Salad kits and single-serve salads overshadow‭ ‬traditional bagged‭.

Salad Kits Display Case

Consumption data suggest lettuce is on the decline. Leaf and Romaine dropped in 2014 compared to the previous five years, according to the USDA. Still, lettuce, both head and leaf, is the third most consumed fresh vegetable in the United States behind tomatoes and potatoes.

At the menu level, ongoing shifts belie these macro trends. The Datassential MenuTrends — U.S. Chains & Independents research database shows at least 10 percent one-year increases in dishes with frisee, Bibb, Belgian endive, or arugula on restaurant menus. Four-year growth tops 50 percent for several lettuce and greens varieties, including Butter lettuce, arugula, Bibb, spring mix, baby arugula, and frisee. At 45 percent, Romaine has the highest menu penetration, followed by arugula (17 percent) and Iceberg (15 percent).

Health Matters Too

Chopped Salad KitThe highest percentage of packaged salad sales are generated by families where the head-of-household is more than 40 years of age, by couples more than 35 years of age without kids at home, and by shoppers with higher income, according to Dr. Cook.

Consumers are striving to maintain or adopt healthful eating habits, and consuming more fruits, vegetables, and salads is a means toward that end, as noted in the Packaged Facts report. The report notes consumers indexing highest for bagged/packaged salads are most likely to be the ones to try a new diet or health food, think about calories, consider their diet to be healthy, and want to know as much as possible about ingredients.

“As part of the trend toward healthier eating and plant-based diets, more of our customers are buying products across our entire line, including both traditional salad blends and the newer salad kits that come with dressing, toppings, and other ingredients,” says CarrieAnn Arias, vice president of marketing for Dole Fresh Vegetables and Berries in Monterey, CA.

Anne Byerly, vice president of marketing, Apio Inc. and the Eat Smart brand, Guadalupe, CA, cites a trend toward what she calls additive nutrition, the Kale Cranberry Saladpractice of powering up meals with more nutritious choices. Several Eat Smart salad kits offer up to seven nutrient-dense Superfoods, along with toppings and dressings. Fresh Express introduced three functional health kits in March 2015 — antioxidant, digestive health, and heart – to focus on specific health needs and conveniently deliver benefits against those needs.

Ready Pac likewise sees the impact of health on the sales of its packaged salads and salad kits. “Consumers are increasingly incorporating healthier choices into their diets and are looking for options that are convenient, flavorful and satisfying,” says Tristan Simpson, chief marketing officer for Ready Pac Foods, Inc. in Irwindale, CA. “Providing consumers with salad options that are healthy and fresh gives people the freedom to eat healthy anytime.”

Taking Away the Guesswork

A quick look at the offerings of the major brands in the packaged salad category shows the dominance of multi-serving salad kits and similar kits in single-serve portions. “Salad kits are the perfect option for people who don’t want to sacrifice nutrition when they opt for quick meal solutions,” says Byerly. “Single-serve salad kits are portioned for one quick meal and are a great way for consumers to eat salads when they are on the go.” They also reduce waste, another consumer hot button.

Salad kits allow consumers to try new or less familiar ingredients. The Packaged Facts report names less familiar trending ingredients and flavors like wasabi, chipotle peppers, soba noodles, quinoa, chia seeds, and hemp; shoppers might not buy these individually but can try them virtually risk-free in a salad kit. “We continue to see new, innovative salad blends that give consumers a “new experience” in flavor or texture, with a convenience factor too,” says Samantha Cabaluna, vice president of marketing and communications for Earthbound Farm in San Juan Bautista, CA. Earthbound Farm’s new salad line also offers the bold global flavors sought out by many of today’s salad eaters.

Consumers increasingly want to replicate the restaurant experience and flavors but at a lower price point at home or on the go. Hence, the introductions by Dole of two kale chopped salad kits, by Eat Smart of a salad kit with flavors of the Southwest, and by Ready Pac of its Bistro Chopped salad line. Fresh Express recently announced two new chopped kits and two new kits in its Gourmet Café line.

Kale is King

Hemp Bowl

Salad kits allow consumers to try new or less familiar ingredients. The Packaged Facts report names less familiar trending ingredients and flavors like wasabi, chipotle peppers, soba noodles, quinoa, chia seeds, and hemp; shoppers might not buy these individually but can try them virtually risk-free in a salad kit.

“Spinach is our biggest seller, but all things kale continue to grow in popularity,” notes Cabaluna. “We recently added a new blend with half baby spinach and half arugula to build on the popularity of our spring mix and baby spinach blend.” Indeed, data from the 2015 USDA/ERS, Vegetables and Pulses Yearbook tables (which contain a time series of annual per capita supply and use data for fresh and processed vegetables and for dry pulse crops), show spinach use slowing climbing after peaks in 2005 and 2009 that were followed by drops.

