view current print edition




Belgian endive producer adds marketing punch

by Tim Linden | June 23, 2010
California Vegetable Specialties Inc. has the majority of U.S. production of Belgian endive all to itself.

"Several other companies have tried over the years, but as far as I know -- and I think I'd know -- I am the only producer in the country," said Richard Collins, owner and president of the firm, which is located in Rio Vista, CA, about 45 minutes south of Sacramento on that city's namesake river.

Mr. Collins, who has been growing and selling the specialty item for almost three decades, has a well-established customer list that includes high-end restaurants, top retailers and many wholesalers.

"I know a generation of buyers, chefs and food people, but there is a new group that has come behind them that communicates a bit differently," he said.

Hence he has hired marketing veteran Rodger Helwig to give the company a promotion boost. He said that the marketing efforts would be concentrated on methods of reaching the new audience that is representative of the times. "We are not going to try to be Facebook mavericks or Twitter mavens, but we are going to look at new ways to communicate," Mr. Collins said.

He said the firm will not be issuing standard press releases nor creating printed brochures. Instead, it will use the web to communicate with culinary schools around the country as well as with the new crop of buyers and retailers that may need to be introduced to the firm's products.

Most retailers and white-tablecloth restaurants are familiar with Belgian endive, but it is a unique item that Mr. Collins believes is being underutilized. A few minutes into the conversation reveals his passion.

"It really bothers me when people talk about it being expensive. You know what chips and crackers cost?" he asked with every intention of giving the answer. "They are $5-$8 pound. That's more than it cost for Belgian endive (pronounced "on-deev"). Take some endive, put some salsa on it and you have a perfect, nutritious substitute for chips and crackers."

The company founder has a compelling story. "I always wanted to be a farmer," he said, although he has no family background in the profession. While still in high school, Mr. Collins began farming on a one-acre plot as he prepared to enter the agricultural-centric University of California-Davis. At the same time, he was working in a French restaurant in Sacramento, where he was introduced to Belgian endive served braised for a special occasion. The owner, knowing the future farmer's love of the profession, suggested that he go into the business of growing Belgian endive. The idea took root, and over the next four or five years Mr. Collins went to school and learned all he could about Belgian endive. One thing led to another, and in 1983, he started his farming operation. He said that it took about five years to learn how to grow the crop correctly and gain acceptance in the marketplace.

Belgian endive is quite a different crop, as it actually has two growing cycles. The crop begins with hybrid chicory seed, which eventually grows into a root the size of a carrot on farms throughout Northern California. The vegetation on the top is discarded in the field while the roots are harvested in the fall and taken to the firm's Rio Vista cold storage facility. The roots rest in an artificial winter state until needed.

Eventually, the roots are placed in humidity- and temperature-controlled rooms, where they are force-fed a water and nutrient diet that produces the Belgian endive head in about three or four weeks. From that point, they have about a two-week shelf life and are quickly put into commerce.

While the company has no other U.S. based competitors, Mr. Collins said that the center of the Belgian endive world is Europe.

"I produce 2,000 tons per year," he said. "Europe produces 400,000 tons per year. They set the market."

Because European producers can reach the East Coast with a similar freight rate and time frame as California Vegetable Specialties, the firm's marketing advantage is concentrated closer to its California roots.

"We ship all over the country, but the majority of our sales are in California," Mr. Collins said.