Getting to the Root of Improving Sales

Root Vegetables Display

Fall brings out consumers craving hearty vegetables for roasting.

Root VegetablesRoot vegetables have evolved from being a pot roast sidekick to a trending standalone dish you can’t wait to use when fall arrives and the weather cools down.

“The preparation of root vegetable makes it the ideal vegetable to cook in the winter months,” says Oakley Boren, tradeshow and communications manager for Frieda’s Specialty Produce, Los Alamitos, CA. “The flavors of roots are brought out when roasted alone or with meats, added in stews or used in purees and soups, which are all made frequently during winter. We also see better quality and more availability of these products during the winter months.”

Chicago-based Nielsen Perishables Group reported total root vegetable grocery sales totaled $4.86 billion in the 52 weeks ending July 1,2017, and shows root vegetable dollar sales have increased an average of 1 percent each of the past five years.

Matt Lally, client director of Nielsen Fresh, Chicago, notes the lion’s share of sales come from potatoes followed by onions and carrots. Also included, but accounting for less than 1 percent of sales, are radishes, beets and turnips.

“As with any produce item, numerous factors can determine success,” says Lally. “Distribution/accessibility is one, education on the product, its health benefits, how to prepare, etc. Convenience is huge right now, so any innovations that can make the items easier to prepare, integrate into meals and snack on are also great opportunities right now.”

Matt Hiltner, social media and marketing assistant with Babé Farms in Santa Maria, CA, says root vegetables are the company’s bread and butter. “We grow more than 30 varieties of colorful and baby root vegetables, including carrots, beets, radishes, celery root, parsley root, turnips and kohlrabi,” he says. “We are blessed with a mild, Mediterranean climate and the ideal soil type for growing root vegetables. These are the main reasons we can grow year-round here on the Central Coast. In addition, our great harvest crews allow us to efficiently and effectively continue to produce quality products.”

Robert Stauffer, vice president/category manager vegetables for Los Angeles-based Vision Produce, says the company carries all the core items in the category, including turnips, rutabagas, parsnips, beets, radishes and Gold beets, and is a year-round supplier no matter how many growing areas are required. “The key to being a success is having grower relationships in all of the regions where the product is sourced,” he says. “We have a working knowledge of the seasonality and production of each commodity.”

Robert Schueller, director of public relations for Melissa’s Produce in Vernon, CA, says there are three keys to being successful with root vegetables — the quality of product, packaging options and competitive pricing. “People are attracted to root vegetables as key meal flavors, and not expensive produce items,” he says. “They are filler foods and offer long storage for a vegetable. Most trendy are turmeric, organic ginger and mixed variety potatoes.”

Over the past calendar year, the company has seen a 14 percent increase in Dutch Yellow potatoes, a 15 percent increase in steamed baby red beets and a 32 percent increase in turmeric.

Winter is Coming

Root vegetables can be distinguished by shape, color, texture and flavor. For example, beets have a distinct earthy flavor and long tops with colorful stems. Radishes, on the other hand, come in a wide range of colors with short green tops. They also pack a peppery kick.

“One characteristic that stands out about root vegetables is their durability during the winter months,” says Hiltner. “Going back in history, before the days of refrigeration, vegetables such as carrots and turnips were commonly used in stews and other comfort foods — being able to weather the harsh winters and provide a long shelf-life. That’s a major reason they’ve stuck around for so long.”

Winter is a big season for root vegetables. Nielsen’ Lally says availability makes the biggest difference as some items like turnips or rutabaga are carried more widely in the winter months.

“Historically, these commodities store well and were available during the winter when other vegetable items were out of season,” says Stauffer. “There was a time when many homes would have a root cellar for the purpose of storing product during winter.”

Merchandising Matters

One of the biggest opportunities for produce items is to link health claims with the associated benefits. In general, root vegetables are high in fiber and nutrients, and low in fat or cholesterol, making them very healthy.

“While it’s great to tout being high in omega-3s or a good source of vitamin K, tell the shoppers what that means for them since most cannot make that association,” advises Nielsen Fresh’s Lally. “High in omega-3, root vegetables can also lower cholesterol levels or reduce a person’s risk of heart disease.”

Food-conscious consumers have a growing appreciation for root vegetables, whether they are eating for health or pleasure. A plethora of recipes showcasing these produce items are helping to fuel the desire.

Melissa’s offers at least three recipes on every root vegetable it carries. The company also has six produce-related cookbooks that offer numerous recipes on a variety of root vegetables. “It’s the health benefits that will attract consumers,” says Schueller, “but once consumers eat a particular root, the flavor is what is going to hold them and entice them back.”

Thanks to the internet, more people are viewing specialty items like root vegetables, and this is directly affecting consumption.

“Also, with so many people turning to plant-based, vegan and vegetarian lifestyles nowadays, many folks are looking for interesting and fun things to put on their plate,” says Hiltner. “Meal delivery services such as Blue Apron and Hello Fresh are also increasing awareness of root vegetables by including them in their weekly kits. These companies love root veggies because they hold up so well in transit.”

Rise in Foodservice

Root vegetables offer consumers a great deal of cooking options. They can be chopped and used as an ingredient in soup or boiled whole and then mashed. They can also be pickled for use as a garnish. More recently, these vegetables can be found in dishes after being sliced thinly and fried.

The use of specialty products such as gold and stripe beets, and watermelon radish has actually become more prevalent in the foodservice sector during the past decade. Chefs are using root vegetables in a rustic way that is appealing to the eye, and this trend is trickling down to retail. For example, beets are increasingly appearing on more menus and in new varieties, whether it’s in salads with goat cheese, as juices or even as chips.

“Roasting parsnips and carrots with the skin on and tossed with olive oil, salt and pepper creates a beautiful presentation,” says Frieda’s Boren. “Celery root is a staple in trending restaurants during the fall and winter months. It’s often used in soups, purees and sauces. These roots are also making culinary appearances at Thanksgiving instead of glazed carrots and casseroles as chefs are inspiring shoppers to recreate these appealing dishes at home.”

Social media is a valuable asset for chefs. Some have huge followings and can boast a large volume of viewers who are seeking innovative uses for root vegetables. Showing these vegetables in an appealing way is bound to motivate consumers to incorporate them in their diets, which fuels sales at the retail level.

“Many chefs’ creations stem back to their childhood and the family recipes they grew up with,” says Babé Farms’ Hiltner. “With so many varieties of fun and colorful root vegetables to work with, chefs can create culinary masterpieces that consumers relate to.”