Commodity group helps in product development to grow sales

April 8, 2009

Innovation generally comes from a company looking to create a competitive advantage by offering a new product or a new use for an existing product. That’s been the model in the fresh-cut industry, and has resulted in many new fresh-cut offerings, including the $1.5 billion bagged salad market.

But potatoes, the most consumed vegetable in the United States, hasn’t grabbed the same chunk of the fresh-cut market as it holds in the fresh market. The industry has suffered over the last few decades as preparation time for meals decreases, health concerns regarding the potato have increased and consumers just don’t know how to prepare potatoes.

So the marketing and promotion arm of the potato industry, the United States Potato Board, has been working with a product innovation company to develop convenient products for potatoes. It’s not the typical model – lettuce industry groups didn’t invest in creating bagged salads and the U.S. Apple Association hasn’t invested in creating fresh-cut apples – but the potato board is charged with increasing demand, and that means repositioning potatoes as whole to fit in with consumers’ lifestyles, said Tim O’Connor, president of the U.S. Potato Board.

“We see our role as a little bit different (from other commodity groups). We want to be the venture capital group for the industry, where we give money and support to develop products and let companies run with it. We want to unlock great ideas and innovations that will benefit the industry,” O’Connor said.

USPB’s innovation program has only been around for three years, but already it’s spurred some successful products, O’Connor said. The first was potatoes in microwaveable bags, an idea that came from Europe and now is marketed by Wada Farms and Dole Fresh Vegetables. Green Giant also introduced a potato product that goes right on the grill to make fresh grilled potatoes easy for consumers. The Country Crock fresh-cut mashed potatoes have been a great success, too, but O’Connor said that market matured quickly so new products had to be developed. The latest innovation is a new value-added mashed potato bowl that gives consumers everything they need to make fresh mashed potatoes in 10 minutes.

“What the innovation program essentially helped to do was identify a cooking technique for the potatoes,” said Tim Straus, principle of the Turover Straus Group Inc., the product development company working with USPB to introduce new potato products.

The Masher Bowl comes with a pound and a half of whole potatoes that have been triple-washed and are ready to eat in a microwaveable bowl with a removable lid. Also in the package are spices to mix in. When a consumer goes to make the product, he or she simply opens up the package, pulls out the seasoning package, puts the lid back on and microwaves the bowl for nine minutes. After that, the consumer pours the spice pack over the potatoes, adds one cup of milk and microwaves for one more minute. Then the potatoes just have to be mashed and mixed.

The Masher Bowls can be used with any variety of potato, but reds and Yukon Golds work particularly well because they have a thin skin, Straus said. The product cuts down on preparation time for meals, and makes enough for six 4.5-ounce servings. That’s important considering the average dinner preparation time has decreased from 49 minutes to just 31 minutes, and it’s nearly impossible to bake or mash potatoes in that amount of time, Straus said. The Masher Bowl also cuts down on clean-up and is an easy side dish.

The packaging was designed so individual potato packers could have their own names on the label, but for now the label is more descriptive than branded, Straus said. It’s important to first get the “fast and fresh” message out. There are three packers looking at the bowls already, with Alsum Produce in Friesland, Wis., testing the product and the others interested. The Masher Bowls were being test-marketed in March in five Jewel-Osco supermarkets. The products initially sold 129 units for a total sales figure of $519. That might not sound like a lot, but the response has been good for an all-new product.

“Any time you have a new product like this, you can’t expect to go out and sell a million of them right away,” Straus said.

Consumer testing, through in-home demonstrations and panels, showed interest in the product from shoppers, he said. In the research, about half of the consumers said they would re-use the microwaveable bowl with fresh potatoes they bought at the store, and the other half said they enjoyed the convenience of having everything together and would buy the whole kit again. Either way, the product would increase sales of potatoes, so it’s a win for the industry, Straus said.

Turover Straus Group is moving forward with other variations on the Masher Bowl. Another product in development is a bacon and cheese Masher Bowl that includes a cheese pack and bacon in the kit. The product will cook the same, but the consumer will toss in the bacon to cook with the potatoes for the first nine minutes, then add the cheese before mashing. That product will add the aroma of bacon throughout the kitchen, Straus said.

The product innovation program is essential for the potato industry, O’Connor and Straus said. Although the potato still remains the most popular vegetable, consumers are having a hard time figuring out where it fits in to their lifestyles. By making potatoes convenient and fast, demand could increase and benefit USPB’s grower-members. Fresh-cuts have worked for other fruits and vegetables – like corn, carrots and celery – and Straus said it could work for potatoes.

“Even the carrot has found a way to innovate itself,” he said. “There are already some nice templates for us in the produce industry.”