CHICAGO — Innovation may be the theme for this year’s United Fresh Produce Association show, but The Packer’s 2014 Produce Person of the Year has been known for innovative thinking for 20 years, with some doubting his thoughts would ever come to fruition.

Fresh-cut innovator named Packer Person of the Year“This year we recognize product innovation. It’s been said one of the toughest things in marketing is to convince consumers to crave a product they don’t even know they want,” said The Packer’s editor Greg Johnson when introducing honoree Tony Freytag June 11.

Freytag, senior vice president for sales and marketing at Crunch Pak, had the idea to sell fresh sliced apples and had the insight to pursue the innovation, Johnson said.

Freytag could not find words to express his feelings when he stepped to the podium. A few minutes later, as colleagues shook his hand and slapped his back, Freytag said he was completely surprised.

“I was listening to Greg talk and thinking ‘Who could it be’ and even when he got to the part about apples I was looking around the table wondering who at the company was going to be honored,” Freytag said.

His wife Leslie, who was forewarned, concocted a story about a fictitious last-minute business meeting in Chicago so she could be in attendance without raising suspicions.

Johnson said part of what earned Freytag the recognition are testimonials from his colleagues, who call him an innovator, collaborator and mentor. Collaboration was a key to Freytag’s success with his sliced apple idea.

“He said a few years ago about selling fresh-cut apples ‘Many folks thought we were pretty crazy, but we believed the timing was right,’” Johnson said.

“With the help of a couple similar minded innovators, they first worked out the technology for a sliced apple consumers would like, one that didn’t turn brown, and then he started marketing it.”

Freytag’s marketing efforts have been as innovative as his initial idea, Johnson said.

“If you’re going to connect with consumers, you need may need some help, and who better to call in than Spiderman, Hulk, the X-Men, Captain America, Mickey Mouse, Cars, some Disney princesses, maybe even Anna and Elsa from Frozen.” Johnson said.

“Our honoree’s product has associated with some of America’s most popular children’s characters, and that is as good a strategy as any to get sliced apples into the diet of kids across the country. It also helps when the biggest fast-food chains start adding sliced apples to kids meals, many of which our honoree’s company supplies.”

The sliced apple market is estimated at $500 million.

Before entering the produce industry and joining the Crunch Pak staff in Cashmere, Wash., Freytag worked in high-end retail.