(May 23) A fresh-cut leader in the South expects a deal with the SunBlush Technologies Corp., Toronto, to enable it to expand into foodservice, to add products and extend its geographic reach to national proportions by adding regional co-packers.

Country Fresh Inc., Houston, recently signed a licensing agreement giving it exclusive rights, among producers of fresh-cut fruit, to use SunBlush’s Maptek Fresh technology, which extends the shelf life of fresh produce without the use of preservatives. The deal will last 10 years.

Using Maptek Fresh hibernation technology, to be installed in its own plants, Country Fresh will extend the shelf life of its products from five to 10 days, said Bryan Herr, a Country Fresh partner. Country Fresh hopes to have the technology up and running by the end of the year.

That extra five days will allow Country Fresh to break into foodservice markets for the first time, Herr said.

“It’s very hard to get a product through foodservice distribution channels in just five days,” Herr said. “We’re extremely excited about this opportunity. With the SunBlush technology, the fruit tastes as good after 10 days as it does the first day.”

Eventually, Herr said, Country Fresh expects 20% to 25% of its business to be in foodservice. But that doesn’t mean a decline in its retail business. Country Fresh anticipates a 25% to 30% increase in its weekly output of 1 million pounds of fresh-cut fruits and vegetables. Fruit accounts for about 85% of the company’s business.

With increased production will come what Herr said he hopes is an expansion into new markets. Country Fresh’s base is in the South, and in recent years its distribution reach has been inching up the East Coast, Herr said, but he expects that progress to accelerate.

“What we intend to do, beginning this fall, is sign up co-packers in other parts of the country,” Herr said. “We’re shooting for six co-packers, with coverage all the way from the East Coast to California.”

OPPORTUNTIY

Edith Garrett, president of the International Fresh-cut Produce Association, Alexandria, Va., said there was a great opportunity for companies like Country Fresh to expand their fresh-cut fruit distribution networks. Garrett compared the fresh-cut fruit market to the early days of its wildly successful predecessor, bagged salads.

“Fresh-cut fruit is still in the early stages, and there is tremendous opportunity for volumes to increase,” Garrett said. “And there are only a few items being offered now. There’s still a huge opportunity for more fruit salads, as well as new commodities. It’s an exciting time.”

Garrett said another opportunity for growth exists as the line between retail and foodservice continues to blur. She said producers of fresh-cut fruit could find their product moving out of other departments in the grocery store besides the produce aisle.

LINE EXPANSION

Herr said he also expects the SunBlush technology to allow Country Fresh to expand its product line beyond its staple fruit lineup of honeydews, watermelons, cantaloupes, pineapples and grapes. Herr said the company would shoot for an additional seven to 10 commodities.

“We’ve been very limited up until now,” Herr said. “Our feeling is that there are a lot of consumers who, for instance, may not like cantaloupes but like mangoes. Tastes today are so diverse.”