Healthy lifestyle trends favor the sector’s growth, and retailers’ sales.
Originally printed in the December 2022 issue of Produce Business.
Consumers interested in healthy eating want more leafy greens, but labor and convenience are also factors affecting how the category is developing.
Marc Goldman, produce director for Morton Williams, Bronx, NY, says labor is a concern when it comes to bulk leafy greens. The 16 stores he oversees, almost all in Manhattan, have had to adapt to ensure quality.
At the same time, as interest in leafy greens gains, so has demand for bagged greens, so Goldman needs a little less labor devoted to trimming and handling raw leafy greens. The trend has helped his costs.
“People did us a favor,” he says.
Leafy greens are a big part of a lot of people’s diets and even a retailer such as Argus Farm Stop, Ann Arbor, MI, with its mission to support local farmers, offers them year-round in its three locations.
This year, the farming season lasted longer than normal, so local greens were available longer, says Dani Cavagnaro, Argus produce manager. But when fall turns to winter, Argus has a solution. “We have a someone who grows hydroponically about 15 miles away, and we rely on him as a producer in the winter.”
Retailers are finding ways to satisfy leafy greens customers at a time when interest is high. The product range — stretching from bulk leafy greens and related items, through packaged salads — draws shoppers seeking nutrition and/or convenience.
Babé Farms grows, packs and ships year-round from Santa Maria, CA, says Matt Hiltner, marketing coordinator, adding, “Demand has been greater than we could have hoped for heading into the year,” he says. “With restaurants, travel, hotels, etc. all getting back to normalcy, demand has increased more than we projected.”
Church Bros. Farms, Salinas, CA, works from three locations to keep product moving, and ships year-round — during the summer out of Salinas and during the winter out of Yuma, AZ. It ships out of its plant in Mexico as well, says Ernst van Eeghen, vice president of foodservice business development.
He notes that the holidays and the period just after represent a consistent opportunity for leafy greens.
“We expect an increase for the holiday pull, but in general, we do not expect greater demand other than what comes with the seasonality,” van Eeghen says. “Typically, the beginning of the year sparks healthy eating habits for people, so we expect salad and veggie demand to increase in January.”
He says the company moved its whole leaf category to northern Mexico “so we could dedicate the right amount of labor and time to those products. This has given us a competitive advantage in this category.”
Leafy greens producers have to address several challenges, and that will affect supply to the market. “We expect the market to settle down in the second half of December,” says van Eeghen. “The costs for food and fertilizer are becoming more troublesome, costs are rising and restrictions are intensifying. We are working on a number of different cost-saving and efficiency-improving projects in order to stay competitive and secure tomorrow’s business.”
GOOD EATING (AND GOOD FOR YOU)
At B&W Quality Growers, Fellsmere, FL, the company is using the term “SuperLeaves” to underscore the nutritional benefits of its leafy greens. “Our SuperLeaves, especially watercress, are becoming staples for their distinctive flavor, high quality, and nutrient density,” says Ruth Bozeman, director of marketing.
The company has a flexibility in its supply capabilities, given the expanse of its operations.
“We follow the sun,” Bozeman says. “Our farming operations span eight states, allowing us to grow products where they are always in season and at their peak of freshness and flavor. This also lets our farms recharge naturally in a seasonal rotation.”
J. Marchini Farms, Le Grand, CA, ships three varieties of chicories — Radicchio, Treviso and Castelfranco — fennel and lacinato kale year-round. “We also ship specialty items like radicchio rosa, cardone and puntarelle seasonally,” says Francesca Marchini Fordice, sales and marketing.
Nutritional concerns only buoy leafy greens, Babé Farms’ Hiltner says, but the spread of various preparation techniques can help, too, especially with kale.
“Leafy greens are the logical place to start when it comes to a healthy diet,” he says. “Kale, in particular, has long been one of the best-selling items under our Coastal Valley Farms organic label. With its versatility and many great health benefits, it’s easy to see why it has remained popular after all these years.”
The promotion of nutrition is also central to B&W’s product line positioning.
“Watercress is one of the most nutrient-dense vegetables in the entire world,” Bozeman says. “With more than 28 essential vitamins, minerals and compounds, and naturally low-calorie, fat-free, and cholesterol free, you’d be hard-pressed to find better nutritional stats.”
Fordice says that most healthy lifestyle trends favor the leafy greens sector going forward.
“Breakfast salads, lettuce wraps, smoothies and juicing have helped create more buzz to the produce department and created fun, alternative ways to enjoy leafy greens,” she says. “Culturally, there is a large shift that food is medicine and the more vegetables in a daily life, the better. Now, consumers can see leafy greens and vegetables as a delicious addition or alternative, as well beneficial to their overall health.”
Fordice notes social media suggests younger consumers are driving a number of trends, both as purchasers and restaurant customers.
“We have seen through social media platforms such as TikTok and Instagram that millennials enjoy cooking and trying specialty produce,” she says. “Food bloggers and influencers on Instagram have been using more radicchio to add a pop of color and flavor into a salad. Trends have shown that bitter is better.”
“There is an increasing demand from more consumers that are exposed to dishes at restaurants,” she adds.
“We’ve seen popularity in the specialty lettuce category with chefs as they look to revamp their standard salad offerings,” agrees van Eeghen. “Kale is still a hot item, but its growth has stagnated. People are looking for new alternatives like our Tuscan Baby Romaine and Little Gem lettuce.”
Fordice says evolving attitudes toward food are doing good things for J Marchini’s prospects.
“A combination between a shift in healthy eating habits and foodie social media trends have increased our demand for specialty lettuces and specialty vegetables in general,” she says. “Chefs and consumers like adding color, texture, depth and flavor to their salads and side dishes.”
For example, she adds, a classic Caesar salad typically is made with romaine lettuce. “However, now chefs are starting to make it using lacinato kale and/or radicchio. Ranch dressing also used to be only paired with a typical green salad, whereas now there are recipes that incorporate radicchio-only salads with ranch dressing.”
Though reports are that organic produce has been pressured by production costs and subsequent higher prices on the retail end, van Eeghen says it remains dynamic in the foodservice.
“We have a relatively small organic program,” he says, “but there does not seem to be a great demand for organic products out of the foodservice channels.”
Fordice says local produce also is an important consideration when it comes to making leafy greens attractive to consumers. Yet, it has to be taken in context.
“Consumers like seeing local products in the grocery stores, on restaurant menus and at farmers markets,” she says. “We attend local farmers markets and sell produce to local restaurants as a way to offer our products to our local community. However, as growers and members of the global fresh produce industry, we know that locally grown products can supply a region for a season, but you need the global industry to help supply the region year-round to keep demand up.”