Kale still reigns as king of the salad bowl. “Consumers crave the flavor, texture and health benefits that come along with this mighty leaf,” says Cabaluna.

Eat Smart’s Sweet Kale salad kit was among the first sweet kale salads on the market and continues to be among the best-selling kale salad kits from any brand.

Kale appears to have stimulated consumer taste buds for other bold greens too. “Two of our other gourmet vegetable salad kits with deep greens continue to gain in popularity – the Eat Smart Wild Greens & Quinoa salad kit and the Eat Smart Beets & Greens salad kit,” says Byerly.

Garrett Nishimori, marketing manager and corporate chef for San Miguel Produce in Oxnard, CA, says his company’s Cut ‘N Clean SuperKALE salad kit line pairs kale with bold-flavored vinaigrettes to complement kale’s hearty flavor.

Hail Caesar

Caesar sales dwarf the sales of other salad kits, with half of dollar sales for both regular and light versions, followed by chopped salad (21 percent), according to Nielsen data presented by Dr. Cook.

“Certainly it is impossible to have a conversation about the most popular Dole salad kits without talking about Caesar offerings,” says Dole’s Arias. “We introduced our base Caesar kit line in the early 1990s and today offer more Caesar kit choices than any other brand.

Power to Protein

The 2014 Packaged Facts report on packaged produce highlights the increased presence of protein-rich components — primarily poultry, smoked meats, cheese, beans, and nuts and seeds — in salad kits and salad bowls in response to high consumer interest in protein. Consumers are seeking foods with protein, eating more protein than in the past, and also looking for plant-based sources.

“We are launching a new line in the fall of 2015, Dole Take Aways, with whole grains, nuts, beans, fruit, herbs and cheeses added to our most popular salad greens to create nutritious protein-based meal options,” says Arias. Dole is ramping up the convenience factor even more with a to-go container doubling as a bowl, packaged dressing, a finishing drizzle, and a towelette as well as disposable fork.

“Apio’s Eat Smart Plant Powered Protein salad kits are among the first to offer a range of vegetable blends with plant protein toppings,” says Byerly. “Our new kale salad provides 11 grams of plant-based protein from vegetables and seeds, including flax and hemp.”

Ready Pac introduced hemp seeds, along with other seeds and plant sources of protein, into its product line. “Hemp seeds pack as much power as other proteins,” says Tristan Simpson. “Adding hemp has more than doubled the popularity of those salads, underscoring the desire of consumers to seek alternatives to typical nutrition offerings.” Ready Pac also incorporates alternative grains such as quinoa and wheat berries.

Lines Blur

Organic salad sales represent about one quarter of total salad sales, according to the Nielsen Perishables Group, and are growing at a rapid rate. The Packaged Facts report notes organic produce consumers tend to be younger, well educated, and with higher incomes. They are also more likely than average to be Asian and married with kids.

In addition to all-organic companies (such as Earthbound Farm), several traditional companies, (including Ready Pac and Fresh Express), have introduced organic products. The 2015 Food Marketing Institute’s The Power of Produce (which explores changes in shoppers’ produce purchasing trends and behaviors at retail) reports kale, spinach, greens and lettuce are among the top seven vegetables with a critical mass in organic sales.

Private Label Continues to Grow

Multiple sources confirm private label packaged salads are nibbling away at national brand market share. Citing Nielsen data, Dr. Cook notes private label salads have a 30 percent share, compared to a 2 percent share 20 years ago. The Packaged Facts report, citing IRI-tracked sales, notes private label/store brands account for nearly 38 percent of total sales.

Freshness Sells

Sweet Kale

Eat Smart salad kits offer up to seven nutrient-dense Superfoods, along with toppings and dressings.

Freshness is a most desired feature in packaged salads, as noted in the Packaged Facts report. “At Dole, we take salad freshness seriously,” says Arias. “Our salads should be stored at 36-38 degrees Fahrenheit and used by the date indicated on the package.” Several companies mention their packaging is designed to maintain freshness. Packaged salads generally retail for up to $3.99 while full meal salad kits can be priced up to $5.99.

Staying in Touch With the Consumer

“While our salad kits are the fastest-growing segment of our business, we continually offer marketing and sales programs that support a wide variety of consumer, retailer and shopper needs,” says Arias. “These can include recipes, targeted offers, and in-store marketing and merchandising.”

Eat Smart utilizes technology to bring its product to consumers wherever they are, offering nutrition information, recipes, and other tools for helping consumers incorporate a variety of fresh-cut vegetables into their daily meals.

Are some brands and products hard to find? Earthbound Farm makes available a Dear Retailer letter on its website for consumers to fill out and bring to their produce manager to request products not in stock at the market.