Despite strong demand for fresh flavors, the challenge for distributors is getting to market in a timely fashion.
The demand for fresh herbs shows no signs of slowing down. Chick Goodman, vice president of sales and marketing for Coosemans Worldwide, Santa Cruz, CA, estimates fresh herbs were 1 percent of produce sales around the turn of the century and are currently 2 to 4 percent, with 10 to 15 percent category growth every year in the past 15 years.
Organic herbs, in particular, have been a growing category. “Consumers are drawn by organic products,” says Nadine Williams, director of marketing at Shenandoah Growers in Harrisonburg, VA. The company has conducted studies to confirm consumers’ desire for organic, and since then is growing organic herbs exclusively.
The shift to organics from conventional herbs is more pronounced on the retail end. While organic herbs have grown in popularity, conventional herbs remain popular. “In the past few years, retailers have been converting and offering organic and or both,” says Robert Schueller, director of public relations for Los Angeles-based Melissa’s Produce. While organic is pricier, “people who believe in that lifestyle are willing to pay for it,” says Schueller.
Organic herbs are also typically part of a store-wide concept of organics. Sales of organic herbs do not cannibalize the sale of conventional herbs, according to Schueller, as many retailers carry both items and segregate the organic from non-organic. Schueller suggests retailers carry both for a few months and study consumer buying patterns before deciding what to stock moving forward.
While organic herbs are growing as a category on the retail side, wholesalers buy more conventional herbs. John Alva, owner of Rockhedge Herb Farm in Pleasant Valley, NY, says its wholesale customers go for conventional herbs 95 percent of the time, while it’s an even split between conventional and organic for retailers. “Our customers’ demand for organic herbs has risen 10 percent in the past five years, while the demand for locally grown herbs has risen 90 percent. All areas want local, and it starts with very local, to pretty local and to USA. If customers have a choice between local and organic, they want local.”
However you measure it, sales of herbs have grown. Jeff Bruff, general manager of Miami-based Rock Garden South, a grower-shipper of herbs, microgreens and specialty items, attributes the growth of herbs to customers’ growing sophistication. “People are more focused on a healthy lifestyle, and so they want to have a nutritious diet. They view herbs as part of that healthy lifestyle, and we see more people getting into the category and expanding as people become more aware.”
Consumers’ education has come through unconventional means. Goodman says educating consumers has come as a case of life imitating art. “Consumer sophistication has increased vastly, partly due to cooking shows on television,” he says. “Watching professional chefs use herbs as part of recipes for fabulous dishes has inspired at-home chefs to do the same.”
Chris Wada, marketing manager for North Shore Living Herbs, a Thermal, CA-based hydroponic greenhouse grower of living produce with the roots still attached for freshness, says the company focuses on sustainability and uses 70 to 80 percent less water to grow its products than the traditional grower does. While Wada believes the television cooking shows and healthy attributes have fed the growth of the fresh herb market, he notes other factors as well. “Bloggers and other social media influencers have helped to raise awareness of the category and encourage consumers to try new things,” he says.
Fresh herbs have become more accessible as consumers have become more open and desirable to experiment with their cooking. Foodie magazines have also helped propel fresh herb growth.
The Need For Speed
Order today, here tomorrow is the expectation of today’s demanding consumer. Millennials, in particular, grew up with this need for instant gratification. Like Millennials, fresh herbs demand speed. They’re short shelf life puts the onus of hastened delivery on growers. “It’s a race,” says Goodman. “We harvest, cool it, ship, pack it and ship it within 24 to 48 hours.”
Because of the race to market, Rockhedge Herb Farm only sells to customers from Southern Maine to Washington, D.C., as the geographic area is within a four-hour radius of its headquarters. Rockhedge can harvest herbs in the morning, cool and pack them, and deliver to the customer the next morning. “Being right where my customer is and having the ability to change an order late in the day is a big advantage,” says Alva.
Keeping herbs at the proper temperature and its effect on shelf life are vitally important. Rockhedge has delivery trucks capable of keeping herbs cooled to their most appropriate temperature. If delivery is more than three hours away, the company uses trucks that can be set to two different temperatures. “We only sell to supermarkets if our trucks can deliver to them, because we take full responsibility,” says Alva.
Beyond the demand for speed, there is the demand for product. There are 10 core herbs most retailers carry. Basil leads, followed by parsley, mint, rosemary, thyme, cilantro, sage, chives and dill.
Customers want access to fresh herbs every day. Any product dependent upon Mother Nature will have ups and downs in terms of availability. Weather is simply too unpredictable. In order to have product available at all times, companies tend to have multiple farms in multiple locations. Rock Garden South, for example, has farms in five countries, including two different hemispheres. “If you restrict growing/purchasing to one location, you live and die by that location. We have infrastructure because it helps us address and compensate for when parts of the globe have weather issues,” says Bruff. He notes that spreading out the growing areas allows Rock Garden South to rarely run out of product.
