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IFCO names new CEO
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The Cranberry Network LLC keeping focus locked on fresh market sales

by Tad Thompson | September 02, 2010
Entering its third season, The Cranberry Network LLC in Wisconsin Rapids, WI, is sticking to its cornerstone plan, Bob Wilson, a founding partner with Blake Johnston in creating company, told The Produce News Aug. 26.

That plan is a no-frills promotion of only fresh cranberries, he said, with an emphasis on making the fruit available for relatively late-season sales. This regularly provides fresh cranberries for the Christmas cooking season. On April 9, 2008, The Cranberry Network was named the marketing agency for Habelman Bros. Co. in Tomah, WI, which is among the world's larger fresh cranberry growers and packers.

Since the dawn of its partnership with the Habelman family in 2008, "the model is very, very simple. That is to make sure the freshest-possible fresh cranberries are available and on the shelf when the consumer wants to purchase them. There is a long [industry] history of that not being the case," Mr. Wilson said. The Cranberry Network’s model is to offer a “pack-to-order business.”

To extend the shipping season, “it is a very intentional manner in which the fruit is grown, harvested and managed in the packinghouse, held in the cooler and then put into the bag at the last-possible moment prior to fulfillment of an order. All of those components are very integral” to accomplishing the objective.

“We place a lot of emphasis on holding fruit back before we bag it so the fruit is available for consumers to make their sauces and relishes. They can cook with cranberries for Christmas as well as the Thanksgiving season. There is quite a bit of untapped demand. With an emphasis on Christmas season availability, the growth brought to retailers is solid, incremental sales that they had not had in the past. Or if they did have them, it was by accident because someone over ordered and the fruit happened to last.” As a result, historically, “late-season — or Christmas-season — fruit was somewhat unknown.”

Thus, he said that for The Cranberry Network, “year three is 'business as usual.’ Year one and year two brought great success with our model. The retailers are believers, and we have a very nice following. We don’t have other retail products out there,” so there is no need to offer complex marketing plans.

“We have products when consumers want to have them. That has been a cornerstone of our success. The focus is on what we do and how that differentiates from [the industry’s] business as usual. We found a great acceptance to the four-generation grower and family label. We are getting back to the farm-type concept and linking the grower directly to the retailer. It has been very successful for us.”

Furthermore, offering cranberries of superior quality “has been very important to us.”

Regarding food safety, Mr. Wilson said, “The Habelmans are absolutely leaders in the industry in assuring clients of all appropriate food-safety measures relative to fresh cranberries.”

This season, The Cranberry Network will “pay a little more attention to the media side of what we do. We’ve got to build a library of pictures.”

There will be an emphasis on promoting the health benefits of fresh cranberries, which, compared to processed products, carry the nutritional bonus of flesh, seeds and skins. Like some other fruit varieties, cranberries carry antioxidants. There are also healthy benefits that are unique to cranberries, Mr. Wilson said. These are anti-microbial aspects, and positives also include helping to remove tooth plaque, treating urinary tract infections and “chasing bacteria out of the stomach lining.”

He noted, “Education to the consumer, we think, will pay very well.” Habelman Bros. Co.’s principal, Ray Habelman III, just finished filming a television show featuring the history of the cranberry business with the Lifetime Channel. Mr. Habelman is also filming a children’s educational piece for New Horizon Kids Quest Inc.

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