Dole’s year has been highlighted by launches including its Fresh Takes Salad Bowls, which come in six varieties: Classic Chicken Caesar, Santa Fe Style, Turkey & Bacon Country Cobb, Café Style, Savory Spinach Dijon and Cranberry & Candied Walnut. 

This fall, Dole is launching a new line of salad kids, Just Add Chicken Salad Kits, that provide salad lovers with everything they need to turn fresh chicken into a healthy and delicious meal for two.

Four initial flavor varieties combine Dole lettuces, toppings, an original Dole dressing and chicken sauté and finishing sauces to create a restaurant-caliber culinary experience every time. The varieties are Pesto Caesar, Sweet Orange, Roasted Red Pepper and Lemon Herb Pepper.

Also in 2020, Dole added to its Premium, Chopped! and Slawesome! salad kits with several new products, including Sweet Kale, Blueberry Bliss, Chopped! Avocado Ranch and Hawaiian Slawesome! 

Dole’s roster of packaged produce consists of 94 SKUs, including 65 packaged salad kits and blends, 20 RTE Bowls (single and multi-serve), three Mini Meals, four Fresh-Cut Pineapple and two Fresh-Cut Carrot products.  

In the kit category, Dole’s Chopped! and Premium lines are top sellers, as are the company’s six separate Caesar salad offerings including two Classic Kits, one Premium Kit, two Chopped! Kits and the new DOLE FreshTakes  Salad Bowl. 

Appealing to kids

One huge trend in packaged product, Goldfield said, is the use of recognizable characters and intellectual property.

“It’s an incredibly effective way of boosting affinity for and consumption of fresh produce, particularly to kids,” he said.   

Parents are looking for nutritious foods for their families, and one of their biggest challenges is kids’ resistance to eating more fruits and veggies. Research has shown, Goldfield said, that favorite characters have a tremendous influence on acceptance and behavior among children.

“When kids see favorite characters promoting fruit and vegetable consumption and healthier eating, they’re more likely to choose fresh fruits and vegetables themselves.” 

The direct correlation between popular animated, film and other appealing characters and positive behavior can be most beneficial inside the store when these characters are printed on fresh fruits and vegetables to help promote a healthier lifestyle, Goldfield added.

Thanks to its ongoing multiyear collaboration with Disney, Dole has successfully attracted new fresh produce users, especially young families with kids, by featuring the latest Disney, Pixar, Marvel and Lucasfilm characters on and in conjunction with DOLE® Bananas, Pineapples, Vegetables, Salads and Berries.   

Another trend in packaged produce that Dole is tracking closely is on-package nutrition information and product and ingredient photography.  

“Consumers today take a much more active role in their health and nutrition than in the past,” Goldfield said. “Dole actively promotes the latest findings in fruit and vegetable nutrition research on our websites, social media pages, through recipes and in PR and blogger outreach programs. From these marketing efforts, many shoppers are already educated before they even reach the produce section, and we also extend our health and nutrition messaging onto product packaging whenever possible.”  

In 2009, Dole began displaying illustrations of the ingredients in its salad kits directly on the packaging, and it proved to be remarkably effective at boosting sales, Goldfield said.

In addition to giving consumers a clear understanding of what’s included in the kit, the illustrations showcase the fresh, on-trend, nutrient-packed ingredients that, he added, differentiate Dole’s kits from the competition.

“Providing this information directly on our product packaging helps shoppers make real-time purchasing decisions based on the health and nutrition info they are already looking for – ultimately leading to incremental fresh produce sales,” Goldfield said. 

“All-time high” demand

Ontario, Calif.-based FiveStar Gourmet Foods also has seen a surge in demand for its packaged fresh products during the coronavirus, said Tal Shoshan, the company’s CEO.

“The demand for our products is at an all-time high given consumers’ need for value-added, easy-to-eat products that are fresh and healthy during this significant change in their world,” Shoshan said.

For more than 20 years, FiveStar has been offering packaged fresh products under its Simply Fresh salad brand.

This year has seen the launch of the company’s new line of freshly prepared, nutritionally balanced and ready-to-eat meals — solely added, Shoshan said, to meet demand for healthy meals among students who are now distance learning.

Simply Fresh 2GO products come in ready-to-eat packaging to make them easy to distribute, consume, and satisfy the needs of so many parents who are faced with how to continue to offer their families fresh and healthy meals.

FiveStar’s top packaged sellers are competitive within a category that is realizing what Shoshan calls “recipe replication.”

FiveStar is a pioneer in the category, setting the pace with a pipeline of innovation that keeps retail partners engaged and delivering what consumers want and need. Shoshan said the latest innovations in the line have proven successful within major retail chains like Walmart, Costco, and Publix.

FiveStar has seen demand for its products grow substantially year-over-year since all of its products are packaged in a format that is convenient, portable, and protects the integrity of the fresh ingredients, Shoshan said.

“In the fresh prepared space, especially with value-added salads and snacks, presentation really is everything,” he said. “Packaging is the star. It’s critical that retailers showcase their fresh offerings front and center in a way that consumers are blown away by the product.”

This story was featured in the October edition of Supermarket Perimeter. Click here to view the whole issue.