Friday, November 4, 2011

Local Innovation

Unique River Ranch, Nunhems Seeds Brings Award-Winning Product to Market

Parma--These days, creating award-winning new products takes a team effort. Just ask River Ranch Fresh Foods.

Two years ago, the producer of fresh salads and field fresh commodity vegetables partnered with Nunhems, the vegetable seed business of Bayer CropScience, to develop an innovative new product to challenge the dominance of spring mix at both retail and foodservice.

The result is River Ranch’s Heritage Blend™, a proprietary salad blend featuring a robust variety of petite red and green lettuce varieties that has the marketplace taking notice, including winning a “Best of Show” for its 2011 Best New Product Launch at the PMA Fresh Summit.

Offering 3-4 days more shelf life, 2-3 times more nutritional value, and a more crisp and full appearance than traditional spring mix, Heritage Blend™ is clearly unique. Just as unique, however, is the process that created this new blend.

“We were looking to do something new,” Ted Mills, VP of Ag Ops, River Ranch Fresh Foods, explained. “Not Spring Mix and not leaf lettuce, we wanted something in between.”

The company decided to reach out to Nunhems to see if they could help. According to Mills, River Ranch Fresh Foods had identified characteristics they were looking for in the new blend—obvious traits like good flavor and texture as well as practical growing considerations such as mildew resistance.

To find a solution, Nunhems looked to its global breeding program, which recently developed genetics for a new salad blend to address the shortcomings of spring mix. Using these innovations as a base, River Ranch Foods and Nunhems initiated a product development plan and worked together to refine, customize and, ultimately, create Heritage Blend™.

The entire effort was led by Nunhems' Produce Chain department, a crop-specific team within Nunhems focused on identifying traits beneficial to the consumer, while working collectively with retailers, foodservice operators, fresh-cut suppliers and grower shippers to ensure new products also meet their needs. This team worked closely with River Ranch Fresh Foods at every step of the product development process.

“We worked together on many different levels,” Kim St. George, Director of Marketing, River Ranch Fresh Foods, said. “Team members from many parts of our organization, from marketing and sales to ag ops, worked with their counterparts at Nunhems to make this happen.”

This highly coordinated, multi-disciplinary effort paid off. In a span of just 10 months, the team ran multiple trials and put the new blend through a rigorous product evaluation process. Finally, less than two years from hatching the initial idea, River Ranch Fresh Foods rolled out Heritage Blend™ to the retail and foodservice channels, both in private label and under their own brand.

Heritage Blend™ is available now in a 5 oz clamshell, 1 lb clamshell and 13 oz family-size Salad Kit at retail, as well as a 1 lb foodservice pack. The versatility of the blend starts with its crisp and full appearance, providing more plate volume, even when covered in dressing. Then there is the blend’s flavor–smooth and without the bitterness of some spring mixes.

“It’s not every day that you come across a new lettuce blend with so many great traits and usages,” St. George said. “Heritage Blend is a real innovation.”

Representatives of both companies say that the development of Heritage Blend™ is just the beginning of what they hope will become a long, mutually beneficial relationship filled with many more product success stories.

“We have a saying around here: ‘just make it happen,’ ” Mills said. “Nunhems did just that.”

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