Put together one very flat fresh-cut salads category, a deserving group of consumers and several opinionated processors - what do you get? The answer is “Extreme Makeover: Home (meal) Edition.”

Information Resources’ data show 52-week sales in the fresh-cut salad category have been as flat as a home construction site in the Upper Midwest. During the period ended December 30, 2007, dollar sales rose just 0.3 percent to $2.7 billion with a 0.7 unit sales decline compared to the year before.

That said, there are plenty of “extreme makeover” activities underway. With entrée salads popular at quick-serve and quick-casual restaurants, large CPG companies are paying more attention to the high-traffic fresh produce aisle. And although Kraft Foods stopped testing its Fresh Creations salad kits, Sara Lee Corp. now has a year under its belt with Hillshire Farm Entrée Salads, a five-item line (offering everything but the lettuce) merchandised either in a retailer’s lunchmeat or produce section.

Not willing to cede such value-added territory, fresh-cut leader Chiquita-Fresh Express, Salinas, Calif., introduced Fresh Express Gourmet Café, a line of ready-to-eat restaurant-style entrée salads, each with premium meat toppings, dressings and more. Varieties include Chicken Cobb, Siam Beef, Mediterranean Chicken Caesar and Tuscan Chicken Salad.

“The Gourmet Café line consists of consumers’ favorite restaurant salads at half the cost, and they feature delicious fresh lettuces and ingredients with a gourmet flair,” says Lee Mitchell, director, Salad Business Management. “These chef-inspired salads make a perfect on-the-go lunch - they’re portable and have everything needed for mixing and eating a memorable and satisfying salad, including a brand new ‘forkchop’ (eating utensil) especially designed for Fresh Express.”

Having launched its first single-serve entrée salads in 2003, Ready Pac, Irwindale, Calif., also continues to build its Ready Pac Bistro line, which combines salad, meat, dressing and specialty add-ins. Debuting last fall was the line’s seventh flavor, Chicken Cranberry Walnut.

Ready Pac Bistro is just one of several pre-packaged items positioned for grab-and-go, self-serve sales at supermarkets or convenience stores. Last fall, Ready Pac unveiled its larger line of “Ready For You!” salads, fresh-cut fruit and vegetable snacks.

“Fresh fruit is the first most popular snack among men and women, behind gum and chocolate candy,” said Ali Leon, Ready Pac director of fruit, vegetables and corporate communications. “Our new ‘Ready For You!’ Program provides busy people with the convenience of single-serving, ready-to-eat fruits, vegetables and salads and gives retailers (including convenience stores) a complete solution designed to build incremental sales and generate impulse purchases.”

Processors also hope to make over the fresh-cut category by:

Introducing more organics – Ready Pac now offers several organic varieties and blends in clear, clamshell packages. Citing IRI data, Ready Pac says fresh-cut organic salad sales rose 10.4 percent to $241 million during a 52-week period ended Sept. 23, 2007.

Introducing more flavorful premium salads – One example is Fresh Express’ Asian Supreme, a complete (bagged) salad kit with sesame orange dressing, wonton strips, sweet dried cherries and white sugar snap peas.

Talking up nutrition – Fresh Express notes that products such as its Iceberg Garden or Premium Romaine contain more Vitamin A per serving than plain iceberg offerings. The company says its Double Carrots salad has 13 times more antioxidant Beta Carotene per serving than a plain iceberg product.