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Yes, we have one banana

Boston firm helps Chiquita find a way to keep fruit fresh so it can sold by the piece at convenience stores

Chiquita is boosting its business one banana at a time.

The famed banana baron, with the help of Gen3 Partners Inc., a Boston firm, has found a way to keep individual bananas fresh longer so they can be sold in more places and not just in bunches at supermarkets.

It's part of Chiquita Brands International's plan to use convenience stores, coffee shops, drugstores, and other outlets to grow revenue in the mature North American market, where Chiquita only saw a 5 percent increase in sales to 2.2 billion pounds of bananas since 2001. International company sales, meanwhile, have jumped 32 percent to 3.4 billion pounds over the same period.

Chiquita, of Cincinnati, believes it can raise profits if people can buy a single, perfectly ripe banana off the shelf, as they would a candy bar or a bag of chips. Research conducted for the company in 2005 revealed that 42 percent of people would eat more bananas if they were available in more locations.

"This allows us to meet consumer demand for eating more bananas," Chiquita spokesman Mike Mitchell said. "And it's great for Chiquita because we can charge a premium price."

Retailers can sell single Chiquita to Go bananas for about 75 cents each, compared to about 69 cents per pound in the grocery store (there's usually about two bananas in a pound).

Over the past five years, Chiquita worked with Boston consulting firm GEN3 Partners to figure out how to delay the banana's ripening process. Bananas ripen more rapidly and delicately than many other fruits as bananas interact with carbon dioxide. They can turn from green to yellow with overripe brown spots in just a week. More rugged fruits such as apples and pears ripen much more slowly.

Typically, green bananas are packaged in temperature-controlled boxes of 58 degrees, which delays ripening. Then they are delivered to supermarkets, where consumers are willing to buy the fruits even if they aren't ready to eat. But green bananas wouldn't appeal to on-the-go consumers at convenience stores or coffee shops. And convenience stores don't have the luxury of daily deliveries to replenish bananas once they start getting brown spots.

So GEN3, a product innovation consulting company, researched ways to ship bananas in the perfectly ripe yellow state and keep them that way when they arrive at shops. The firm, which works with companies in various industries including manufacturing, electronics, and consumer packaged goods, turned to its network of more than 6,000 scientists, engineers, and technical experts, according to Gregg Bauer , a vice president at GEN3 Partners.

The company found that the pharmaceutical industry had engineered plastics that regulate air flow in boxes and decided to apply that technology to bananas.

At Chiquita's packaging plants, workers hand pick the bananas heading to convenience stores and other non grocery shops for their ideal size, color, shape, and ripeness. The single bananas are laid on top of one another in boxes that are covered with a semi permeable membrane that allows oxygen to pass through but controls the flow of carbon dioxide to delay ripening until the box is opened.

"This allows shops to sell bananas at the perfect stage of ripeness that look absolutely yummy, and they can sit on a retailer's shelf and not go mushy and not go ugly," Bauer said.

Chiquita is latching on to the growing demand for fresh foods on the go, fueled in part by restaurants from Subway to Panera Bread, said Harry Balzer , vice president of market research firm NPD Group.

"If you can come up with a way to make food fresher, it has a ready and willing market," he said.

Chiquita is well aware of the importance of the fresh market. In 2005, the company acquired Fresh Express, one of the country's top sellers of packaged salads, and recently introduced Chiquita Fruit Bites, sliced apples in single-serve bags. They're available in the produce section of many grocers, at Subway stores in California, and in McDonald's Happy Meals.

Tests conducted around the country, including Starbucks in the Midwest, showed that making bananas more readily available to consumers didn't cannibalize Chiquita's sales at supermarkets. Over the past few months, Cumberland Farms has introduced the Chiquita bananas to hundreds of stores throughout the Boston region. Chiquita has added about 7,500 new shops to sell its bananas over the past year and sees the potential for about 200,000 new outlets.

Cumberland Farms carried bananas in the past, but the stores faced a huge challenge maintaining freshness without daily deliveries, according to Dan McNulty , who oversees fresh foods for area Cumberland Farms.

"Convenience stores today are striving to provide fresh food choices to satisfy consumer demand," McNulty said. "We are now able to offer fresh fruit every day of the week."

Jenn Abelson can be reached at abelson@globe.com.

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