The blizzard that hit the Midwest in the first week of March showed one reason why a lot of retail and foodservice buyers like the flexibility on orders and deliveries that regional and local processors of fresh-cut produce can provide.
“There are probably a lot of products sitting on the shelf because people can’t get to the store,” said Gina Nucci, director of healthy culinary innovation for Mann Packing Co., Salinas, Calif., and a member of United Fresh Produce Association’s Fresh-Cut Processor Board, in early March.
Adaptability to weather patterns isn’t the only attraction. Foodservice items often come with shorter expiration dates, requiring quick turnarounds.
“A restaurant can put in their order for unique, shorter shelf-life items — like a special fresh-cut bell pepper and onions — at the end of the evening and get it the next day because it’s going to be run at a regional processor out of inventory,” Nucci said.
Mann Packing, Salinas, Calif., remains as active as ever in source-based processing, but since 2011 some of its fresh-cut is done at F&S Produce Co. in Rosenhayn, N.J.
“Fresh-cut started out local and regional, then swung toward more source-based,” said Bob Swartwout, vice president of sales for Shelby, Ohio-based processor, re-packer and wholesaler R.S. Hanline & Co. Inc.
“Source-based isn’t going anywhere,” he said, “but there’s a lot more opportunity for the regional and local fresh-cut supply to increase as customers seek to reduce the time between processing and actual consumption.
“We’re seeing a swing toward more regional and local supply to augment what’s already there from the source-based processors, to provide more variety in cut sizes, pack sizes and even combination packs.”
It’s become common for foodservice distributors to have fresh-cut operations. Chicago’s Testa Produce and New York’s Baldor Specialty Foods are examples. Another is J. Kings Food Service Professionals Inc., Holtsville, N.Y.
“Everyone’s doing that,” Nucci said. “Each customer wants a smaller cut, something unique. When you’re making smaller batch runs you have that flexibility in a smaller operation.”
Proliferation of varieties within commodities has also reduced run times and quantities.
“There’s more specialization, which is hard for the source-based guys to do,” Swartwout said.
Beyond convenience and flexibility, quality also motivates the regional shift.
“A lot of items lend themselves to source-based processing,” said Swartwout, citing lettuce and carrots as two examples.
“But the U.S. food distribution chain is so elongated compared to other parts of the world that often flavor or quality may get lost in the shuffle a bit with the extended shelf life.”
“Now some of that is getting pushed back down to the regional or even the local level,” said Swartwout, another member of the Fresh-Cut Processor Board.
“And people want more just-in-time fresh-cut capabilities from local and regional suppliers.”