When Fresno-Calif.-based Fruit Dynamics Inc. set to clear the hurdles to bringing fresh-cut stone fruit products to store shelves, chief operating officer Kim Gaarde continued to hear that it was an impossible task.
At one industry convention five years ago, Gaarde received condescending admonitions when she questioned why the stone fruit industry had not developed fresh-cut peaches and nectarines.
“If we could put man on the moon, I figured there must be a way,” she said.
After researching everything from fruit varieties to processing and packaging methods, Fruit Dynamics thinks it has hit on a process that produces fresh-cut stone fruit with the shelf life and quality needed to attract consumers.
Still to be determined at Fruit Dynamics, which doesn’t grow or process fruit, is what role the company will play. The options include the company’s packing, shipping and marketing the fresh-cut fruit, licensing the process to established brands or selling the intellectual property.
“I think it’s going to be very, very interesting,” said Jeffrey Brandenburg, president of the JSB Group LLC, Greenfield, Mass., who consulted with Fruit Dynamics on the project
“It’s going to give peaches and nectarines much more exposure than they ever had before,” he said.
Years of research
As Eric Gaarde, Kim’s husband and chief executive officer of Fruit Dynamics, continued to focus on the company’s tasks of fruit quality analysis and laboratory evaluation, Kim and laboratory manager Corey Uyeda began the challenge of finding peach and nectarine varieties that offered promise for the fresh-cut market.
“She was extremely instrumental in determining why things worked and why they failed,” Kim Gaarde said.
They also relied on Fruit Dynamics’ FruitSpan database, which details flavor profiles and other characteristics of a vast array of stone fruit varieties.
The effort gained a third supporter when Brittnie Hammack joined the company as cultivar manager and specialist. As she met with breeders, Hammack identified new varieties that might lend themselves to the project.
There were so many failures during the first three years of testing that Kim seriously considered abandoning the project, she said. But four years into the testing, the trio had identified a limited number of varietal candidates.
“Several planets had to line up perfectly,” Kim Gaarde said. “Candidates had to meet strict flavor profile parameters, had to withstand the process, did not oxidize when cut and could deliver shelf life exceeding 15 days.”
The next ingredient in the formula had to be the proper packaging material. The company sought the services of Brandenburg.
At first, Brandenburg was more than skeptical, but after learning about the process he changed his mind.
“I believe they’ve developed a marketable, pretty exciting product,” he said.
Brandenburg brought in London-based Bunzl PLC to develop the packaging materials.
Test marketing of fresh-cut peaches and nectarines could be in the marketplace within months, Kim said.
“It can be a very agile operation,” she said. “The equipment is readily available, we’ve identified the varieties that work, the process works even on organic fruit and the packaging materials have been developed.”
In addition to the convenience, Brandenburg said the fruits’ high sugar content will make the sliced peaches and nectarines more attractive snacks for children than vegetables.
“If you can get convenience without sacrificing quality, then that’s huge,” he said. “And that’s really what they’ve been able to accomplish.”
Fresh-cut stone fruit could be a new revenue stream for the industry. In 2005, fast food giant McDonald’s Corp. purchased 104 million pounds of apples, which represented 2.5% of the domestic fresh apple volume, Eric Gaarde said.
If the percentage is applied to the 2005 California peach and nectarine crops, it would translate to 970,000 pounds of fruit, he said.
“I can see growers planting trees specifically for fresh cut,” Eric Gaarde said.
An advantage, he said, is that smaller pieces of fruit are best for fresh-cut, not the 40s, 42s and 48s the retailers desire.
The potential for the fresh-cut fruit also is evidenced by the carrot industry, Brandenburg said.
“There are more carrots grown today specifically for fresh-cut than for whole carrots,” he said.