East Coast Fresh Cuts
Retail products fueling growth westward
East Coast Fresh Cuts is a company that prides itself in listening to and meeting consumer needs. It was a consumer need that began moving the retail industry toward healthier and ready-to-eat choices, and the company met those needs in an expansion into retail sales out of their standard food service customers. The move proved to be a good decision, propelling the company into greater sales than they ever experienced in foodservice alone.
"There is a growing demand for healthy ready-to-eat products. The consumers want a healthy alternative to typical fast food," said Tom Brown, East Coast Fresh Cuts vice president of retail sales.
"Our growth into retail sales has been strong and steady over the past six years. We started with one item, and now we have 45 items for the retail industry."
East Coast Fresh Cuts was incorporated in 1997. Before that, East Coast Fresh Cuts was a division of Coastal Sunbelt Produce Co., the leading produce distribution company serving the foodservice industry in the mid-Atlantic. The sister companies share a 165,000 square foot facility in Savage, Md.
"East Coast Fresh Cuts has grown larger than the combined companies back in 1997. However, it still remains smaller than Coastal Sunbelt, which has also experienced tremendous growth. Although we operate as two separate businesses, there are great synergies between the two companies that make each stronger in serving our customers." said Ross Foca, president of East Coast Fresh Cuts.
Employing 400 team members, East Coast Fresh Cuts products are in more than 2,000 retail grocery stores, several large foodservice distribution companies and a few food manufacturing companies east of the Mississippi River. East Coast Fresh Cuts distributes the majority of its products through a dedicated fleet of trucks, but does contract on limited bases with independent carriers for distribution outside the extended mid-Atlantic region. Although the company isn't the grower of the fruits and vegetables it markets, there are close relationships with growers to ensure the best produce available year round. East Coast Fresh Cuts only processes top grade produce, the same produce its sister company is selling to five-star hotels and the most demanding chefs in Washington, D.C.
East Coast Fresh Cuts works hard to differentiate itself from the competition by producing both unique products and customized products catering to customer specification and recipes. There is an in-house chef developing new products, available to assist the customers with shows or product development, and the quality assurance department is constantly working to enhance the flavor, appearance and shelf life of the existing products.
One of East Coast Fresh Cuts newest products is a fresh salsa line, currently offered in a variety of flavors: mild, hot, fiesta, verde, mango, organic, pico de guaco - a guacamole and pico de gallo-style salsa - and Southwest, a bean and corn salsa. Two more will be introduced soon: Margarita, a fruit based salsa, and Chesapeake Bay, a mild salsa flavored with seafood seasoning typically used in steaming Blue Crabs in the mid-Atlantic. The company also offers a fresh bruschetta.
"Our salsa is the same salsa you would make in your kitchen, without the mess, prep-time and wasted whole product. Nothing is cooked, all of the fruits and vegetables are fresh, and there are no artificial preservatives." Foca said. "These salsas are great to eat right out of the container or use as an ingredient in your favorite dish."
The company also has explored other retail food products, including holiday stuffing mixes, soup kits and a candied-apple program, created at the request of retailers.
East Coast Fresh Cuts is planning an aggressive expansion in the next few years, hoping to capture retail and food service customers west of the Mississippi River. Fresh produce will still lead the company's product list, but it may be the salsa items that help the company expand. Many of the fresh-cut products have relatively short shelf lives, making them more difficult to move west, but the 15-day shelf life of the salsa could help make it as popular in the West as it is in the East.
Although innovative products are an important part of growing retail sales, the company stresses food safety as the most important aspect of its operation. The quality assurance team maintains a rigorous micro-biological testing program that includes third party labs, along with pre- and post-production monitoring of all products, traceability to the farm and conducting mock recalls to ensure system integrity. The company also voluntarily complies with the USDA's Quality Through Verification (QTV) program, opening their doors to USDA random bi-monthly inspections. USDA auditors inspect the entire facility for adherence to its HACCP plan, traceability and audit letters from suppliers. East Coast Fresh Cuts is the only company on the East Coast that participates in this program. The company also is certified by the global standard Safe Quality Food (SQF) 2000 level 3, and was second company to receive this certification in the U.S. produce industry.
"We all sleep better at night knowing we are significantly investing in food safety programs that are audited by various third parties," Foca said.
-By Everett Brazil III, Contributing Writer