As a produce industry observer, I’m always on the lookout for innovation.
And, as the North American fresh produce industry prepares to gather for its largest conference and trade show since 2019, all eyes are on the International Fresh Produce Association’s BB #:378962 Global Produce and Floral Show in Orlando next month.
Let’s take a look back at several of the most influential ideas, the gamechangers as we’ll call them, that revolutionized the way we do business, and how these disruptors evolved into the innovations we see and enjoy today.
The Big Idea: Bagged Salad
How it changed the game: Companies kicked around the idea of bagged salad for foodservice applications in the late 1970s, but it wasn’t until the 1980s that Salinas, CA-based Fresh Express, Inc. bought the first packaged salad to market with a shelf life long enough to allow for retail distribution on a small scale.
By 1989 Fresh Express had found a winner, introducing the country’s first bagged salads nationwide. The product had a modified atmosphere that allowed respiration within the bag to maintain freshness.
Debut and adjustments
But bagged salads weren’t always an easy sell for retail, says Joe Watson, vice president of domestic business development for IFPA, headquartered in Newark, DE.
“It was a paradigm shift,” Watson says of his days working in retail at Rouses Markets in Thibodaux, LA.
At the time, most retailers were merchandising in flat racks, and weren’t able to maintain the right temperature to keep the salads fresh.
“We were really spinning our wheels,” he remembers. “It would oxidize and lose temperature. Technology was way ahead of what we had from an equipment standpoint.”
In 1994, Watson says, at a Produce Marketing Association and Food Marketing Institute show in Santa Barbara, CA, an industry mentor brought it all together.
“That’s where I met Dick Spezzano for the first time,” recalls Watson.
He says Spezzano, who recently retired after more than 60 years in the industry, including a long stint at Vons supermarkets, helped him learn about newer styles of refrigerated cases more suited to salad products.
“Until we made the investment to put up stand-up cases,” Watson points out, “we didn’t do bagged salad justice.”
Success and the market
Today, the category dominates vegetable sales at retail, coming in No. 3 to tomatoes and potatoes in the latest sales report from 210 Analytics.
Packaged salads accounted for more than $255 million of the $2.8 billion in total sales in fresh vegetables in June 2022 alone, a firm testament to their ongoing relevance.
For its part, Fresh Express assembles and ships almost 40 million pounds of salad each month to retailers, foodservice operators, and restaurants, which the company says amounts to over 20 million servings of its salads every week.
According to Bruce Peterson, founder and CEO of Peterson Insights, Inc. in Bentonville, AR, big ideas have to deliver on at least one of four key areas to succeed in big way: value or price; health and wellness; convenience; or indulgence.
“Convenience is where bagged salad really took off and opened the door for further processed produce,” Peterson says.
But this type of success also comes at a cost, he says. Food safety is always a concern, as is the over-reliance on single-use plastics.
This is an excerpt from the cover story in the September/October 2022 issue of Produce Blueprints Magazine. Click here to read the whole issue.