KANSAS CITY - With labor and food safety concerns more important than ever, more and more grocery retailers are looking to commissaries, central kitchens and other offsite facilities to provide their fresh-cut fruits and vegetables instead of handling those tasks in-store.

Japanese manufacturer Astra Inc., which has US headquarters in Torrance, Calif., has the perfect solution for commissaries and central kitchens looking to save time and labor.

Astra’s fruit-peeling machines peel the skin off fruits faster and “more beautifully” than hand peeling or ordinary peeling machines can, said Ryo Takeshita, sales manager.

In a few months, he said, Astra’s peeling machines can pay for themselves in saved labor costs. “Our machines prevent juice dripping from fresh-cut fruit. The fruit looks better and the shelf life is longer,” he added. “And the yield rate is increased. In other words, it decreases food waste.”

Astra’s large, industrial peeler, the FAP-1001, is used in fresh-cut food commissaries and other large-scale facilities, like pie production plants and plants that produce value-added foods for hospitals, luxury ships, in-flight meals and other applications, Takeshita said.

Astra’s tabletop model, the KA-700H, is used in juice bars, cake shops, fruit stores, supermarkets, restaurants, hotels, school lunchrooms and more.

Astra got its start as a manufacturer of persimmon peeling machines. Japanese dried persimmon is deeply loved in Japan, and Astra has more than a 70% share of the persimmon peeling market, Takeshita said.

In 2015, the company decided to expand its business to include peeling machine for other fruits. Because persimmons are on the pricey side, Astra developed high-quality, high-speed equipment to peel the fruits. That translated well to other fruits.

“That high peeling quality was highly accepted by the market, especially for kiwi peeling,” he said. “By 2019, our product mix became 50/50, half persimmon peelers, half peelers for other fruits.”

Also in 2019, Astra introduced the KA-750, a peeler designed for pineapples, mangos and melons, a machine that Takeshita said will change Astra’s product mix in the near future.

What separates Astra peelers from its competitors’, Takeshita said, is a basic design difference.

Most peelers use a round-type peeling unit, which is easy to manufacture but show, cutting yields. In addition, peeled surfaces are bumpier and more juice is lost in the process.

By contrast, Astra’s peelers use a peeling blade, a method that more closely replicates a person hand-peeling a piece of fruit.

“The blade method makes the peeling speed faster and the surface more beautiful, and there’s a higher yield rate and less juice dripping.”

Ninety-four SKUs and counting

Charlotte, N.C.-based Dole Food Co.’s lineup of fresh-cut fresh produce currently includes 94 SKUs, said Bil Goldfield, the company’s director of corporate communications. That includes 65 packaged salad kits and blends and 20 RTE Bowls (single and multi-serve), three Mini Meals, four fresh-cut pineapple products and two fresh-cut carrot products.

“From an innovation standpoint, and as part of our mission to increase America’s nutritional health through a diet rich in fresh fruits and vegetables, Dole’s product developers, nutritionists and marketers maintain an ‘always-on’ commitment to launching compelling new added-value fruit and vegetable products, including fresh-cut,” Goldfield said.

The need for quick and convenient is not going away, he added, and eating patterns are shifting – more on-the-go, more snacking, more ready-to-eat.

“Dole is actively expanding its branded fresh-cut product offerings, including those featuring pineapples, carrots and other fruits and vegetables, both to balance our leadership in packed salads and to satisfy growing customer demand for convenient nutrition.”

Dole has a number of fresh-cut fruit and vegetable products in the pipeline nationally and in partnership with specific retailers that it will announce in 2021.

“Dole is putting significant effort into this category,” Goldfield said. “This year the national launch of several fresh-cut pineapple products was especially satisfying given the significance of pineapples to Dole and Dole’s 119-year history with that product, origin story and continued operations in Hawaii.”

Beyond that, Dole is working on a number of new fresh-cut products in the “fresh-snack” and “fresh-side” categories, both nationally and in partnership with certain retailers, he added.

Early in the pandemic, frozen fruit saw a big lift due to fears of bare shelves and the need to stock up, Goldfield said.

That said, the resurgence of home cooking and meal prep, not to mention the continued need for time-saving solutions, impacted convenient fresh-cut produce.

“Similar to our value-added/packaged and commodity businesses, the net impact of the coronavirus on fresh-cut was positive as consumers recognized the need for nutritious foods during shelter-in-place orders and as stores remained open and operational thanks to the continued efforts of our retail and distribution partners,” Goldfield said.

Dole experienced increased demand in fresh-cut, packaged and commodity produce at the onset of the pandemic, he said. By the end of the year, movement had returned to more normal levels. however activity has since returned to normal levels.

In 2020, Dole launched two new fresh-cut product lines and extended four others.

In May, Dole expanded its line of ready-to-eat (RTE) salad bowls popular in the East to supermarkets throughout the Western U.S., making it a true national product. Now, salad lovers from coast-to-coast can enjoy six single-serve, RTE salad bowls combining clean-label ingredients with Dole’s Signature dressings and toppings.

The six flavor varieties – four with meat protein and two without – appeal to a wide spectrum of salad lovers and offer a suggested retail price (SRP) of $3.99.

In the fall of 2020, Dole introduced its Just Add Chicken Salad Kits, a new line of salad kits that provide salad lovers everything they need to turn fresh chicken into a healthy and delicious meal for two, Goldfield said.

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.

In 2020 Dole also added to its Premium, Chopped! and Slawesome! salad kits lines, with products including:

  • Sweet Kale Salad Kit (Premium Kit Category): Green Cabbage, Kale, shredded Broccoli, Brussels Sprouts and Radicchio topped with pepitas, dried cranberries and Dole’s Poppy Seed Dressing.
  • Blueberry Bliss Salad Kit (Premium Kit Category): Spinach, Baby Red Chard and Carrots topped with almonds, dried blueberries and Dole’s Blueberry Lemon Dressing.
  • Chopped! Avocado Ranch Salad Kit (Chopped! Kit Category): Chopped Cabbages, Green Leaf Lettuce, Kale, Carrots and Green Onions topped with shredded cheddar cheese, crispy corn and Dole’s Avocado Ranch Dressing.
  • Hawaiian Slawesome! Kit, which leverages Dole’s 100+ year legacy of growing pineapples in Hawaii with a mix of shredded green and red cabbage and carrots, Dole’s Grilled Pineapple Dressing made with real Dole Tropical Gold Pineapples and tropical seasoning for an added punch of flavor.