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Getting a handle on juice bottles

Since it was established just over six years ago, orange and grapefruit juice producer Freshco, Ltd., Fort Pierce, FL, has faced the challenge of differentiating its products in a commodity market dominated by large brand names. Relates Bernie McBee, vp and general manager of the company, "We compete every day with the big boys on the block, and that makes it very tough. Typically, juice is a commodity-type business, so we have to have something that sets us apart. We think it's our flavor and our color and the quality parameters that people can see and taste."

Freshco's citrus groves are located in the heart of the Indian River Citrus District—an area that for more than a century has been known for producing the most luscious, sweet-tasting, fresh citrus in the world, says McBee. The company's freshly squeezed Indian River Select Premium Juices are pasteurized and filled on-site to produce what it says are the most flavorful orange and grapefruit juices anywhere.

To convey its juices' fresh, full-flavored character, Freshco desired packaging with superior clarity that would allow the beverages' rich orange and ruby-red colors to show through. After several resin types failed to provide the necessary quality and clarity features for its juice bottles, the company turned to Eastman Chemical Co.'s (www.eastman.com) new Eastar (www.clearhandleware.com) copolyester for handled containers. Using Eastar, Freshco introduced a 64-oz container with an integrated handle, a 1-L carafe-style bottle and a 16-oz single-serve container.

Freshco originated from founder and CEO Clifford Burg's desire to use his citrus groves and his fresh-fruit packing experience to "put the best juice he could produce into a bottle," says McBee. "He started with absolutely no customers—just an idea," he adds.

Today the company's products, all under the Indian River Select brand name, are sold in select grocery stores throughout the Southeast, as well as in Washington, DC, and Baltimore. Seventy-five percent of Freshco's business comes from copacking from-concentrate juices and flavored water for large consumer packaged goods marketers.

To package its own-brand juices, the Indian River Select line, the company first used an opaque, 1-L high-density polyethylene bottle that was later swapped for a 64-oz polyvinyl chloride, handled container that provided more—but not ideal—clarity. But, as McBee relates, the PVC bottle posed some product quality problems. "You get some chemical tastes from the PVC," he says. "We were getting complaints about the flavor; customers were saying there was something lingering, and it was not juice."

To address the flavor issue while further enhancing the clarity, Freshco switched to a 64-oz polyethylene terephthalate container with a separate, snap-in handle. Explains George Huber, marketing communications for Eastman, the separate handle was needed because PET cannot be used in the single-mold extrusion/blow-molding process, which is the method used to create handled containers. "With PET bottles, you start off with a preform. That's one mold. Then you have the stretch mold, which is the second process," he says. "You can't extrusion/blow-mold normal PET."

Although the PET bottles addressed the taste and appearance problems Freshco experienced with PVC, consumers' complaints now focused on issues with the snap-in handles. "The handles wouldn't stay in," says McBee, "and our customers were very unhappy with that." So, it was back to PVC.

Meanwhile, Freshco's original PVC bottle supplier, CKS Packaging, Inc. (www.ckspackaging.com), learned of a new Eastar copolyester formula from Eastman Chemical that exhibited a high melt strength and toughness specifically developed for extrusion/blow molding, while displaying an almost glass-like clarity.

Cortland Jenkins, market development manager, durables and food packaging, Eastman Chemical, relates that Eastar copolyesters are ideal for extrusion/blown bottles for both handleware and custom-shaped applications, where aesthetics such as superior, water-like clarity and gloss, coupled with design flexibility, drive demand.

The process of refining Freshco's 64-oz bottle design, as well as adjusting CKS's machine parameters and molds to accommodate the new resin began in the spring of 2003. But, before the container was launched in spring 2004, Freshco introduced two other package designs made from Eastar that expanded its offerings.

The first design, a simple, round 16-oz single-serve bottle for orange and grapefruit juices, replaced an existing, 12-oz size, and was the easiest to produce, claims McBee. The change to the larger size was made, he says, because "it looked like the competition was in the sixteen-ounce area."

Next, Freshco released a 1-L carafe with a 70-mm opening—a design that owner Burg had been interested in "for years," claims McBee. With its crystal-clear appearance, the carafe was designed to stand out on the shelf, while its ability to be reused provides enhanced functionality. With all three of its new container designs, Freshco says it is also very satisfied with the barrier properties provided by Eastar, which has given their cold-filled, refrigerated products a shelf life of up to 65 days.

Clearly, McBee will agree, the Eastar copolyester resin has provided the best packaging material solution for Freshco, allowing it to meet its clarity, quality and convenience requirements.

"The bottles show that the quality of our juice is there," says McBee. "The reason that we show our product in a clear container and most other juice companies don't is because even though they may call their product Ruby Red grapefruit juice, it's anything but that. It's more of a pink. We want people to know that our juice is the highest-quality product they can grab off the shelf. Almost every week we get a positive comment from someone who says how great our product looks because our orange juice looks really orange, and our grapefruit juice looks really red. They can see the difference between our juices and what they've been drinking.

"The clarity and design flexibility of Eastar copolyester, combined with the convenience offering of versatile containers for consumers, has further distinguished our juice products from our competitors' and it has enhanced our position in the marketplace."

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