If Kim Gaarde’s fresh-sliced stone fruit and pear Woot Froot products follow the path of fresh-cut apples in creating new markets, fruit growers will owe her a fist-pumping “woot-woot!” show of thanks.
Gaarde, president of Fresno, California-based Fresh Fruit Cuts, Inc., launched fresh sliced peaches and nectarines—fruit that had eluded the fresh-cut market— under the Woot Froot label in 2013 after seven years of research and development and trial and error.
Fresh sliced pears were added last year as a way to make the business a year-round operation. Gaarde’s Woot Froot brand is a name coined to express the fist-pumping, exuberant culmination of a dream realized.
“Five years ago, I thought it was kind of cool being a pioneer and the first to bring stone fruit to the fresh-cut market,” said Gaarde. “But it’s extremely difficult being a pioneer. It’s been a very time consuming and expensive road and the experience like a rollercoaster. But there’s tremendous growth and opportunity in fresh-cut fruit.”
To put her business efforts in context, she explains that today’s fresh-cut peaches, nectarines, and pears are where the apple industry was 15 years ago when apple slices made their debut.
“The apple industry paved the way for the fresh-cut fruit industry,” Gaarde said.
Sliced apples are now part of McDonald’s Happy Meals, are served on school lunch trays, and have provided growers with an important market for small fruit.
Fresh sliced apples have grown to be a $475 million industry, and it’s been estimated that sliced apples use around ten percent of the nation’s Gala, Pink Lady, and Granny Smith apple crops.
Gaarde hopes to do the same for the stone fruit and pear industry.
In their first three years, Woot Froot peaches, nectarines, pears, and grapes have been sold in all states but Alaska and Hawaii.
Woot Froot products have a 15-day or longer shelf life and come in modified atmosphere packages for retail and food service that range from three ounces to three pounds. Walmart is a major buyer, along with membership stores like Sam’s Club.
The company of about 40 employees runs a single work shift five to six days a week for about eight months of the year and runs double shifts from mid-May to mid-September during stone fruit season.
Doug Field of Excel Food Brokerage in Yakima, Washington, has helped Gaarde source pears and late-season stone fruit from the Northwest for Woot Froot products, including helping put together sales for Gaarde of truckloads of pre-sized U.S. No. 1 d’Anjou and Bartlett pears.
Field sees great potential for fresh-cut pears and stone fruit and believes fresh-cut fruit could help improve grower returns by using inventories of packing house manifolds that build up and depress prices.
“It’s exciting to see how this could grow,” Field said. “The Gaardes are starting this in a much smaller way than some of the sliced-apple processors. The Gaarde family is very grower-oriented, and they’ve done a lot of varietal and fruit quality research on pears and stone fruit that could benefit Northwest growers.”
The Gaarde family— Kim, her husband Eric, and daughter Brittnie (Gaarde) Hammack—are a “fruit centric” family.
Kim, with 25 years experience in the fruit industry, spent more than 15 years at a family-owned stone fruit and table grape grower-packer-shipper in Dinuba, California. She worked her way from being a seasonal receptionist to the company’s financial controller.
Eric graduated from California State University, Fresno, with an agricultural-business management degree and worked for Wawona Frozen Foods for 12 years as a field representative, purchasing fruit from growers and packers.
In 1994 he began his own fruit sourcing company called Gaarde FoodSource and Service, Inc., to supply raw product manufacturers and end-user manufacturers with a wide range of fruit crops used in fresh-cut, frozen, dried, puréed, and canned fruits, juices, and more.
Eric also created two related businesses, Fruit Dynamics, in 2002, and Pangaea Cultivar Management in 2011. Both have had a role in the success of Kim’s fresh-cut stone fruit venture.
Fruit Dynamics provides fruit quality analysis and evaluation, product and packaging development, and postharvest evaluation. The company has developed a database called FruitSpan of cultivar characteristics, postharvest quality, and lab analyses on more than 2,400 commercial and unreleased fruit varieties.
Pangaea, a turn-key cultivar management company, identifies potential fruit varieties from around the world and manages the importation of plant material and licensing for commercialization, similar to services of the International New Varieties Network and Associated International Group of Nurseries.
Pangaea is the ancient Greek term for “entire earth” and relates to the company’s global search for new varieties.
Hammack, in her late 20s, is food safety director for Fresh Fruit Cuts and manages daily operations and assists with marketing and sales for Woot Froot products.
About the only part of the fruit industry that the Gaarde family hasn’t attempted is growing the fruit they source or sell.
Fresh-cut pears have been very popular at the retail level, says Gaarde, adding that she believes they are the first in the market with fresh-cut pears and stone fruit, although several companies have been working on the concept. She appreciates the support from pear and stone fruit growers who have supplied product.
“We pulled a lot of raw pear product this past season from California and the Northwest,” said Gaarde, and added that pears have turned out to be a great product. “The fresh cut pears and stone fruit have stirred up a lot of excitement within the fruit industry.”
Woot Fruit products are reaching a new base of peach and nectarine consumers who want convenience and are looking for healthier snacks or portion control, she explained.
“Woot Froot is a different eating experience than biting into the perfectly ripened peach or nectarine. Fresh-cut products, in general, have a distinctive customer base that place high value on convenience.”
She’s not after the fruit foodies who want perfect, juicy peaches and go out of their way to buy a favorite variety.
“We’re targeting the huge pool of consumers hesitant to buy peaches, pears, or nectarines because they’ve had a bad experience or don’t know how to purchase the fruit.”
Gaarde declined to give Woot Froot’s specific sales volume, but noted that sales have tripled in growth.
The five-year plan for Fresh Fruit Cuts includes expanding retail and food service customers and introducing more new fruit products.
“I have so many product ideas on my list that there just aren’t enough days to get them all done,” Gaarde said. •