Washington’s Stemilt Growers adds flavor to fresh-cut apple slices

Stemilt Growers introduced a new take on fresh-cut fruit at the Produce Marketing Association’s Fresh Summit in October.

The Wenatchee, Wash., company launched its new line of fresh-cut apples for the retail market, AppleSweets, apple slices “infused” with flavor during processing.

The fresh-cut, flavor-infused apples will be available nationwide in January. The company hoped to introduce them earlier, but new equipment is being installed in its Wenatchee processing plant, so the Fresh Summit debut was a “soft introduction,” said Roger Pepperl, director of marketing for Stemilt. The fresh-cut facility is about three blocks from the company’s headquarters, and although the building isn’t new, it has been completely refurbished.

AppleSweets were introduced with two “natural” lines and two flavored lines. The natural AppleSweets come in two lines: sweet or tart. The sweet apple slices are Galas, Cameos or Cripps Pinks, and the tarts are Granny Smiths. They will be sold in 6-ounce and 13-ounce bags and as a family pack with four 3-ounce bags.

The flavored AppleSweets are called “County Fair Caramel” and “Wild Berry.” They will be available in a 5-ounce bag or a 13-ounce bag, and also in a family pack of four 2.5-ounce bags. As the line of fresh-cut apples is launched, more flavors will be introduced. Pepperl said the company was looking at the possibility of a “Mom’s Apple Pie” line.

“Flavor apples is a new approach to sliced apples and we knew that we would have some paradigms to break,” Pepperl said. “Caramel was easier to imagine than other flavors, which created the need for research.”

In order to come up with flavors, Stemilt hired a market research company to find what consumers would like. The flavors were each designed to go with a variety of apple, so the Wild Berry AppleSweets will use only Cameos and the County Fair Caramel will use Granny Smiths.

The target customers for AppleSweets are mothers and their children, Pepperl said. The company uses Sesame Street characters to market to children on some of its other products and will most likely use them with AppleSweets. The prices for the line haven’t been released, but Pepperl said they’d be very competitive with other fresh-cut fruit snacks. He said the product should be able to gain market share in the entire category of produce snacks because it is healthy and different from the usual fresh-cut products.

“We believe the major attraction is going to be the all natural contents,” Pepperl said.

He also said there are foodservice applications for the product, although none are currently under development. Supplying foodservice providers with AppleSweets would expose all ages and genders to the fresh-cut snack.

The process for combining the flavors with the apple slices is new, but the company wouldn’t talk about it because the patent is pending. Stemilt is doing all the processing in-house, but it is also a growing and shipping company.

“Stemilt’s advantage is obvious,” Pepperl said. “We have vertical integration of raw product from the orchard to the finished product.”

The company markets about 10 million boxes of apples annually and is one of the largest shippers of sweet cherries in the United States. Stemilt also grows pears and a variety of organic tree fruits. The company follows Good Agricultural Practices in its field operations and Good Manufacturing Practices in its plants and has a written HACCP program. Stemilt, which was incorporated in 1960, has six packing facilities: five in Washington and one in California. The private company is still controlled by the Mathison family, which has grown fruit on Stemilt Hill near Wenatchee since 1914.

Pepperl said Stemilt was planning an ad campaign to begin in 2007. The AppleSweets have already received some buzz in their home state of Washington. They were given away at a preseason Seattle Seahawks football game and are for sale at concession stands in the stadium. The snack is part of a push by the owners of the stadium to serve healthier foods. Pepperl said the company hoped to get the product into more stadiums.

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