CARLISLE, Pa. -- Giant Food Stores here became the first unit of Ahold USA to announce a companywide initiative to improve the quality of California-sourced stonefruit during the high-volume, high-demand summer months.
The program, dubbed "Orchard Perfect," emphasizes more sophisticated temperature management throughout the packing and distribution phase, as well as better handling during shipping and storage. Store managers and associates have also received new training to maintain quality through to department displays.
"The fruit is picked in a more mature state, and put into an environment that's more conducive to the ripening process continuing, and the cells now are naturally allowed to seal without internal damage," Dan McCullough, Giant Carlisle's director of produce, told SN. "[Before], it was picked in an immature state and quickly rushed into a hydrocooler, which potentially would prevent the cells in the fruit from properly sealing themselves."
The program, exclusive to California-grown peaches, plums and nectarines, encompasses more exotic varieties like white flesh peaches and nectarines, and pluots. McCullough noted that the arrangement does not include locally sourced products from growers participating in the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture's "Simply Delicious" produce promotion because the Orchard Perfect ripening protocol does not work on all varieties, and results in some Eastern varieties could not be guaranteed.
"That doesn't mean we're any less committed to locally grown products in our market area, but the preconditioning is very specific to varieties, and we're not sure yet if it works on Eastern fruit," he said.
Orchard Perfect was developed by Ahold's Produce Networking Group, comprised of all produce vice presidents within Ahold's various banners. Besides Giant Carlisle, there was input from Stop & Shop, Quincy, Mass.; Giant Food Stores, Landover, Md.; and Tops Friendly Markets, Williamsville, N.Y.
"It's been a collaborative effort from this group, advertising, marketing and our supply sourcing department," McCullough said. "We're looking for this category and this new program to represent significant sales for us throughout the summer sell."
Ahold's Perishable Procurement Organization, the company's central buying office in Braintree, Mass., worked with growers in California to implement the first phase of the program. Included in this component were new boxes, tray material and cells to protect the fruit during the rigors of distribution. McCullough said standards were upgraded for store receiving as well.
"Ultimately, it's most important that when the product gets to store level that the stores recognize that this is different than what they've handled in the past," he said. Training seminars for all managers within Giant concluded just a week prior to the first official shipments of Orchard Perfect produce.
At store level, Orchard Perfect departs from past handling practices in that there is more attention paid to qualities like pressure and maturity, which determine when and how the shipment will be put out for sale. Displays are limited to a depth of no more than four pieces, and hand-stacking is mandatory due to increased ripeness.
"We've asked stores to utilize the boxes the fruit's been shipped in because they are provided with pads and cells that protect the fruit," McCullough added. "We also want to leverage the box because it has the Orchard Perfect logo on it, and we want customers to see that and relate that to all the other marketing components."
Displays are reinforced with a pair of stanchion signs holding customer pamphlets describing the details of the program. Giant's intranet site also touts Orchard Perfect's focus on maturity and ripeness.
"We feel we're positioned nicely as it relates to our growers, our distribution facilities and, ultimately, we feel our stores are well-positioned to execute the program because obviously when you're dealing with a mature, riper piece of fruit, you really need to make sure your execution is buttoned up in those three areas," McCullough said. "Our best educational aspect, however, will be our store managers and associates and their understanding of the program, talking with customers about it and sampling the fruits with them."