A good part of the pre-packaged salads which arrive on Italian dinner tables come from their plant in Manerbio (Brescia). And judging from the performance of this Brescia-based company with its Linea Verde of quality produce, one thing is certain: with very rare exceptions, Made in Italy food products have emerged unscathed from the current crisis. Just look at the numbers. This company, with its ready-to-heat soups, pre-packaged salads and fresh fruit shakes, closed 2010 with a turnover of 171 million euros, employs thousands of people and now also wants to introduce itself into Brazil and Russia.
But one thing at a time. The company climbing the pre-packaged and ready-to-serve produce ladder has just turned twenty, and half its output goes to mass retail store brands and the other half is under its own label, DimmidiSì. It is thanks to the latter that the company has won its good market position, considering the presence of other strong competitors such as Bonduelle, which has been on the European vegetable market for more than 70 years and boasts proceeds of 884.6 million.
What is today a group with five production plants, two farms, a refrigerated transport company and processing surface area of 33,600 square meters, represents the evolution of an agri-food company founded in 1991 by Giuseppe and Domenico Battagliola. «All our products are ready in the morning and are delivered by evening, in Italy and neighboring countries» explains Giuseppe, 53 years old and president, founder and owner of the company along with his brother. «A year-and-a-half ago we launched the Navarra project in Spain, a clone of Italy in terms of the production chain. And this location is proving very successful, reinforced by the fact that, at this moment, the Spanish market is in greater crisis than our own. There, we registered a turnover of 12 million with 100 people».
The company's strongpoint is its specialization in what is known as the 4th range market. «We have over 100 hectares, both in the area around Pontecagnano (province of Salerno) and around Brescia. Where our own means are not sufficient, we are backed up by 350 farms who collaborate with us and for whom we guarantee that we will buy their produce, irrespective of weather or market conditions. The 4th range is highly-regulated and the standards are strict," notes Giuseppe Battagliola, owner of a company that operates three full shifts, 20/24hrs and often 7 days a week. «We often receive the raw material during the night, we process it and the next evening it arrives in supermarkets,» comments the business and logistics director for the Linea Verde, Massimo Bragotto, formerly sales manager, first for Kellogg's and later Fiorucci.
But how does the production process work? The company either produces or assigns production to partner farms. The raw materials then reach the processing platform where integrated production techniques are utilized and respect for regulatory standards is controlled by agronomist engineers. Immediately following harvest, the cold chain begins, a vital phase for high-end products. The product is placed in controlled-temperature hoppers. It then moves on to the trimming and sorting phase and only selected produce is sent into production. Then there is an initial checking and washing phase in which the product is rinsed six times in low-temperature drinking water and dried using either air in nitrogen tunnels, or spun dry.
Following this are other quality control checks before the product is handed over for distribution. Chlorophyll-reading optical sensors are used that remove any foreign matter present by accident or leaves not up to quality standards. «Under current specifications, we have what is known as integrated pest control which means that pesticides are not used unless absolutely necessary. The lettuce is packaged by hand and this operation also includes a final visual check», the manager explains. The certified agri-food chain program makes it possible to trace the product's journey from raw material selection to delivery to the client.
But, as part of Linea Verde, alongside the pre-packaged salad business, there are also fresh soups, shakes and fresh puréed potatoes. This last product, alone, is worth 4 million per year, "a tremendous success", given that in 12 months, 1.75 million packages of this product were sold. Then the shakes which earned 8 million. And salad? 100 million. «We also just recently won a contract sponsored by the European Community to supply fruit to lunchrooms in a number of public schools,» adds the founder of Linea Verde.
A bent for innovation as well as investment in new equipment are characteristic of this firm. In fact, this company has recently renovated its Manerbio plant, investing a cool 15 million. «This is the reason why we are still showing a profit, but only just above zero ... », explains the business director. Each year, the company invests about 3% of its profits in research & development, quality and marketing. «The market for pre-packaged salad is growing, but has yet to reach its true potential. Penetration is still quite low, given the fact that many consumers remain skeptical about this type of product. We are confident, however, that the habit of using pre-packaged but fresh products will become more common,» predicts the entrepreneur.
And the future? They might be interested in acquiring companies abroad to «bridge the geographical distance, or perhaps a niche company for super-fresh products to cover a new share of the market, such as ready-to-serve entrées or side dishes. But, for the moment, we still have to see,» concludes Battagliola.