Fresh whole product makes good fresh-cut, too

When fresh-cut processors develop a new product, a lot of research goes in to finding a fruit or vegetable that will handle the cutting process and deliver a favorable eating experience for the customer. But Dulcinea Farms was fortunate – its PureHeart Seedless Watermelon and Extra Sweet Tuscan Style Cantaloupe were as good cut as they were whole fresh produce.

Ladera Ranch, Calif.-based Dulcinea introduced its new fresh-cut line at the Produce Marketing Association Fresh Summit in Houston in October. The reception from customers was excellent, said Keith Kato, general manager of Dulcinea Farms.

“We’re excited about being able to bring a fresh-cut product to the market,” he said. “I think we got everything out of the show that we wanted.”

The new fresh-cut products will be sold at retail stores nationwide after the initial rollout, with the items displayed next to the whole product to create greater Dulcinea visibility.

“That would be ideal, but that would come down to the preference of the retailer,” Kato said.

With a fresh-cut and whole option available to customers, there’s always the chance that existing customers will stop buying the whole melons and buy only the fresh-cuts. But the company believes the products will complement the whole fruit, with customers choosing fresh-cut or whole based on their use. Kato said customers would choose the fresh-cut melons over other fresh-cut or simpler fruit when they want a convenience item – a situation where they would have avoided the whole melons altogether.

“We don’t believe there will be extensive cannibalization,” Kato said.

Instead of stealing customers from the company’s line of whole products, the new addition of fresh-cut watermelon and cantaloupe would attract new customers and increase consumption by offering more convenience – but with the same taste and texture the Dulcinea Farms products are known for.

Slow Rollout

The new line of fresh-cut melons will be packaged in 1.25- and 2.25-pound containers containing either Pureheart watermelon chunks, Tuscan Style cantaloupe chunks or a mix of both.

The products will be rolled out slowly but steadily, Kato said. Distribution will begin in northern California, then spread to southern California before branching out. The company’s partner in the fresh-cut line is Garden Highway, so distribution will be rolled out according to where Garden Highway has cutting facilities and its distribution areas.

“It will be a controlled rollout – slowly and methodically to make sure that the supply chain is there,” Kato said.

The advantage of working with Garden Highway is the company’s many processing facilities, he said. The processor is hand-cutting the raw product on the same day it arrives, and the goal is to have the fresh-cut items processed and shipped in the same day. With a minimum shelf life of eight days, retailers will receive a fresher product with Garden Highway’s distribution and regional processing centers.

Dulcinea Farms provides the raw product for processing from its network of growers that is currently concentrated in the San Joaquin Valley of California and Yuma, Ariz. The company has some product that comes from Central America in case there are any supply issues, and Kato said the company was looking at adding growing regions in the South and Midwest United States that could supply product to Garden Highway’s processing facilities in those areas.

“Food miles is a big focus and so is buying local, so we’re trying to get close to the retailers,” Kato said.

Garden Highway is handling most of the brand’s components – including the processing, packaging, distribution and sales for the fresh-cut line.

“We’re managing the Dulcinea brand,” Kato said. “They’re doing everything else.”

The companies have worked together before. Dulcinea started selling overwrapped cut melons last year through Garden Highway, and Kato said it has been an open relationship and an overall good experience.

“What started this relationship was the overwrap technology,” Kato said. “But I’ve always been a big believer in the fresh-cut, chunked side of things.”

Superior Product

Dulcinea and Garden Highway spent about three months testing viability of the watermelon and cantaloupe to see if they would make good fresh-cut products. The eating quality of the fresh-cut products is most important to Dulcinea Farms, and the company was fortunate that its whole product cut well and maintained its integrity. That speaks to the quality of the germplasm the company started with, Kato said.

Melons – especially watermelons – have a tendency to purge after quickly, which results in a loss of color and taste by the time it gets to the end customer. But the Dulcinea products have a tighter cell structure that reduces purging because of their higher density. The fresh-cut watermelon and cantaloupe will be packaged with an absorbant material at the bottom, but the product shouldn’t lose as much water or lose color as other fresh-cut fruits.

“It’s the quality of the product coming in,” said Phil Fendyan, vice president of sales and marketing for Garden Highway.

The taste and texture will be consistent throughout the Dulcinea products. A customer shouldn’t be able to tell if a melon chunk came from a fresh-cut package or a whole melon. And that taste and texture are unique to Dulcinea melons, Kato said. The watermelon and cantaloupe are sweeter than most in the market, with an average Brix between 15 and 16. And the tighter cell structure means the products have a crisp texture that, when combined with the sweet flavor, give customers a positive eating experience, Kato said.

Looking Ahead

With the line of fresh-cut fruit from Dulcinea Farms just starting roll-out in November, the marketer of high end melons already is looking to new markets. The company already sells its Tuscan Style Cantaloupe, PureHeart Seedless Watermelon and Ross Bruno Heirloom-style tomatoes to restaurants, so their may be an opportunity for the fresh-cut products there.

“There’s a strong demand in foodservice, so we’ll continue to look at that,” Kato said.

Dulcinea also is looking at some of its other products that could make good fresh-cut items. The company introduced a Sweet ‘n Crispy Melon at the October Fresh Summit show in Houston. The melon was cross-bred by the foremost melon breeder in China, resulting in a “light, refreshing taste” that is sweeter and lighter in taste than a cantaloupe, Kato said. The melon, with 16-17 Brix, already has generated buzz as a whole product, so Dulcinea will begin testing it for a cut product in 2008.

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