You could say that this was no time to be timid behind the wheel. As an industry leader, Chiquita-Fresh Express recognized last year that it had to be active to “drive recovery” in a value-added salads category still reeling from the E.coli outbreak of fall 2006.

Although it was not implicated in the outbreak, Fresh Express, Salinas, Calif., says it increased spending against food safety, marketing and merchandising efforts directed at the industry, retail trade and consumers.

Interestingly enough, it was back in May 2006 - several months before the national food-borne illness problem - that Fresh Express first discussed plans to fund a range of industry food safety research studies. Last April, the company came out and identified nine separate projects to which it would donate a collective sum of $2 million.

Behind the scenes, Fresh Express was investing still more in product development and brand support to keep consumer and retailer interest in the refrigerated case. Last spring brought two new complete restaurant-style salads, Fresh Express Pacifica Supreme and Mediterranean Supreme. Fresh Express then developed an even more upscale line - Fresh Express Gourmet Café, which debuts this spring. Gourmet Café includes four ready-to-eat restaurant-style entrée salads, each with premium meat toppings, dressings and more (see product profile).

Have these and other moves paid off? Actually, yes. After a sales and income drop last year during the first quarter, Fresh Express went on to post year-over-year gains - during the next three quarters - in both net revenue per case and unit volume. Moreover, in the company’s third quarter earnings release last September, Chiquita officials noted Fresh Express “remains the only brand to report year-on-year growth, in the face of continuing soft overall [fresh-cut salads] category performance.”

Chiquita also continued to invest in other ways. The following month saw it purchase Verdelli Farms, Harrisburg, Pa.

Before October was out, parent Chiquita Brands International announced a companywide reorganization designed to streamline management, cut decision-making time and reduce annual costs by $60 million to $80 million. In conjunction, Chiquita promoted Fresh Express President Tanios Viviani to chief marketing officer and president of Global Innovation & Emerging Markets (a new post). Meanwhile, Fresh Express itself was reorganized under a newly created Chiquita North America division, led by President Brian Kocher. Kocher formerly was Chiquita’s corporate vice president, controller and chief accounting officer.

For The Record

Oct. ’07 - Chiquita streamlines and reorganizes its management structure. Fresh Express President Tanios Viviani is promoted to chief marketing officer and president of global innovation and emerging markets. Fresh Express becomes part of Chiquita North America. Brian Kocher, former vice president, controller and chief accounting officer, is named president for Chiquita North America.

Oct. ’07 - Fresh Express acquires Verdelli Farms, a Harrisburg, Pa., $80 million processor of value-added fresh salads, vegetables and fruit snacks for East Coast distribution. Chiquita announces plans to close a distribution center in Greencastle, Pa., and a production facility in Carrollton, Ga. Chiquita says it will stop producing fresh-cut fruit bowls and related operations in Edgington, Ill., and Salinas, Calif., will switch to value-added salads and snacks.