KINGSBURG, Calif. — Imagine the individual snack-sized packages of sliced apples served with McDonald’s Happy Meals or at Subway.
Now replace the apple slices with washed, destemmed, ready-to-eat red seedless grapes, and you have the concept behind Grape Escapes from HMC Group Marketing Inc.
The marketing arm of HMC Farms introduced 2- and 3-ounce single-serve packages of grapes to foodservice in 2007 and has been slowly expanding production and distribution since, said Steve Kenfield, vice president of sales and marketing.
“This is still very much in its infancy,” Kenfield said. “It’s just emerging from the R&D stage.”
The firm continues to refine production techniques to ensure the best possible product and eating experience, he said.
The packaged grape snacks are available year-round, thanks to Chile shipping grapes during the season opposite North America.
One challenge is educating restaurant and foodservice operators about single-serve grape snacks, Kenfield said.
“People just don’t expect to see grapes like this, even when they’re staring right at them,” he said, describing experiences at the 2012 National Restaurant Association’s Restaurant, Hotel-Motel Show, May 5-8, in Chicago.
Some attendees even asked if those were olives in the packages.
The Washington, D.C.-based restaurant association recognized Grape Escapes in March with one of 18 Food and Beverage Product Innovation Awards.
Where Kenfield sees opportunities is with school meal providers, who have been charged with increasing fruit and vegetable consumption.
In trials with a Southern California school district that compared grape bunches with Grape Escapes, consumption nearly doubled with the single-serve packages, he said.
Kenfield said the packaged grapes aren’t designed to steal the market from sliced apples in schools. Instead, he said the two products are complementary and will provide more choices to help school foodservice directors make more interesting meals.
“If you ask, they’re going to use both items because nobody likes to get the same thing every week,” he said.
He points out that Grape Escapes may not be for every school district, depending on their lunch funding levels.
“Certain schools can make it work and some other schools can’t afford value-added items,” he said.
Hospitals also have taken note of Grape Escapes, since the 3-ounce package has built-in portion control and meets certain exchange groups in dietary menus, Kenfield said.
HMC is not new to the foodservice business, having introduced its Lunch Bunch — seedless red grapes portioned into 2- to 4-ounce bunches — in 1979.
The effort to develop single-serve packaged grape snacks started with a joint venture between HMC Group Marketing and Fresh Express in the mid-1990s. The group rolled out their product at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta to rave reviews, Kenfield said.
But the product never took off.
“We were just a decade-plus ahead of the time,” he said.
HMC reintroduced the concept of single-served packaged grapes in 2007.
In addition to Grape Escapes, HMC also offers destemmed, ready-to-eat seedless red grapes in 1-, 2- and 4-pound trays for foodservice.