Love Those Leaves

Originally printed in the December 2020 issue of Produce Business.

Whether they’re for convenience, an immunity boost or other health benefits, leafy greens have a lot to offer—and it shows in sales.

Research shows that overall year to date (period ending Oct 6), produce sales are up 11% (as seen in the latest IRI research), according to Gina Garven, vice president of commercial development and analytics for Robinson Fresh in Eden Prairie, MN, who also offers some historical context. “A typical produce department grows 1-2% in a year,” she says. “The Greens category is growing at 7.5% year over year (from IRI), making this year a big focus for incorporating fresh healthy items like greens.”

And that is before the holiday sales kick in when leafy greens continue to grow in popularity from Thanksgiving and through the New Year. All this means plenty of opportunities for retailers to showcase these items, including collard greens, kale, turnip greens, mustard greens and more.

Bob Borda, vice president of organic sales at Grimmway Farms in Bakersfield, CA, points out that the mainstays in the organic category have been broccoli and kale. That is starting to change, however, and now retailers can make room for other products. “As organics become more regularly available, we are seeing good growth in red and green leaf and romaine,” he says. “Industry numbers show these are up almost 20% in the third quarter.”

Collards Shine During Holidays

While kale may retain its position as the rising star — it’s year-to-date growth is at almost 10%, says Garven — the holiday season is collard’s time to shine. “In the Thanksgiving time frame, collard greens shift from 13% of total greens to about 30% of total greens sold in November. That is very meaningful when it comes to merchandising.”

According to Megan Ichimoto, marketing and product development manager for San Miguel Produce in Oxnard, CA, “comfort greens,” such as collard and mustard greens, are rising in mainstream popularity.

“Consumers are now incorporating these greens into their everyday recipes, like shredded collards as a base for a salad, or mustard greens used in sandwiches and burgers for an extra spicy kick.”

Bill Nardelli Sr., president at Nardelli Bros. Inc./Lake View Farms in Cedarville, NJ, even counts collards, mustards and turnip tops as “your basic staples that people always continue to buy,” and affirms their popularity during the holidays. “Collards represent a substantial amount of greens around the holidays in the South particularly,” he says. “These are all equally good sellers though their volume is not as high as kale.”

Convenience Comes With Nutritional Benefits

As many consumers continue to opt for convenience, packaged greens continue to drive the category. In fact, Robinson’s Garven says packaged greens are up 11% in dollars and 14% in pounds. “Consumers are definitely shifting to the package,” she says.

Retailers are seeing this borne out as well. “In Manhattan, it’s all about quick and easy — it’s grab-and-go,” says Marc Goldman, produce director for Morton Williams Supermarkets, with its headquarters in The Bronx, NY. Goldman oversees 16 Manhattan locations.

Nardelli says his company is seeing a big influx in bagged cooking greens as well, especially those that are clipped, washed, easy to cook, and come with cooking instructions.

The same is true at San Miguel Produce, where packaged products are popular, including in various cuisines. “As Asian cuisine becomes more popular at foodservice, consumers look to incorporate these flavors and ingredients at home,” says Ichimoto. “The second- and third-generation consumers are also looking for convenient options at mainstream grocery stores for the vegetables they grew up eating. We have seen an increased interest in our washed and wok-ready Shanghai Bok Choy under our Jade Asian Greens brand.”

Grimmway’s Borda is seeing growth in Bok Choy, and the cabbage category overall, as well. “Baby Bok is more of a specialty item, but a lot more awareness is coming around it,” he says. “Traditionally you think of adding it to stir fry, but now you have salad mixes with it.”

Suppliers and retailers who choose to market based on the health benefits of leafy greens have great information in their arsenal, including the fact that kale, collard, mustard greens and watercress are ranked Number One on the Aggregate Nutrient Density Index (ANDI), which rates popular foods on their nutrient density.

Garven says leafy greens are great for the immune system, and promoting this fact is another way retailers can market the product. She adds that retailers have an abundance of opportunities to do this online — not just in stores. “People are buying more online, so retailers can heighten consumer awareness on their websites,” says Garven. They can do that through sharing recipes and nutritional information.

The Necessity of Recipes

Nutritional benefits aside, Ichimoto says consumers can still be afraid of greens. “We have heard from several consumers who thought they could only eat greens in certain ways,” she says. “For example, kale could only be eaten raw in a salad and collard greens could only be cooked in a braise. By sharing recipes that include greens, but are familiar to consumers, we have found that it can remove some of those barriers and be less intimidating.”

