Fourth-generation, family-owned business Jac. Vandenberg imports and distributes its full product line of counter-seasonal fresh fruits throughout the United States and Canada. The company’s history dates back to 1905 in the Netherlands, but today, it is based in Tarrytown, New York with a second office in Los Angeles that services the West Coast.
Its product line, grown in six continents, consists primarily of grapes, citrus fruits, nectarines, apples, pears, peaches, plums, and pomegranates. Amid a pandemic, Jac. Vandenberg has continued developing its Sunrays brand and improving its sustainable initiatives.
COVID-19 made a significant impact on the food industry as a whole. As soon as lockdowns were implemented across the country, consumer purchasing behavior changed overnight, and the company’s retail partners were experiencing much uncertainty about how much product to carry. As products such as paper towels and hand sanitizer flew off the shelves, a similar situation occurred with fresh produce.
There was a sudden surge for produce that is high in Vitamin C, especially oranges, as people became more concerned with their immune systems. “For us, the year of 2020 has been about responding to those changing needs, realigning what our offerings looked like and our supply chain, and figuring out what that new normal looks like in consumer grocery habits. It is much more short-term focused these days. It is dictated by the consumer, which is then rolled into the retailer and eventually to us,” explained Brand and Product Marketing Manager John Paap.
The fresh fruit and vegetable industry, in general, has seen high sales growth since the start of the pandemic. Once again, this is likely due to people choosing to eat healthier with the idea that a stronger immune system will help them battle the virus if they do happen to get sick.
Recently, Jac. Vandenberg has seen some settling of the unpredictability, but the situation has not yet returned to pre-COVID days. The company will continue to observe the market to anticipate how consumer habits will change and react appropriately.
There has also been a significant increase in online buying since the pandemic, as a large percentage of consumers have chosen to avoid shopping in-store. Both consumers and businesses that had little to no experience with e-commerce suddenly wanted to incorporate more e-commerce into their lives.
Another change is the increased demand for packaged produce. Before 2020, bulk produce, from which shoppers could select individual pieces of fruit, was a preferred choice for many customers. Now, larger quantities of pre-packaged produce are more favored. Packaged produce is less hands-on since shoppers are not sorting through the options, and consumers have become fearful that loose produce could lead to people unknowingly contaminating the produce when touching it.
People have also been inclined to purchase more quantities of produce to stock up and shop as infrequently as possible while being in store for shorter periods. It is much faster and more convenient to grab a three- or five-pound bag of produce than it is to juggle with multiple individual pieces. “Packaging does allow, to a certain extent, an extension of the goods’ shelf life, and that goes hand in hand with limiting how many times a consumer has to go to the store in person,” said Paap.
The company, already known in the market for its sustainable packaging solutions, launched a new biodegradable product this summer. Manufactured by the Austrian biogenic packaging company VPZ (Verpackungszentrum), the new packaging is called the Bio-Bag. Jac. Vandenberg is currently using the Bio-Bags for its citrus products: mandarins, oranges, and lemons.
The traditional netting seen in the market is made from plastic, and although the plastic itself is technically recyclable, many recycling facilities do not accept mesh netting because the material jams up the equipment, but Jac. Vandenberg has introduced a better solution to the North American market. “This netting that we rolled out is made from tree fibers, and these tree fibers come from wood that is a by-product of the forest industry,” explained Paap. “When these trees grow to a certain height, they get thinned out to give the remaining trees space and light to grow, that wood is then chipped and broken down further into pulp, spun into a string-like material, knitted together, and then it’s basically ready for use.”
Since the Bio-Bags are entirely tree-based and organic, the netting is certified as a fully-compostable product. Many products labeled as compostable are not home compostable, rather they are limited to industrial compost. However, it is important to note that these products are considered home compostable.
The home compostable netting offered by Jac. Vandenberg is biodegradable within twelve to sixteen weeks, and the production of these nets results in sixty percent lower greenhouse gas emissions compared to making the standard plastic nets. “It’s organic. It’s a natural recurring resource. It’s biodegradable and home compostable, and its production results in lower greenhouse gas emissions, so it’s extremely exciting for us to have introduced this to the market as a truly sustainable solution,” said Paap. Tree-based netting has been available in Europe for quite some time, but Jac. Vandenberg is the first to incorporate the product into its packaging line-up in the United States, where it is the exclusive receiver of this material from VPZ.
