(Aug. 30) SALINAS, Calif. — Fresh Express hopes to do with the fresh-cut fruit category what it has done for bagged salads, and if a new pilot program in Northern California is any indication, it very well may.

Known for its bagged salads, Fresh Express has launched its much-anticipated foray into fresh-cut fruit with the introduction of its Real! Fresh! Fruit! line of individual- and multiple-serving packages of a variety of fresh-cut fruit.

And the first tests, begun in late August, found Fresh Express teaming up with a familiar partner, Save Mart Supermarkets. The 97-store, Modesto-based chain also was the first to test the Fresh Express salads that have helped drive the fresh-cut salad segment.

Steve Junqueiro, director of produce and floral for Save Mart, said consumers have received the new product with enthusiasm from the beginning.

“People are really excited about it,” Junqueiro said. “We’re delighted with the reception.”

So is Fresh Express. The Real! Fresh! Fruit! line is the result of about six years of research into fresh-cut fruit, said Jennifer Whittle, vice president of innovations for fruit for Fresh Express. The line itself has been in development for four years.

“Everyone in the company has believed in fruit,” Whittle said. “Once PFG (Performance Food Group) purchased us, they were very excited and wanted to introduce fresh-cut fruit as soon as possible. Their support has helped a lot.”

Fresh Express, which plans to expand the program regionally, joins another major player, as well as various regional suppliers. Del Monte Fresh Produce NA Inc., Coral Gables, Fla., is establishing a nationwide fresh-cut fruit program, piggybacking on 15 regional distribution facilities.

The Real! Fresh! Fruit! products have a seven-day shelf life. They use no preservatives and incorporate fresh-cut watermelon, cantaloupe, honeydew, apples, pineapples and grapes in various combinations. Fresh Express continues to research other products that could include strawberries and bananas.

The line includes three 3.5-ounce, single-serving cups that are available individually or in three-pack sleeves. The products also are available in 12- and 24-ounce containers that are stackable and resealable.

The line also includes Real! Fresh! Fruit! Fruit Snackers, which have different compartments with vacuum packed seals that contain fresh-cut fruit as well as combinations of cheese, crackers, bagels, yogurt and cream cheese.

The retail prices range from 99 cents for a 3.5-ounce single-serving cup to $2.29 for a Fruit Snacker to $4.99 for a 24-ounce, resealable container.

The fruit cups come in three ready-to-eat varieties. Sweet melon medley is a blend of cantaloupe, honeydew, watermelon and grapes. Crisp apple orange is a blend of apples, pineapples, oranges and grapes. Cool watermelon is 100% seedless watermelon.

The varieties of apples will vary during the year, but will be chosen for sweetness, Whittle said. Generally they will be red apples, and they will be chosen so that their flavors are as similar as possible.

The Fruit Snackers come in four varieties and are aimed at making a fun and nutritious snack for people on the run. In the pilot program, sweet melon medley is available with three combinations of side treats: crackers and cheddar cheese; Yoplait yogurt and crunchy granola; and a Lender’s bagel and cream cheese. The fourth combination is of watermelon and crackers and cheese.

“One thing we found out in our research was that size and portability were important to consumers,” Whittle said. “So we wanted to make a convenient snack that was fresh and all natural and easy to handle.”

Whittle said the Fruit Snackers are prime opportunities for co-promotions with other branded products.

Shelf life is a big issue with fresh-cut fruit products, and Fresh Express has done several things to ensure it. The product is only being produced in a specially built and equipped facility attached to its bagged salad facility in Salinas.

Whittle said product freshness is ensured through proprietary technologies and a Fresh Express cold chain process in which products are cooled immediately upon picking and kept below 40 degrees from field to market for maximum freshness. All Real! Fresh! Fruit! products bear a use-by date. They are sealed with a secure, proprietary and breathable film that prolongs freshness and include an absorbent freshness cushion to keep the fruit at peak flavor, juiciness and firmness while ensuring that there won’t be leaks or spills.

To ensure freshness and shelf life, once Fresh Express rolls out the products nationwide, it will produce them regionally in order to get the product to store shelves as quickly as possible.

After its test roll out in Salinas, Sacramento, the San Francisco Bay Area and other Northern California locations, Fresh Express plans an introduction in Portland, Ore., the rest of the West and eventually a nationwide launch, region by region.“We’ll find out volumes and which sells betters and see how to structure our approach as we move forward,” Whittle said.

Fresh Express plans to promote the Real! Fresh! Fruit! products by linking them to its salads, Whittle said.

Fresh Express plans to put in-pack coupons in its bagged salads to encourage consumers to try the fruit as well as putting flags on its salads touting the fruit. It may also eventually put salad coupons with its fruit products. The company also plans to conduct demos and in-store sampling as well as offer coupons.

Save Mart’s Junqueiro said his stores have marketed the fruit in the same merchandising cases as the bagged salads and that consumers recognized the Fresh Express logo. Consumers who are happy with the bagged salads seem interested in trying other Fresh Express products, like the fresh-cut fruit, he said.