CHANDLER, Ariz. -- Bashas' Markets here is taking a step toward merchandising more meal solutions in its produce department by experimenting with a program that matches fresh produce to spices.
In a store in Fountain Hills, Ariz., the chain last week began trying out a program in which packages of fruits and vegetables are overwrapped with packets of complementary spices, providing shoppers with a basic kit for a convenient meal idea.
While such a cross-pollinated product may not be the typical version of a supermarket meal solution, it does represent a deeper foray into the meals merchandising mix for produce, at least at Bashas', said Eddie Burdette, produce supervisor for the chain.
"We've really never tried anything like this in produce before," Burdette told SN. "We want to see what the consumer wants, what the shopper is looking for."
That particular store, and the Bashas' format in general, is more likely to draw customers interested in the spice/produce mix, Burdette added. Bashas' also operates stores under the A.J.'s Fine Foods banner, as well as Bargain Basket units and 16 Megafoods stores purchased last year.
The idea for the cross-packing came from retailers. "We talked to a lot of people in the industry," said Reid Turner, vice president of Fountain Hills-based Merit Enterprises, the company acting as a broker for spice supplier Everson Spice, Long Beach, Calif.
"They told us, 'You've got to get from the hanging rack to inside the package,' " he said, referring to similar items such as Produce Partners, which are produce-flavoring packs usually cross merchandised in produce departments on hanging racks, but not directly inside produce packages.
Burdette said his chain is helping Turner measure what kind of interest the program will garner from consumers. The initial task is not so much to get the chain to implement it in other stores, but to have some hard numbers regarding performance so that the spice company can then market the idea to processors.
For the test here, employees will do the packaging themselves, Turner said.
"We've got a really good crew there," Burdette said of the store where the experiment is taking place.
Still, the broker will be directly involved in the promotion and the execution of the experimental program, he said, and will monitor sales of the packages.
Spice packets will cost anywhere from 38 to 50 cents, although that does not include markup or the cost of the fruits or vegetables.
"It's pretty expensive," Turner said. "But we're working on the price points."
Currently, Everson has 12 flavors of spice packages to offer in conjunction with produce items, including items like cream of soup base, guacamole, fruit salsa and tomato salsa.
Turner said he will be rolling out about seven or eight of the spices, including an Italian marinara with spaghetti squash, and onion rings with the guacamole mix. He added that they were entertaining the possibility of putting the packages in a separate section in the produce department.
Any other major promotion will be done in the form of sampling, as well as some point-of-sale materials.
"We're not going to have three [tiers] of product," Turner said. "We'll probably have one level. We just want to give the consumers a taste."
The packets contain ingredients for suggested recipes, instructions and nutritional facts. After several requests from retailers and processors, Turner said the next flavor will most likely be Cajun. "The retailer can put it with whatever he wants," Turner said. He added that his goal is to gain acceptance in three venues: at the retail level, with the processor and with the repacker.
Whether retailers will want to be involved with the production end of such a program remains to be seen, he said. A chain such as Albertson's, Boise, Idaho, for instance, is "willing to do a lot of their own labor," Turner said, whereas a chain such as Safeway, Pleasanton, Calif., would rather have the work done at the packing or processing plant.
Turner said most chains he's spoken to would rather have processors take on the responsibility.
"It's going to be the processor or the repacker," he said.
Burdette of Bashas' agreed, adding that he thought the Everson Spice program will realize its greatest success if handled by processors, because "that is their job.
"That definitely seems to be a better way," he said. "The retailer doesn't have enough labor."
Should the program prove successful and Bashas' decide to adopt it in all its stores, the chain would "rather go through a processor," Burdette said.
Shoppers who buy the "meal solution" still have to take the product home and cook it, but Turner and Burdette both said they believe it will save shoppers a trip to another part of the store in search of the right topping for their fruits and vegetables.
The program also zeros in further on providing the consumer with a convenient alternative right in produce.
"They literally have a finished product," Turner said. "They just have to cook the vegetables in water and throw in the spice."
"The closer we can get to that convenience, the better off we are," Burdette said.
The program was first unveiled at the Newark, Del.-based Produce Marketing Association's convention in October 1996.
Until now, Everson's meal-solution programs had only appeared in supermarket meat departments. "We said, 'Where else can we go with this?' " Turner said.
He noted that value-added has typically been offered with only a select number of items, like cut carrots or salad kits.
"There's all this other produce that nobody's doing anything with," Turner said. "We supply the stuffing, sauces, the recipes -- the whole program. We're willing to formulate anything."