Sales of fresh herbs bounce back at retail
After being hard hit early in the coronavirus pandemic, the herb category seems to be bouncing back, some say with significant double-digit growth.
When consumers started stocking up on groceries as COVID-19 fears spread across the U.S., some retailers told herb grower-shippers that retail distribution systems and supply chains could not handle the surge in demand, said Steve Wright, chief customer officer for Shenandoah Growers Inc., Rockingham, Va.
“They decided to shut off herbs and floral and focus on top-selling items like carrots, apples, potatoes and rice,” he said.
As a result, “The (herb) category flattened.”
But not for long.
“Once the retailers figured out the supply chain and got in front of the massive stock-up by consumers, the category absolutely exploded,” Wright said.
Herbs experienced “healthy double-digit” growth, he said, with some retailers seeing sales increase by 50%.
“That’s a good indication that herbs are becoming more mainstream, and that the category is growing,” Wright said.
Wright believes the category will remain strong as families do more cooking at home.
“It’s become part of their lifestyle, part of their culture that we certainly think is going to be maintained,” he said.
Increases affected all kinds of herbs, with basil remaining the top seller and savory herbs used in cooking, like thyme and rosemary, enjoying significant increases.
One of the biggest changes in the herb industry has been the switch from .75-ounce packages to half-ounce offerings, Wright said.
“The market has completely flipped over to half-ounce,” Wright said.
The switch has been taking place over the past two to three years.
“In 2020 the .5-oz has become the predominate size in the market,” he said.
That’s a good thing because the half-ounce size is relatable to recipe sizes and helps reduce waste, Wright said.
“People just don’t want to waste or throw food away,” he said.
Herb sales “are doing very well” for Rocket Farms Herbs Inc., Half Moon Bay, Calif., said president Nick Bavaro.
The company has seen a 38% uptick in sales over the past three months, he said in late June.
Like Shenandoah’s Wright, Bavaro believes that’s because families are reverting to the practice of eating at home, like they did in the 1950s and ’60s.
“People are really seeing the value of healthy eating,” he said, and not seeking out premade products.
Rocket Farms offers organic and conventional potted and fresh-cut herbs, he said.
Potted herbs are a growing product, he said. If they’re maintained properly, they can last four to six months.
“Nothing is better than having fresh herbs in your kitchen,” Bavaro said.
The company’s fresh-cut herbs are sold in quarter- and half-ounce clamshell containers, and potted product comes in 3- and 5.5-inch pots.
Morro Bay, Calif.-based Vida Fresh has seen a drop in sales of conventionally grown herbs because of foodservice shutdowns due to COVID-19, said Andrew Walsh, CEO.
Sales of conventional product “dropped away significantly,” he said.
However, the organic herb category held its own because it’s aimed mostly at retail, Walsh said.
Even as restaurants started to reopen, foodservice business still was just a shadow of what it was before coronavirus hit, he said.
“We wonder if it will ever return to pre-virus levels.”
Many restaurants won’t reopen because of restrictions on seating capacity, Walsh said.
The ones that do reopen will not be able to make up for the lost business also because of seating limits.
“There’s just going to be less business,” he said.
The company grows 25 fresh herbs in Mexico at the southern tip of Baja California and markets the product year-round, slowing down in summer when California growers harvest.
Walsh does not expect sales of conventionally grown herbs to return to normal levels in 2020 for Vida Fresh, but he said organic business, though not experiencing major increases, seems steadier.
“We are excited about that because we are organic growers,” he said.
North Shore Living Herbs, Thermal, Calif., offers 22 varieties of living herbs in clamshell containers and nine potted options, said Brittney Bubb, creative coordinator.
“We were the first people to come out with the living herb in a clamshell in the wet rack,” she said.
The company also likes to tout its compact 2-inch pots.
Most competitors sell in larger-size pots, she said.
“We’re able to get a higher leaf count in a smaller footprint,” Bubb said.
“Retailers really like that because we’re not taking up a ton of their merchandising space.”
North Shore Living Herbs grows year-round in greenhouses in a highly controlled environment, she said.
“We can keep a really close eye and make sure their environment is exactly the way it’s supposed to be every single day.”