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Safeway launches new salad kits

Safeway has launched a new line of chopped salads. The "Safeway Farms" kits are available in five varieties, each containing greens, toppings and dressing.

"We work closely with our growers to make sure every ingredient is always fresh and delicious and grown with the highest standards," the company states on its website.

The Asian Sesame salad kit contains Napa cabbage, carrots, celery, green onions, cilantro, garlic ginger wonton strips and peanuts and tangy sesame ginger dressing.

Bacon & Bleu contains Romaine, iceberg and cabbage blend, broccoli, celery, carrots, radishes, cauliflower, bacon and blue cheese crumbles, and bleu cheese dressing.

Safeways' Kale Cranberry Pecan salad kit contains kale, cabbage, radicchio, broccoli, carrots, candied pecans, dried cranberries, herb seasoned crouton topper and country Dijon mustard dressing.

The fourth option, Italian, is comprised of Romaine, iceberg and radicchio blend, parsley, radishes, salami and parmesan cheese, and a roasted red Bell pepper vinaigrette dressing.

The fifth new salad kit is Mediterranean, and it is made up of escarole, endive, radicchio, cabbage, broccoli, carrots, cauliflower, flatbread strips, feta cheese and a basil balsamic vinaigrette dressing.

United Fresh partners with National Association of Convenience Stores

The United Fresh Produce Association and the National Association of Convenience Stores announced a new partnership to significantly increase the sales of fresh produce in convenience stores. A new task force of members of both groups met during the United Fresh 2014 convention in Chicago last week.

As leading associations representing produce suppliers and convenience store customers, United Fresh and NACS have formed the partnership to identify best practices that can be shared across the industry to assist convenience store operators in developing their own fresh produce supply chains and in-store management.

With more than 151,000 locations across the country, convenience stores are increasingly seen as a convenient destination for consumers to buy fruit and vegetables. In 2013, produce sales at convenience stores were up 16.7 percent, more than doubling the overall 7.3 percent growth rate of produce in the United States.

“The business opportunities for convenience stores that manage fresh produce well are vast, for direct sales as well as enhancing the image of stores as a provider of fresh and healthy food options," Tom Stenzel, United Fresh president and chief executive officer, said in a press release. "Fresh-cut fruit and vegetables, ready-to-eat meals and snack products, and even whole commodities can deliver attractive margins and new customer segments to retailers."

“Consumers are increasingly seeking grab-and-go convenient options for their produce needs," Henry Armour, NACS president and CEO, said in the release. "Convenience stores present a tremendously underdeveloped source of produce sales in communities. We are excited to work with United Fresh to give retailers the tools to affordably acquire merchandise and sell produce in their communities as part of our broader nutrition initiative.”

At its initial meeting in Chicago, the task force reviewed current challenges in supply chain management, in-store handling and merchandising, and other barriers to produce success for convenience retailers. The task force also began identifying best practices in meeting each of these challenges, learning from those retailers and produce suppliers who are finding the greatest success today. The associations plan to develop tools and services to share best practices and successes with the broader memberships of NACS and United Fresh.

Convenience store sales of produce reached $328 million in 2013, and the groups believe that sales can increase dramatically over the next five years from this task force’s efforts.

Stemilt’s premium apricot season under way in Washington

Apricot season is under way for Stemilt Growers, one of Washington’s leading apricot grower-shippers. The company started harvesting and packing apricots in central Washington earlier this week, which is a week ahead of last year’s timing. Not only is Stemilt a state leader in apricot volume, but it also has a strong organic presence centered on growing fruit for flavor.Apricot-Mockup

Stemilt expects to harvest nearly 300,000 cartons of apricots this year, which is a 35 percent increase from 2013. Ideal weather conditions throughout bloom and the growing season made for a nice crop set and led to increased volumes, said Roger Pepperl, Stemilt marketing director.

“Weather has definitely been on our side this season, which is resulting in large-sized, clean and very high-quality apricots," he said in a press release. "We’re harvesting Robada apricots now and will quickly move into our leading two varieties, Rival and Perfection. Stemilt will have promotable volumes to ship by the middle of next week, and encourages strong apricot promotions at retail from June 30 through July 14.”

Approximately 60 percent of Stemilt’s apricots are grown and certified organic. The company’s commitment to organics differentiates its apricots in the marketplace and aids in producing fruit with complex flavors. Stemilt markets organic apricots under its "Artisan Organics" label.