While growing overseas certainly helps companies ensure they have product available around the clock, it comes with other issues. Food safety standards in other countries are not necessarily on par with American standards, leaving consumers leery. Rock Garden South has addressed this concern by utilizing third-party inspections and auditors so food safety standards are properly maintained. Its products are SQF Level 2 certified, which is clearly noted on the company website and products.
Rockhedge not only owns, but contracts with and works with 91 farms spread out across eight countries. The farms vary in size, with some as small as five acres and others up to 100 acres. “When you supply supermarkets and foodservice, they don’t want to hear you don’t have product. If you don’t have product, you lose out to another company that does,” says Alva.
Fresh herbs — both conventional and organic — have established places on the grocer’s shelf and are in a mature place in the product life cycle. On the other hand, microgreens are at the early stages of the product life cycle.
Microgreens came on the scene a few years ago. “Microgreens are not yet established in the retail market and are where fresh herbs were 10 or 15 years ago,” says Coosemans Worldwide’s Goodman.
At this point, consumers are not quite sure how to use microgreens. Goodman says smart phones and QR codes that can be scanned for recipes are helping to educate consumers.
Schueller looks at microgreens as a new category. He notes they are merchandised differently, as they are refrigerated and sold in flat packs. “Microgreens are very popular in white table cloth restaurants, but most consumers don’t understand how to use them,” he says. Schueller also notes not all microgreens are microherbs.
Rock Garden South carries a line of microgreens. Selling the product has required educating the customer as people viewed microgreens as garnish. “Millennials have been exposed to microgreens used as garnish at restaurants. However, chefs started using them in dishes to add flavor, texture and taste. The home chefs want to duplicate what they ate in a restaurant and are willing to try new things,” says Bruff.
To help guide the home chef on how to use microgreens, Rock Garden South developed distinct flavor profiles. The flavors, which include Italian, imply what types of foods the microgreens would work best with.
Shenandoah Growers also deals with microgreens and has developed five different blends based on consumer testing in the marketplace. “Microgreens are a category that cooking enthusiasts know of. Some retailers are showcasing them, but I believe we will see more in the next couple of years,” says Williams.
North Shore Living Herbs has been working on a “living wall.” The company believes the living wall can be a destination in the produce section. According to Wada, the living wall would have products growing that consumers would pick right off the wall. “This would create a produce section to remember,” says Wada.
Fresh herbs and its offshoots continue to grow in popularity and use. Consumers’ desire for healthy, tasty food and their interest in new and different recipes calling for herbs and microgreens have the category poised for continued growth. Retailers can distinguish themselves from competitors by having a wide and attractive selection of fresh herbs, as they are becoming a key decision criterion in where consumers shop.
The Role Of Packaging
While speedy delivery certainly ensures more shelf time for fresh herbs, packaging is also key, as the product is quite sensitive.
These days, according to Robert Schueller, director of public relations for Los Angeles-based Melissa’s Produce, most retailers prefer clamshell. “Fresh herbs are extremely sensitive and a person’s touch gives off heat and dirt, which affects the product. When the herb is touched, cells get broken which releases the smell,” he says.
Clamshell packages can also protect fresh herbs from getting smashed when being packed in a grocery bag and allow for easier merchandising. Schueller acknowledges that bulk displays are extremely fragrant and attractive, but they are more susceptible to shrinkage and are labor-intensive to maintain.
North Shore Living Herbs, a Thermal, CA-based hydroponic greenhouse grower of living produce with the roots still attached for freshness, uses packaging as a way of distinguishing itself. While recognizing packaging plays a big role in keeping the product alive and fresh, its clamshells create a mini greenhouse for the fresh herbs. North Shore’s potted products are shipped in a nine-pack watering tray to keep the plants alive in the produce department. Keeping the plant alive offers a fresher, more flavorful product; shelf life can be up to three times longer. “Everything we grow has roots intact, and they are there when consumer gets it. Each of our packages has care instructions for placing the roots in water for even longer shelf life at home,” says Chris Wada, marketing manager.
Shenandoah Growers in Harrisonburg, VA, also sees packaging as an opportunity to merchandise. Shenandoah incorporates recipes on some of its packaging and assists retailers with different signage and recipe cards, while striving to understand the cadence of their promotions/displays.
Nadine Williams, director of marketing for Shenandoah, says the purchase of fresh herbs is impulse-driven, and “fresh herbs are a wonderful display item that signals freshness to consumers when they walk into the produce department.”