Fresh-cut processor grows sales in foodservice and retail

Jeff Twyman calls his entry into the produce industry a “strange sequence of events.”

A lawyer by trade, Twyman was more familiar with writing contracts than with running a business. He was hired to represent a large national produce company – his first taste of the produce industry. He went on to serve as president of that company, but later returned to law.

But Twyman never forgot the industry, and he began searching for a product that needed innovation for the fresh market. He found it in green beans in1985 and spent the next year developing and patenting a shelf-life extension process called the Fresh Start Process, which the company still uses to this day.

Green beans weren’t being used with any new processing techniques, and Twyman felt there was a need for fresh, ready-to-eat green beans. So in 1986, Twyman and his wife, Carol, formed GreenLine in Bowling Green, Ohio. They launched their first product that year, a 16-ounce bag of untrimmed beans for retail. The retail package didn’t sell well – a combination of bad packaging and presentation – despite interest from grocery stores in the shelf-life extension process. Twyman’s new produce company then started trimming the beans and focusing on the foodservice segment.

It’s been a long road, but in the 22 years that GreenLine has been processing green beans, it’s grown to serve both retail and foodservice customers and is now the largest distributor of processed green beans in the United States.

“Some days, I wish I had an MBA instead of a law degree,” Twyman said.

GreenLine first served the foodservice industry, shipping trimmed, fresh-cut green beans in packages of two 5-pound bags. The number of products has increased to include French green beans and snow peas for foodservice.

Its first processing facility was in Bowling Green, which was expanded and updated in 1993. Since then, two more plants have been added in Vero Beach, Fla., and Las Vegas. The facilities have HACCP, GMPs and are AIB-certified. As suppliers for Sysco and Kroger, both companies regularly inspect the processing plants.

The three processing facilities also serve as distribution hubs, and with two additional hubs in New York and South Carolina the company can distribute fresh product coast to coast. GreenLine ships its produce on its own trucks so that the temperature can always be regulated.

“It gives us the opportunity to have better control over the cold chain,” said Craig Burnside, vice president of sales and marketing for GreenLine. “What makes us unique is our ability to distribute coast to coast, because of the transportation that Jeff (Twyman) had the foresight to put in place.”

Burnside has been with the produce company for about two years. He also did not have a produce or agriculture background, but he worked with GreenLine as a banker and has seen the company’s growth over the years, he said.

The transportation system is a value-added service for GreenLine’s customers, Burnside said. GreenLine offers backhauling – returning to the distribution center full after dropping off a load – and hitch-a-rides – transporting a customer’s trailer or product to the next stop.

About five years ago, GreenLine moved into the retail market with fresh-cut options after seeing continued growth and increased demand on the foodservice side.

“There really isn’t a fresh, convenient green vegetable on the market that is palatable to people,” Burnside said.

GreenLine offers trimmed green beans, yellow wax beans and a blend of green beans and carrots. They’re packaged in 12-ounce or 2-pound microwavable bags and sold under both the GreenLine label and a private label. In addition to the beans, GreenLine processes and distributes asparagus, red and yellow potatoes and hydroponic bib lettuce for private label customers, one of which is Kroger.

Burnside said there are many advantages to fresh-cut, packaged greens for both retailers and consumers. Retailers don’t have to deal with the shrink that is inherent with bulk green beans, which last only three to four days compared to GreenLine’s products that have a shelf life of 14 days. Consumers also don’t have to dig through bulk bins to pick out the best green beans, then trim, wash and cook them.

“The growth has been significant,” Burnside said. “It has continued to grow in foodservice. Retail has been very exciting.”

The taste of fresh-cut green beans doesn’t compare to frozen beans, Burnside said. The texture – an important aspect of fresh produce – is significantly different from frozen and much more pleasing to consumers.

Burnside said GreenLine has found that if customers try the fresh-cut green beans, wax beans or bean and carrot mix, they will continue to buy the produce.

“Once a consumer buys our product, they buy it again,” he said. “The key is getting product into the hands of the consumers. If you can make it convenient, that’s even better.”

GreenLine works with retailers to make its products easier to find. When a retail store has strong sales of the company’s lines, a picture of the display is put into a book that GreenLine employees show other retailers. Those “best practices” are one more way they can get the produce into consumers’ carts.

GreenLine has experienced phenomenal growth over the last 10 years. In 1988, the company was processing about 10,000 bushels of beans a week. Burnside said they now process between 35,000 and 40,000 bushels a week and have expanded their growing operations.

Because the company sells fresh beans year round, it needs growing operations working year round. During the winter months, most of the green beans come from the area around Homestead, Fla. As temperatures rise, the operations move north to Georgia and the Carolinas, all the way up to Bowling Green. GreenLine uses a proprietary hybrid stringless variety that is grown for taste and hardiness – to reduce the chance of bruise injury during mechanical harvest. There is about 60 days from plant to harvest, so in Ohio there are usually two plantings a season, Burnside said.

GreenLine works with growers who are willing to grow the variety of bean and work to the company’s specifications – including following Good Agricultural Practices. That ensures a safer product coming into the processing facilities, Burnside said, and the rigorous controls in the plants maintain a food safety chain that goes right to the consumer.

Burnside said he wants to walk into a supermarket one day and see no bulk produce, only fresh-cut bags. He said washed and trimmed produce in microwavable packaging benefits retail markets and consumers because it is convenient and reduces shrink – and introduces fewer contaminants to the stores.

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