“The natural farming techniques used in organic production brings orchards into balance from a horticultural standpoint. This combines with the ideal climate in central Washington to produce larger apricots with great color and a true dessert eating experience,” Pepperl said in the release.

Washington apricots are a natural transition from California, and recent category reports have shown apricots to be performing very well at retail, Pepperl added.

“Apricots are a great item to load with Stemilt cherries now through July, and our strong position on organic apricots is perfect for differentiating the dessert qualities of our fruit to shoppers,” he said.

Stemilt’s random-weight pouch bag will be used again this season to pack any size apricot, and is especially beneficial for promoting organic apricots at retail. “The pouch bag is a great way to increase purchase size and build incremental sales. It’s also a way for us to easily message the fact that the apricots inside are organic,” said Pepperl.

With lots of jumbo-sized fruit this year, Stemilt will also pack large apricots in panta packs and tray packs. Volume fill boxes will be used for smaller sizes.

Stemilt apricots are grown primarily by the Douglas family, who has farmed fruit in central Washington for four generations. Orchards are located in the Tri Cities, Columbia Basin and the Wenatchee Valley, where long, warm days and cooler nights precede harvest.

“We’re fortunate to grow apricots in the best locales, and are very pleased by the quality of fruit we’re seeing come off the tree right now. Artisan Organics apricots are the perfect item to build stone fruit category sales during the upcoming key summer months,” said Pepperl.

Organics continue double digit growth

While organic products in the marketplace continue to experience double digit growth, they still only represent a small percentage of overall business, meaning there is much room for more growth.

That was the take away message delivered by a trio of speakers at a workshop sessions during the United Fresh Produce Association convention in Chicago, June 10-12.

Laura Batcha, executive director and CEO of the Organic Trade Association, led the discussion and kicked off the session with some numbers about the growth of the category. In 2002, when the USDA came out with quantifiable organic standards and the USDA organic seal, the sector had gross sales in the United States of about $3 billion. Those standards, Batcha said, "created a platform for huge expansion."

By 2013, the market had grown 10-fold and now there are sales of $35 billion, with fruits and vegetables leading the category by representing 36 percent of those sales. It is not only the largest sector within that category but it's the fastest growing, according to the OTA executive.

Elaborating on the impact in the fresh produce industry were panelists Todd Linsky, vice president of organic sales for Grimmway Farms/Cal-Organic Farms, and Michael Hollister, senior vice president of sales and marketing for Driscoll Strawberry Associates Inc. Those two were respectively representing the top selling fruit and vegetable in the category: carrots and berries. Both confirmed that organic sales continue to increase.

Linsky said carrots generate a high velocity of organic sales year round. "They are doing very well," he added.

Hollister said the great thing about shoppers who buy organic berries and other organic items, is they are "super heavy consumers" buying 25 percent more fruits and vegetables per store visit than their non-organic buying counterparts.

While there are heavy buyers of organic produce and other organic items, Batcha said penetration of organic products runs deep. An annual survey of 1,200 households that OTA has been conducting for the past seven years, reveals 80 percent say they have purchased at least one organic item in the past year. "The vast, vast majority (of households) are aware of organics and participate in some way."

Batcha said what separates an organic shopper from a conventional one is that the organic shopper is much more likely to associate making a healthy choice with her food buying decisions.

Linsky said this emotional connection that most organic food shoppers associate with the purchase of these products is why he believes the potential for growth continues to be sky high. He said the value of that emotional connection in their food buying choices "is huge."

Hollister agreed stating that many organic shoppers see a relationship between their food shopping behavior and their lifestyle. It is the urban/cosmopolitan resident that is more likely to be an organic shopper and is currently driving increased sales in the category.

Underscoring that connection, Batcha said the typical organic shopper is much more likely to diversify their buying habits, shopping at three different stores or more a week, presumably searching for the exact items they want. They are a younger buyer and their average spend in a store is $125 per visit compared to $110 for a non-organic shopper.

But she said the vast majority of organic fruit and vegetable shoppers will buy conventional product if organic is not available. The OTA research shows that 91 percent still make a purchase if an organic item that they are looking for is not available, with a majority of those buying the conventional option but almost 40 percent picking a different organic option.

Linsky believes the shopping at many stores and changing purchases at the grocery store because of lack of availability of the organic option points to the huge potential that remains for the category and retailers. He said no one appears to be offering the organic consumer exactly what they want at one place. Retailers should embrace that heavy produce-shopping consumers and "get her back in your store," said the carrot salesman.

Hollister reiterated that the organic shopper is a very valuable customer. Natural food stores cater to those customers and if traditional supermarkets want more of that businesses they should find a way to communicate better with that consumer, he said.

