Gaining Ground: First full season approaches for Woot Fruit fresh-cut peaches, nectarines

Fresh Fruit Cuts is a finalist for the United Fresh Fruit Best New Fruit Project Award, for launching a product line that many people said couldn't be done.

Last August, company president Kim Gaarde culminated years of research and development when the company she founded introduced fresh-cut peaches and nectarines to the market.

The company, which is headquartered in Fresno, California, launched its first full season in May, and anticipates shipping bags, clamshells and trays of fresh-cut stone fruit to markets around the country through the summer.

Gaarde is thrilled both with the new products and being named a finalist.

“I'm very honored,” Gaarde said. “It's very exciting to see our products being recognized by the industry for their flavor and convenience.”

Marketed under the name “Woot Froot,” the sliced peaches and nectarines are being sold in 3- and 14-ounce bags, five-count multipack clamshells and 10- and 20-ounces trays, as well as 2-pound trays. The Woot Froot line will be available at several large retail chains, including Sam's Clubs, Super Target and ATB.

Gaarde said the bagged fruit slices have a 21-day shelf life, while the shelf life of the fruit slices in the trays is 16 days.

Fresh Fruit Cuts is a family business. Kim's daughter, Brittnie Hammack, is the company's food safety compliance officer, and runs the production lines when Gaarde isn't on site.

“We run Fresh Fruit Cuts together,” Gaarde said. “We work together 16 hours a day.”

The long hours are possible because Hammack shares her mother's passion for Woot Froot. Others share the excitement for the new product line.

“It's so exciting to see what Kim has done,” said Melinda Goodman of Fulltilt Marketing. “She's spent years accomplishing something lots and lots of people have said couldn't be done. It's really a testament to her commitment and follow through.”

While Fresh Fruit Cuts and the Woot Froot products are relatively new to the market, Gaarde and her husband Eric have been involved in the central California produce industry for nearly three decades. They own and operate Gaarde Food Sources, which supplies raw fruit and fresh products to processors, as well as Fruit Dynamics, which conducts analytical lab work for the fresh produce industry. The business relationships they developed over the years helped Kim Gaarde turn her dream of marketing fresh-cut stone fruit into a reality.

“The whole venture has been a wild ride,” Gaarde said. “The support from our vendors and marketing company has been so instrumental.”

It also took a lot of patience, persistence and hard work. With more than 500 varieties of peaches and nectarines grown in California, the couple spent years trying to find the ones that had the right flavor and texture. The results of their research remain a trade secret, although Gaarde said they discovered only about 20 percent of available varieties had the characteristics they required.

“That means about 80 percent don't work for fresh-cut,” Eric Gaarde noted.

The Gaardes worked with packaging vendors for at least six years, trying to find the right packing materials to extend the shelf life of the sliced fruit. Although the exact type of packaging materials used also remains a trade secret, the Gaardes said all of the film is microperforated, and they use passive modified atmosphere packing.

Finding the proper processing equipment was a challenge.

“There is some equipment used for processing peaches for canneries, but it's too rough and too intrusive with the fruit to work with this product,” Eric Gaarde said. “We had some equipment custom made for us.”

More research and development is necessary to produce the type of slicing equipment to automatically slice and pit the fruit. Currently, that part of the processing is semi-automatic.

The Gaardes spent the winter of 2012-13 in Chile, conducting a commercial pilot test of Woot Froot with Tunich Fruit. The program, which was headed up by Cesar Olivos, was so successful that in February the Gaardes decided to launch commercial production in the United States. Once they made the commitment, things happened quickly.

They found a suitable, albeit small, processing clean room in March and expanded it. Fresh Fruit Cuts was awarded its Primus Certification on Aug. 4, and shipped its first order two days later to Sam's Clubs. The response from customers was good, Kim Gaarde said, and other retailers quickly placed orders. This year, sales are expected to be even stronger, as the company is currently working out agreements with other supermarket chains. The Woot Froot brand is sold throughout the country, with its biggest markets located west of the Mississippi River.

While launching a new company – especially one that produces a product nobody thought was possible – has been hard work, Kim Gaarde said it's been enjoyable. She especially loves the name Woot Froot, which has become a trademark phrase for everyone at Fresh Fruit Cuts.

“It was important for me to have a brand that was fun,” said Kim Gaarde, adding that people often refer to her as “Mama Woot.”

Woot Froot will introduce additional fresh-cut products later this summer. The company plans to make an announcement about its new products in June, at the United Fresh show in Chicago.

Terri Morgan, contributing writer

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