Once customers recognize the superior taste of fresh herbs, ‘they’re hooked.’
Originally printed in the September 2022 issue of Produce Business.
Fresh herbs have flavored mankind’s meals for millennia. Although small — herbs and spices represent only 1.4% of total produce dollars and 4.6% of total organic produce sales, according to Nielsen Total U.S. data for the 52 weeks ending July 30, 2022, as provided by New York, NY-headquartered Nielsen — the category can be a mighty bottom line contributor. Here are seven ways to sell more fresh herbs:
1. KNOW WHAT DRIVES CONSUMER DEMAND
Fresh herbs hit culinary, health, and even economically driven sweet spots with consumers.
“We continue to see an uptick in fresh herb purchases, with many still cooking at home, especially in partnership with seasonal offerings like sustainably caught seafood and charcuterie boards,” says Lindsay Gizdich, brand manager for New Leaf Community Markets, a five-store chain headquartered in Santa Cruz, CA.
Similarly on the supply side, William Magistrelli, senior director of retail and wholesale at Baldor Specialty Foods, Bronx, NY, is seeing “incredibly strong” year-over-year growth in the demand for fresh herbs.
“The pandemic fueled experimentation in home kitchens and inspired more trials of cooking food from other cultures,” Magistrelli says. “Meanwhile, Instagram and TikTok ‘foodfluencers’ have helped educate consumers on the benefits of using fresh herbs versus shelf stable. Once these consumers recognize the superiority of taste, they’re hooked.”
Current trends related to overall health and immune boosting hit home with fresh herbs, according to Michael Duff, head of sales and operations at Fresh Start Produce LLC, in Bronx, NY.
“Our role over the past few years has been education, especially as consumers have looked for items that promote respiratory health,” Duff says. “Thyme is a great example of a herb that is full of volatile oils that aid in the health of lung tissue, break up congestion, fight bacteria and viruses and add to the benefits of conventional medicine. Retailers can capitalize on this through merchandising at store level.”
Economic downtimes, and less dining out, gives fresh herbs a value-added cache of providing restaurant flavor at home, says Charles ‘Chick’ Goodman, a Soquel, CA-based consultant who works with members of the Coosemans Retail Group, headquartered in Christiansted, St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands. “For $2 to $3, or less than the price of a QSR burger, herbs offer what consumers want: flavor. They are no longer a luxury purchase, and for this reason, produce managers need to understand the importance of fresh herbs.”
The fresh herb shopper is an important one to have in-store.
“Data supports the herb consumer spends disproportionately more in the grocery store and in the produce department specifically,” says Steve Wright, chief customer officer of Rockingham, VA-headquartered Soli Organic, formerly known as Shenandoah Growers Inc.
2. OFFER ORGANIC
Organically grown herbs outsell their conventional counterparts at retail. In fact, herbs and spices rank as the fourth highest performing category in organics, after packaged salads, berries and apples, according to the State of Organic Produce 2021, by the Monterey, CA-based Organic Produce Network.
“Over 75% of fresh herbs sold at retail are now organic, unprecedented for a retail produce category,” says Soli Organic’s Wright, whose company transitioned to 100% organics in 2018.
Due to ACV (all commodity volume) and overall sales revenue, it’s difficult for a retailer to put both conventional and organic herbs on the shelf, according to Fresh Start Produce’s Duff. “Many retailers choose to carry organic only. This way you attract both the conventional and organic consumer.”
3. SERVE UP BEST-SELLERS
Basil, thyme, mint, chives, rosemary, and sage are among the best-selling fresh herbs at Kowalski’s Market, an 11-store chain based in Woodbury, MN, according to Max Maddaus, produce director. “We carry these in big and small, 3.5-ounce and 0.75 ounces.”
Cilantro, basil and parsley, in descending order, comprise two-thirds (66.2%) of all fresh herb sales at retail. Basil, cilantro, parsley, thyme and rosemary, also in descending order, make up over two-thirds (68.7%) of organic herb sales, according to Nielsen data.
“The trend of ‘cowboy caviar,’ which is a southwestern spin on what has been known for decades in Mexico as pico de gallo, has created a massive demand for cilantro,” says Katie Bishop, marketing coordinator for Jacobs Farm del Cabo, in Pescadero, CA.
A new chopped cilantro product, with a shelf life extended from 11 to 16 days, from Gold Coast Packing Inc., in Santa Maria, CA, is targeted at foodservice, which often drives sales at retail.
“This item is offered in a 2×12-ounce foodservice pack, and with the extended shelf-life, it can travel to reach foodservice operators across the country. It also cuts back on labor and simplifies prep time,” explains Crystal Chavez, marketing coordinator.
For many, basil is the king of the culinary herb category.
“Basil continues to lead the category from a volume perspective, selling about five times as much as any other herb at retail. This is probably because it’s a staple in so many Italian recipes,” says Baldor’s Magistrelli.
This spring, Soli Organic introduced its new proprietary Indolce basil, developed in partnership with Rutgers University. A 2-ounce package contains a peel-reseal benefit and is packed in 100% post-consumer recycled (PCR) material.
“This variety was bred to hit on all those key flavor notes that the consumer loves about fresh basil — sweet forward with peppery and anise notes, accented by an earthy finish,” says Wright. “The CEA (controlled environmental agriculture) growing aspect allows us to duplicate that same great flavor 365 days a year.”