Both Hollister and Linsky pointed out that keeping up with the demand for organic fruits and vegetables is one of their biggest challenges from the supply side. The Driscoll executive said they are seeing 20 percent year over year growth in their organic sales but getting the land to increase their production in that amount is difficult. For a grower, it takes three years to transition conventional land to organic production. "It's a huge investment; it doesn't happen overnight."

Linsky concurred. "Ground is a huge challenge," he said. "And it will continue to be a challenge."

A question from the audience about Walmart's contention that the nation's largest retailer plans to bring organics into the marketplace at a cheaper price brought a warning from Hollister. He indicated that type of talk creates an expectation that is hard to meet. He said growing organic produce is an expensive proposition and it can't always be delivered at that cheap price that Walmart is noted for. But he added that they love the attention the announcement brings to the category "and we'd love to have that conversation with them."

SNAP incentives driving produce sales

When Congress passed the farm bill earlier this year, they enhanced an incentive program for buying healthier foods by those using food stamps, also known as the Supplemental Assistance Nutrition Program.

Oran Hesterman, president and chief executive officer of Fair Food Network, told a United Fresh 2014 audience how pilot programs have been initiated to link incentive programs with the purchase of locally grown fresh fruits and vegetables to boost sales and boost nutrition for SNAP users. He specifically talked about a pilot program in three Detroit stores last year, and another one that will be conducted this summer with at least three stores serviced by SpartanNash in the state of Michigan.

Fair Food Network, which is a national non-profit based in Michigan, has established what it calls the “Double Up Food Bucks” program as a national model for healthy food incentive programs. The organization solicits funds from foundations to provide one-to-one matching monies to fund the purchase of Michigan-grown fruits and vegetables. It started the program in 2009 in a farmers markets and it has now grown to 100 sites and the newest programs are moving into conventional grocery stores.

Hesterman said that is a natural evolution because that is where the vast majority of SNAP participants buy their groceries. Last year’s pilot program utilized three grocery stores in Detroit that had high utilization of SNAP funds. The way the program worked last year is that when a consumer with a SNAP card purchased $10 worth of fruits and vegetables from any point of origin, she or he received an additional $10 on a gift card to be used specifically to purchase Michigan-grown fruits and vegetables.

The program had the dual goal of increasing fruit and vegetable consumption by SNAP users and giving Michigan produce a shot in the arm. Hesterman said it was a huge success.

During last summer’s pilot program in the three stores, 3,600 $10 “Double Up” cards were issued; 78 percent of those cards were redeemed utilizing a total of about 50 percent of the dollars on those cards. Eighty percent of those SNAP customers reported buying more fruits and vegetables in general and 25 percent said they bought more Michigan produce.

Overall, since the Double Up program was launched in 2009, Fair Food Network said SNAP customers have bought 3 million pounds of healthy food with their Double Up Food Bucks.

Because of that success, SpartanNash is working with Fair Food Network this summer to test the program on three different stores: one each in Detroit, Battle Creek and Grand Rapids. Brian Haaraoja, vice president of fresh merchandising for the chain, explained that the operation is currently reconfiguring its loyalty card program to incorporate the SNAP Double Up program within it. Basically anytime a SNAP customer comes into a participating store and spends up to $10 on fresh fruits and vegetables, a matching amount will be loaded to their loyalty card to be spent on Michigan produce. Each day these SNAP customers can earn as much as $10 in additional funds.

Food Fair Network has raised $200,000 to provide the matching funds during the four-month program.

Haaraoja said SpartanNash is looking at the effort as a great opportunity to help its SNAP customers while also boosting sales for the more than 100 Michigan growers that it buys from on an ongoing basis.

The company is using in-store banners, mailers and bag stuffers to introduce the program to its SNAP customers. It will also highlight the program in its weekly food page ads. “Selfishly we hope to grow sales,” said Haaraoja, “but we also want to lead our SNAP customers to more nutritious eating habits.”

Hesterman said interest in this program nationwide is very high. He has handled queries from potential partners in many different states that want to launch their own pilot programs to take advantage of the incentive money for SNAP customers in the farm bill. There are $35 million dollars of incentive funds available for the 2014-15 fiscal year with the USDA expected to issues RFP (requests for proposal) guidelines by late summer.

“We believe this is a great program,” said Hesterman. “It supports regional agriculture and helps feed poor families with more produce.”

He said Fair Food Network is planning to apply for funds and expand its efforts beyond Michigan.