MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- While many retailers are busily scanning the horizon for the much-hyped arrival of fresh-cut fruit, Kroger Co.'s Delta division here has jumped on board with a regionally processed line of melons, grapes and pineapples.
The processor Prema Pak, based in Smyrna, Tenn., is supplying about 175 Kroger stores with its "Heart Garden" program. The line currently consists of a melon medley with cantaloupe, honeydew and red grapes; cantaloupe, and whole cored pineapple.
While Kroger officials could not be reached for comment, Leigh Rainey, marketing director for Prema Pak, said the processor began supplying about 70 area Kroger stores in March 1995. The program proved so successful it was rolled out to 105 other stores last August, Rainey said.
Kroger units in Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky, Mississippi and Tennessee are carrying the Heart Garden line.
With a shelf-life of about 10 days, the fresh-cut fruit is delivered directly to Kroger distribution centers in the Southeast. Rainey said the melon medley and cantaloupe are equally popular with customers. Both are available in 8-ounce and slightly more than 1-pound sizes. Suggested retail for the 8-ounce products is about $1.99, and the 1-pound items retail at about $2.99, but Kroger stores set the final retail prices, she said.
Maintaining the cold chain and addressing microbiological concerns are major issues with Prema Pak and Kroger, according to Rainey. Prema Pak field
representatives worked directly with Kroger produce managers to educate them on proper handling and refrigeration of the products, she said.
To help ensure product integrity, Heart Garden fruits are packaged in plastic containers, not bags. The packaging comes in two pieces, a container and a lid that is sealed. Packaging bears the Heart Garden name and logo, as well as the slogan "As Fresh As It Gets."
Rainey said she decided upon the packaging design in conjunction with a microbiologist, after researching all the available types of packaging in the industry. The Heart Garden name and logo were developed by Prema Pak's ad agency.
Beyond packaging requirements, Prema Pak had to wrestle with challenges regarding the lack of available equipment for production. Finding proper equipment is one of the biggest hurdles for a regional processor of fruit to overcome, she said.
"Unlike other manufacturing items, fresh fruit is so new to the industry that there is virtually no equipment available on the market for this type of production," she said. "All custom-made equipment must be carefully researched and developed before actual use can be performed on the production line.
"Also, fresh fruit is very sensitive due to its bruising nature and microbiology, so the equipment must address these needs," she said.
While Rainey claimed that sales for the Heart Garden products have risen since their introduction at Kroger stores, she added that Prema Pak is not currently looking to expand its base in retail. With the business from Kroger as well as food-service customers, Prema Pak is operating at near capacity now, she explained.
"This is our first retail venture, and we feel we've been very lucky," said Rainey.
Rainey said obtaining raw fruit that meets consumer expectations, and overall product quality, are another major challenge in developing the line. Certain items, including strawberries, are offered only when supplies and quality are adequate.
"Although our product line is a year-round seller, we have noticed that Heart Garden is the most popular with consumers during the peak growing season for fresh fruit, in the spring and summer months," she added.
Prema Pak is looking to expand the varieties of fruit in the Heart Garden line, but the company is still working on the research and development of those, she said.