What’s Hot in Greens?

In School Nutrition’s March 2015 issue, “Lettuce Rejoice!” offered reasons to celebrate leafy greens, which ranks among the most popular vegetable categories in U.S. foodservice. Iceberg lettuce remains the best-selling lettuce overall, but how does it rank when it comes different commercial and non-commercial foodservice segments, as well as against other vegetables overall? Author Brent Frei delves more deeply into the trends.

Let’s start with the college and university (C&U) segment. According to trend-tracker Technomic’s MenuMonitor analysis of consumer data, romaine is the preferred vegetable in entrée salads among 12.3% of C&U customers, followed by spinach at 7.8% and “greens” at 6.8%. Iceberg lettuce is the vegetable of choice among only 2.9%, eclipsed by red onion and broccoli.

In U.S. restaurants, iceberg lettuce doesn’t even place among the top 10 favorite vegetables, Technomic reports. But romaine is the best-selling vegetable on the menu among 19.5% of diners, followed closely by the generic “greens” at 19.0%. The only other lettuce among the top 10, spinach, takes sixth place at 4.2%.

Now consider the fastest-growing vegetables in restaurants, and customer demand tells a landscape-altering story. Technomic’s MenuMonitor reviewed 24,930 menu items for 12 months from late 2013 to 2014, and discovered that, far and away, kale is the top-performing vegetable in terms of being added to the menu and sold during that period, with a growth of 105.7%! Bok choy places third at 14.3%. Three other leafy lettuces round out the top 10 vegetables in terms of growth, with rucola (arugula) at 9.1% (sixth place), radicchio at 9.0% (seventh place) and watercress at 6.1% (coming in tenth).

Likewise, Datassential’s Menu Trends Database of nearly 5,000 U.S. chain and independent restaurants examined the top-growing performance of 50 produce items among appetizers, entrées and side dishes, and found that over a four-year period (2010 to 2014), kale increased on menus by an enormous 531.5%! From 2013 to 2014 alone, it increased by 74.3%.

Does this mean you should menu kale above all other dark-green veggies and leafy green varieties? Maybe not. Many U.S. chefs believe that consumer interest in kale has peaked, and is now on the wane. Indeed, according to the National Restaurant Association’s 2015 “What’s Hot” survey, which polled 1,276 members of the American Culinary Federation last October, the percentage of chefs who consider “kale salads” a hot trend this year dropped by 10 points over the previous year.

But don’t lose heart about trying something new, because even lesser-known leafy greens are experiencing fantastic growth! The 24th-placing produce item in Datassential’s data—butter lettuce—saw a four-year growth of menu incidence of 74.8%, and the 25th, Swiss chard, 74.1%. Arugula (28th) and baby arugula (34th) grew by 67.7% and 62.0%, respectively, and mustard greens (31st) grew by 64.4%. Collard greens (42nd) increased by 52.6%, and the only other leafy green among the 50 produce items examined by Datassential, frisée (44th), grew by 51.7%.

And children are getting greater exposure to leafy greens through salads now more than ever. In the “What’s Hot” survey, 5% more chefs consider kids’ entrée salads a top trend in 2015. They also identify “locally grown produce” and “healthful kids’ meals” as the second- and fourth-biggest dining trends, respectively, in 2015, beaten by “locally sourced meats and seafood” as the current No. 1 hot trend in restaurants.

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