Fresh Del Monte Produce’s fresh-cut vending machines have ‘rock star’ appeal

Fresh Del Monte Produce is heavily invested in value-added produce items at retail, but the company was looking for ways to reach consumers in places where fresh fruits and vegetables typically aren’t available.

That effort led to the development of a Del Monte-branded vending machine that was introduced to the snack food vending machine industry in September, then introduced to the produce industry at the Produce Marketing Association Fresh Summit in Anaheim, Calif., a month later. At the initial reveal, the company was considered the “rock star of the show” thanks to the innovation and truly new product for snacking.

The fresh-cut vending machines will utilize Fresh Del Monte’s network of processing facilities and re-packaging distributors throughout the United States. The vending machines should be restocked at least once a week, so a convenient distribution system is necessary to maintain quality. Fresh-cuts are packaged in plastic clamshells with no modified atmosphere, with the product line including pineapple chunks, grapes, apple slices, baby carrots, celery and tomatoes. Some of the products also have a Litehouse dip included – caramel for sliced apples, Ranch for baby carrots, celery and vegetable mix and yogurt dip for pineapple chunks and pineapple and grape mix. The fresh-cut products range in size, with portions between 4 ounces and 6 ounces. Prices range from $1 to $2.25 per item, which is competitive with other non-healthy snack items.

The bananas aren’t processed, but they are individually packaged in a new proprietary packaging called CRT. The film slows down ripening, extends the favorable yellow coloring of the bananas and improves the texture and sweetness of the product. The CRT package extends the shelf life of the bananas two to three days beyond normal shelf life, for a total of about five days.

The vending machine itself is unique – standard snack vending machines aren’t refrigerated and beverage machines keep one cool temperature. The Del Monte machine has two zones – the upper section holds the bananas at their optimum temperature of 57 F to 60 F, and the lower two-thirds of the machine holds rows of fresh-cut items at a temperature of 38 degrees to preserve shelf life and quality. There’s no visible divider between the two section – the bananas have to travel to the bottom of the machine for retrieval – the separation is achieved by managing the air through vents.

The machine also maintains quality by handling the produce gently. A standard vending machine drops the snack item to the bottom, but the Del Monte machine catches the produce item and transports it to the bottom where the consumer can reach in and get it.

Del Monte test-marketed the fresh-cut vending machines in Illinois and Florida, and after hearing the positive responses decided to roll out the line in the Mid-Atlantic region and the Southeast. The company plans to introduce other markets across the United States during 2010. Schools, universities, health clubs, parks and office buildings will see the vending machines – locations that typically don’t offer fresh, healthful fare and where target consumers are crunched for time, according to the company.

“Research and growing concern over important health issues and caloric intake prove that consumers are taking steps to eat healthier,” said Dennis Christou, vice president of marketing for Fresh Del Monte. “As a company, we feel the need to respond to the increasing consumer demand for healthy snack options on the go. With this fresh vending line, we are providing completely natural items with less than 120 calories that are ready-to-eat.”

In addition to its own line of vending machines, Del Monte announced in December that it was partnering with a Ventura, Calif.-based Vend Natural Inc. to distribute Del Monte fresh-cut produce in the company’s existing line of healthy and organic vending machines. Vend Natural has more than 350 vending machines in 16 states, with plans to expand in 2010. The company offers healthful options, and does so with vending machines that are energy efficient and environmentally sensitive, according to the company.

“We are pleased to be one of the first vending operators to provide American consumers with easy access to Del Monte’s fresh-cut fruits and vegetables in our vending machines,” Vend Natural President Gil Sanchez said in a statement. “Adding these high-quality products to our existing all-natural and organic snack and beverage line was an important advancement in delivering the widest variety of healthy snacking alternatives for fast-paced living. Del Monte’s fresh products will help us reinforce that people no longer need to trade health for convenience.”

Vend Natural’s vending machines are in schools, hospitals and businesses with natural and organic options, including dried fruit, kettlecorn popcorn, baked potato chips, mixed nuts, sunflower seed sand granola and energy bars from Odwalla, Clif Bar, Luna, Balance and Nature’s Valley. The company has dual-zone vending machines with refrigeration, so the Del Monte products can be easily integrated.

“Our decision to supply Vend Natural with fresh produce in their snack machines was driven by our shared mission to meet the demand for better snacking options to address growing health concerns and a desire for healthier living amongst the general public,” Christou said.

Del Monte products will begin appearing in Vend Natural machines in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic first and expanding to other regions serviced by Vend Natural throughout the year.

Reaching consumers in new and innovative ways is part of Del Monte’s growth strategy. The company managed to have profitable returns in 2009 despite the down economy. Fresh-cut sales in the third quarter of 2009 decreased 2 percent, to $82.2 million, according to the company. Volume was down 8 percent from the previous, but pricing was up 2 percent while unit cost decreased 8 percent.

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