Fresh basil is such a strong driver of the category that retailers must carry more than one SKU, Wright adds. In addition to its Indolce packaged basil, the company markets its basil in a potted format in regular and extra-large sizes.
“Thai basil is gaining in popularity as the Asian demographic grows, as well as mainstream consumers who enjoy a great variety of ethnic foods,” says Jim Kras, president and chief executive officer of Edible Garden Corp., headquartered in Belvidere, NJ, which offers this product in a clamshell pack as part of its hydroponically grown living herb line.
Kowalski’s Markets’ Maddaus sees larger sales of fresh mint in the summer, but when the weather is cold, the retailer sells more sage, rosemary and thyme.
The health trend of sipping broths has popularized umami-packed herbs like sage and thyme, according to Jacobs Farm del Cabo’s Bishop. “Of course, we always see consistently growing demand for poultry herbs around the holidays. We are excited to bring back our seasonal holiday offerings like our Poultry Mix (a blend of thyme, rosemary, and sage) and Holiday Mix (rosemary, sage, savory, and thyme). It’s always best to display these festively, next to the chestnuts, cranberry sauce and potatoes.”
There is increased demand for less common herbs such as dill, sage, chervil, and tarragon in retail, says Baldor’s Magistrelli. This follows “as consumers experiment and become more aware of these herbs’ unique flavors.”
4. GO LOCAL
All the fresh herbs sold in the produce departments at Kowalski’s Markets are sourced locally. The retailer’s partner in this category is Urban Greens, an indoor hydroponic herb farm located in Columbia Heights, a suburb of Minneapolis-St. Paul, MN.
“We started our partnership a year and a half ago with one store. As the company has grown, they are now able to supply all 11 of our stores with fresh herbs. The quality is incredible because it’s picked today and, in our stores, today. It’s a point of difference for us,” says Maddaus.
In the last year, Jacobs Farm del Cabo has reintroduced its organic basil with a ‘Local’ label to its Bay Area markets, says Bishop. “This reminds consumers that much of our basil and herbs are locally grown along the California coast.”
Recent new introductions in this space are being led by vertical farms, which grow crops in stacks, and focus on shorter growing times with specific seeds that allow for consistent taste, says Baldor’s Magistrelli. One of Baldor’s partners is Bowery Farming, and Magistrelli says, “we love their basil.”
In addition, farms are increasingly growing products much closer to consumer consumption to meet customer demand for sustainability and high-quality taste, he adds. “We continue to build strong partnerships with large and small farms that practice responsible farming and are within hours’ drive of where our retailers sell.”
5. BUILD DUAL DISPLAYS
The best-performing fresh herb category should feature both packaged and potted herbs in two destination displays.
“Our clamshell and potted lines serve two different customers,” explains Suzette Overgaag, vice president and chief financial officer of North Shore Living Herbs, in Thermal, CA. “Our clamshell line is displayed in the wet rack and gives consumers a fresher eating experience for their specific recipes. Our potted line promotes eating fresh herbs with other items throughout the produce department and is an impulse buy.”
Having an herb destination with at least the top 10 selling herbs is essential, says Soli Organic’s Wright.
“The biggest challenge we see, from an herb category standpoint, is basil. We tend to see two major issues with basil at retail — out-of-stocks and cold damage. A best practice is to display basil unrefrigerated and adjacent to key affinity items like tomatoes and avocados. The data support that if a retailer has a well-performing basil program, then the rest of the category follows suit.”
To extend shelf life, Edible Garden offers retailers its self-watering, free-standing, mobile merchandiser. The 22–by-28-by-63.5 inch unit holds two shelves of the company’s potted herbs and pegs for its cut herbs in new, breathable, micro-perforated bags.
6. CREATE MEAL INSPIRATION
Retailers can drive excitement about herbs by showing consumers how to use them, suggests Magistrelli. “This could include offering recipe cards at the point of sale or online and leveraging cross-merchandising, like placing basil with the tomatoes for Sunday Sauce.”
It’s simple and it’s obvious, but it spurs added sales, says Kowalski’s Market’s Maddaus, of the cross-promotion of fresh basil next to tomatoes, often with fresh mozzarella cheese in a nearby refrigerated case.
“This summer, we cross-merchandised watermelon, feta cheese and fresh mint to make a light summer salad. The ingredients were grouped on destination end caps, which are 2.5-foot refrigerated cases with shelves. It’s important to curate a meal solution for impulse sales. It can’t be confusing. Shoppers shouldn’t have to think about what is being sold and why, or it takes away from the selling.”
A more out-of-the-box approach to cross-merchandising is pairing herbs with nonproduce items, suggests Magistrelli. “For example, cilantro with tortillas stacks, avocados and tomatoes for Taco Tuesday. Strategies like this encourage trial, and trial often leads to repeat purchase.”
North Shore Living Herbs offers display shippers for its products, which include QR codes to direct shoppers to popular recipes on the company’s website.
Seasonal and holiday themes are a great way to promote fresh herbs.
“An example is aggressive potted herb promotions in the spring when consumers are planting herb gardens or patio pots. Potted herbs are one of the highest impulse items in the produce department,” says Soli Organic’s Wright.
Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s, concludes Edible Garden’s Kras, “are among the biggest holidays for fresh herb sales.”