Jac. Vandenberg will also be introducing Bio-Bags for its grapes. The process has been more complex for grapes, and when the company initially considered the idea, it was too cost-prohibitive. Technology has advanced, and the cost has come down, and although it is still more expensive than traditional packaging, it is now more in line with affordability.
“The bags that we’ll be introducing [for grapes] are made by TIPA, a company based in Israel that developed this technology. The bags are made from twenty percent bio-based polymers and eighty percent fully compostable fossil-based polymers,” said Paap. “The bags are biodegradable within twelve to twenty-four weeks.”
Due to the bio-based elements of the material, the grape bags are not as clear as the traditional plastic bags and there is a bit of a haze or fog appearance. More importantly, they are much more sustainable and better for the environment because the material fully breaks down and it is home compostable.
“When you are finished with the bag you can simply discard it in your home compost bin, and about twenty-four weeks later, it has become organic matter that can either be used for planting or just be put back in the ground,” said Paap. Once again, Jac. Vandenberg will be the first to introduce this new packaging product to the U.S. market.
In 2017, the Sunrays brand was launched exclusively for Jac. Vandenberg’s mandarins, and for the next two years, the company received great responses from both its retailers and consumers.
The brand is now expanding into a new line of product: grapes. The time is right to expand into another child-friendly product, and grapes are the perfect fit and one with which the product the company has the most experience. Throughout its history, the company has established relationships with reputable growers around the world that share the same passion for quality, and that level of quality is linked with the Sunrays brand.
Jac. Vandenberg’s retailers also want a reduction in ‘brand pollution’ on the grape shelves and hope the Sunrays brand of grapes will help. With produce like citrus and berries, there are very clear brands in the market, and retailers can rely on carrying a single brand. This is appealing from a marketing standpoint because the products are recognizable and reliable.
Unlike citrus and berries, grapes have multiple brands on the shelves that change throughout the year because the brand is usually just the grower’s label. This often changes depending on the season and availability. From a merchandising point of view, the lack of consistency is challenging when retailers are forced to carry different labels on the shelves.
“By introducing this [Sunrays grape] brand, we’re hoping to establish a brand that will become recognizable on the grape shelf that is synonymous with high quality in addition to everything else that the Sunrays brand stands for, which is our environmental and social missions that are incorporated strongly within the brand in the background as well as in the packaging,” said Paap.
Jac. Vandenberg has always held high standards of food safety. All of its growers undergo a comprehensive screening process that carefully analyzes all facets of their food safety and security procedures. Their operations are annually audited against global food safety standards by a recognized third-party auditing firm.
The company has been able to continue growing and maintaining its customer and supplier base over the years, according to Paap, because of transparency, consistency, and innovation. Transparency builds the trust and understanding that has laid the foundation for all its longstanding relationships. Jac. Vandenberg’s customers have come to appreciate and expect consistently high-quality fresh fruit in their shipments. And through innovation, the company has continued leading the industry with sustainable packaging solutions for fresh produce.
“We’re just never standing still. We’re constantly looking at ways to improve,” he explained. “Nobody has a crystal ball, but we try to anticipate what those needs and expectations will be from us, and we try to lead in those areas of innovation. Those are the reasons for our growth and commitment from our customer and supplier base.”
The company’s short term goals will depend on the length of the pandemic. The changes in consumer habits may last or even become permanent. Jac. Vandenberg will continue to monitor trends in eating more fresh produce, cooking at home, and consuming more packaged produce.
Paap believes that food market sustainability will become more important for consumers and retailers. “We are all becoming increasingly aware that we, as a global community, are at a real crossroads for the future of our planet. And because of that, I think there will continue to be an increased demand for more sustainable practices, packaging solutions, and just a consciousness of what we are all doing through the whole supply chain and its impact on the environment.”
The Sunrays brand is an ideal representative of sustainability in the fresh produce sector. It is not common, in the fresh fruit sector, in particular, to see a brand that is so heavily rooted in positive environmental and social change. Jac. Vandenberg pays careful attention to its entire supply chain from the sustainable farming practices to the packaging that the product carries to the end consumer.
“For us, it’s been and continues to be so much more than just about sourcing and selling fresh produce. It’s about doing what’s right socially and environmentally so we can contribute to creating a healthier, brighter future for humanity and our planet,” Paap concluded.