At San Miguel Produce, the company’s creative recipes include everything from kale mac ’n cheese and a kale margarita to a Bloody Mary with mustard greens or a Bok Choy smoothie bowl. The company offers recipe cards to its retailers, as do other suppliers.

“We do offer recipes and cooking suggestions and the like for all the greens to be able to help enhance sales,” says Nardelli.

Garven says Robinson Fresh offers recipes and nutritional cards for retailers, while also printing recipes on the back of packages that could also include a QR code. Borda says Grimmway Farms offers a whole host of recipes online as well.

Still, there are customers who just need the availability of a good product.

“Most of the volume that goes out on bulk greens are from those people who have been eating them for generations and don’t need suggestions,” Nardelli says. “They have an old family recipe that grand mom started, and they have their mind made up.”

Eye-Popping Displays

That’s good news for Marc Goldman, and his 16 Manhattan locations where space is scarce. He doesn’t have room for recipe cards and fancy displays, so that is where he and his produce managers get creative. “A lot of companies put everything [bulk leafy greens] together, and it’s a big conglomeration. When you stand back, it looks like one big mess of greens,” he says. “I like to put carrots and radishes in the middle of the greens to break it up.”

Goldman says the colors in produce are beautiful, but if you want someone to buy something, particularly in the bulk section, you have to attract attention. “If you have a color break, it makes the display pop,” he says. “Even when we stack the romaine, we don’t put it all one way — we rotate them so it’s white, then green, and has a color to it.”

Perhaps in some cases, the greens sell themselves, typically for certain demographics, Nardelli says. “Collards and kale mustards and tops are a staple similar to potatoes or green beans,” he says. “They are a holiday favorite for many demographics. It’s a tradition.”
Pandemic Plays a Role

There is no doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic has made some impacts in the leafy greens market, especially as customers choose between packaged and bulk items. For Morton Williams stores, Goldman says the clamshells have always been a top seller. “This is even more so now as people like the clamshells, as opposed to picking greens off the stand, where customers have touched them,” he says.

At San Miguel Produce, Ichimoto says COVID has definitely increased demand for packaged items across all produce categories. “While consumers see these as a safer alternative, our packaged greens are a good purchase for consumers who are reducing their frequency of shopping trips. Whether consumers have excess greens on hand or are looking to stock up, our greens can be frozen directly in the bag for future use,” she says.

IRI data shows growth in 12-ounce packages, which Garven attributes to the pandemic. “People will likely have smaller gatherings,” she says. “The 12-ounce bag is growing significantly,” she says, adding that COVID-19 has fueled trends that were already in place including a focus on health and wellness, convenience and online sales.

“People were already learning how to get more preventative with their health, how to boost their immune system, and were eating fresh healthy items — the pandemic has made people more actively aware and this will continue.

What Retailers Want

No matter where the consumer purchases the product, Goldman says his stores are pretty self-sufficient. “I have suppliers who have new items they show me. To that point, I never have someone coming to me with a new green. It would be a new package — a new clamshell,” he says. “I look at the quality and price when it comes to something new. I look at who I would get it delivered from, and the way it is grown — hydroponic versus vertical farming. If it’s locally grown that may help the customers buy it.”

That’s where companies like Grimmway Farms can come in, as Borda says the company has a whole host of tools to help the retailers, including everything from aiding them with ad plans, social media and more. But, perhaps most importantly, the company works with its retailers with resetting their stores.

“We work with them to apply best practices with the produce managers. We educate them on everything from crisping our products to the schematics for store resets, recipe cards and dietician info for displays,” he says. The company partners with in-store dietitians and shares how its leafy greens correlate to nutrition and how they can intertwine that into their recipes and materials.

The company’s merchandising specialists are also there to help with store resets. This could be a local retailer whose organics were once shoved in the corner and is now out front. “We assist with all that coordination and with what works best,” Borda says. “We sell over 65 organic vegetables, and we help with how to promote organics in stores.”

Grimmway Farms sells primarily unpackaged produce, so the company also has info that helps educate retailers on the best methods of crisping the vegetables before they go on the shelf. “Crisping vegetables is a fine art that enhances the appearance and extends the shelf life of the product,” he says. “We focus on these methods as part of the best practices we share with produce managers for wet rack merchandising.”