DALLAS -- What does the consumer want? It's the question that plagues every department of every supermarket around the world. SN got a glimpse of what consumers here are asking for in the way of fresh produce, during a tour of area retailers hosted by the International Fresh-Cut Produce Association, Alexandria, Va. Deep in the heart of Texas, produce managers have found success by offering fresh-cut fruits and vegetables that are filling their customers' greatest desires -- maximum quality and freshness with minimum effort on their part.
At the Kroger unit on North Dallas Parkway here, fresh-cut produce is a hot item, especially when the temperature begins to rise. Produce manager Kirk Turner credited about 25% of overall produce sales to the cut product, adding that while during the winter months the percentage is only between five and ten, the onset of warmer weather causes those numbers to skyrocket.
"This whole wall rack is about $8,000 worth of product," said Turner. "And it has to move. Come summer, we can't keep it on the shelves. It just blows out of here."
He added while the increased demand for fresh fruits and vegetables in the hotter weather is a large component of volume, prices also drop during those months.
"That certainly helps," said Turner. "[The fresh-cut produce] really just flies out of here then. We'll sell the quartered watermelons like crazy."
About 25 to 30 feet is devoted to cut fruits and vegetables, sliced and diced by the same staff which handles the cutting for the self-serve, all-you-can-eat salad bar which marks the entrance to the produce department. Turner said, at this unit, about half of the cutting is done in-store and half is sourced from the outside. Smaller units will sometimes have all cutting done off-site, he said.
The fresh-cut product runs along the back wall of the department and is housed in multitiered refrigerated cases. The temperature of the case is maintained between 35 and 40 degrees Fahrenheit to maximize the product's two-day shelf life. The department itself is to the back left of the store entrance and incorporates special effects -- a soft peal of thunder warns shoppers that misting systems over the wet racks are about to kick in.
According to Turner, the fresh-cut category has grown tremendously in the past five years.
"People want it ready, already, when they pick it up in the store," he said. "This is fast and easy for them because they don't have to do anything except open the container."
Kroger has crammed a lot of options into the allotted space, offering health-conscious customers a variety of fresh-cut items which are stamped with the day they were packed. Clear containers hold cut mixed melon and mixed fruit or just cantaloupe, honeydew or pineapple. There are quartered watermelons and halfed cantaloupes and honeydew filled with berries and giant fruit bowls carved out of watermelon halves.
Also on these shelves are bagged salads by Dole, Fresh Express and Popeye, among others, bags of baby carrots and cut vegetables, as well as fresh salsa mix, lettuce and carrots. They also stock jarred cut fruits here like Del Monte Orchard Select and Sunfresh. Turner said their own mixed-fruit container is the most popular item.
Prices for their own fresh-cut items range from less than $1 to about $3.99 for the fruit in containers, with prices naturally rising for the carved melon baskets. Bagged salads are about $1.99.
Turner said he anticipates only further expansion of the fresh-cut category for Kroger.
"I want to know where the private-label salads are," he said. "We haven't heard anything yet, but I think they're coming because the competition is doing them and we never like to be behind."
The two-level Simon David, on Inwood Road here, has devoted about the same amount of space as Kroger, but has divided it differently within the department. The produce section is to the immediate right of the front entrance. As customers enter the U-shaped department, they first encounter the bagged and bag-your-own salads occupying about 10 feet of their own casing. Fresh Express, Dole and Popeye are the brand names of choice here as well. A sign above the multitiered refrigerated shelving reads "Fresh Meal Center."
At the opposite end of the department, spanning about 20 feet, is the case devoted to fresh-cut produce, which, according to Donald Watson, produce manager, accounts for about 35% of the department's sales. Watson said the majority of the cutting is done by just two produce staff members. He said that while now there are also juices and fresh-cut herbs mixed on the shelf, come spring, and especially summer, all 20 feet will be fresh-cut produce.
"The girls will be cutting every day to meet demand," Watson said. "In the summertime, we really move it out."
On the day of SN's visit, the fresh-cut shelves were stocked with half melons -- cantaloupe, watermelon and honeydew -- as well as cut melon and mixed fruit in clear containers. There were fruit and vegetable platters, carrot and celery sticks, fresh salsa and finely chopped onions. They also have carved watermelons filled with other fruits which retail for about $30. Watson said their mixed-fruit container is very popular. It is sold by weight, in quart-sizes, for about $6 each.
The multidecked case is kept at about 35 degrees Fahrenheit and Watson said the cut produce has an in-store shelf-life of up to three days, but "is monitored constantly to assure quality." He said the items can last for up to four or five days if properly refrigerated, but they want the customers to still have a few days after the purchase.
Watson said their customers truly appreciate the efforts they have taken in this area.
"It's an upscale clientele," he said. "And they really care about the freshness, the quality and the convenience. This is a very important section for us."
Eatzis inaugural unit here, on Oaklawn Avenue, is surrounded by apartment complexes, a situation that does wonders for their mantra of chef-crafted quality prepared food. The store does about $350,000 a week in sales out of 8,000 square feet. Produce accounts for 8% of those sales.
Of that, sales of cut produce are 50% higher than that of whole produce. According to store manager Shane Davis, those numbers caused them to reevaluate the category and customers will witness a change to 50% cut produce in the near future.
"We go through seven-and-a-half cases of cut pineapple a day," Davis said. "When we were only selling whole, we would go through maybe one a day. The difference is amazing."
Produce occupies about 20 feet at the center of the right wall of the tiny store, including fruits and vegetables, cut and whole. For the time being, the fresh-cut items only occupy one shelf, about four feet in length, but Davis said this will soon change.
The cut produce sits on a bed of ice in the very center shelf of a stainless steel shelf unit which juts out in the center like a bay window. Davis said they are already cutting watermelon, cantaloupe, honeydew and pineapple, but only the pineapple and cantaloupe were on display on the day of SN's visit. They are packaged in eight-ounce black-bottomed containers with the pineapple priced at $3.89 and the cantaloupe at $2.49. "The pineapple just sells like water," Davis said.
Sitting on the ice, next to the cut fruit, are individual salads of mixed greens for $1.69 and variety of dressing sides. To the other side is mesclun mix with tongs for bagging yourself. The self-serve salad is $5.59 per pound.
Having professionally trained chefs on staff helps with keeping the best cut fruit on display, and provides plenty of action for customers, according to Davis.
"We have a dicer and a tomato slicer, but we do a lot of knife work," he said. "The chefs have experience, they are culinary trained, they know how to present something well."
Davis said the produce wall is torn down every day and the product level is checked every hour.
"That's what we strive to do here," he said. "You go into a lot of stores and see produce that just shouldn't be out anymore. I don't ever want a customer to think ours looks bad."
To that end, Eatzis only allows the cut produce to remain on the shelves for a maximum of two days, though Davis said it is usually removed after only one.
"Typically, we'll let the cut produce be on the shelves for one day," he said. "Then we'll move it to catering or to the bakery. After the second day we get rid of it. A lot of times we'll donate it because it hasn't actually gone bad, it just doesn't have the superior fresh quality we want on our shelves."
He said the fruit is moved out quicker than their other foods because of the higher rate of perishability.
"We stock for day-to-day purposes," said Davis. "After 9 p.m. you're not going to get a good selection because its mostly sold out. It's a dedication we make to our customers. It's what keeps them coming back."