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As the American palate matures and continues to look for new flavors and healthier foods, endive is well positioned to continue its growth in retail and foodservice markets.

California Vegetable Specialties, based in Rio Vista, CA, which said that it is the only endive producer in the United States, is entering its 30th season growing the product and is a leading worldwide producer of red endive. Current production is about 4 million pounds annually.

"Back in the early 80's when I started, I didn't know what I was doing and Americans could have cared less about endive," Rich Collins, founder and president of California Vegetable Specialties, said in a July 18 press release. "Endive was not a well known vegetable, but today the consumer is much more aware of new foods and their flavor attributes.

"It took 10 years for chefs to start asking for our product vs. the imported endive from Europe," Mr. Collins added in the press release. "The Europeans have been at it for five to six generations and are very good at growing endive. An American chef using our product was a great compliment."

Mr. Collins said that one of the keys to the future growth of endive sales is education. When asked who his biggest competitor is, he replied, "ignorance."

"Americans just don't know how to use this versatile vegetable," he said. "Consumption in the U.S. is a meager one ounce per person each year, compared to eight to 15 pounds for the average European."

To help boost awareness for his product, Mr. Collins hired veteran produce marketer Rodger Helwig to direct marketing efforts

"I came on board a year ago to help take this company to the next level," said Mr. Helwig, who is based in San Francisco. "It's been a very busy year laying the groundwork for future growth, but I feel we've built a strong foundation for market expansion."

 

'Discover Endive'

One of the first things that Mr. Helwig did was to develop a new marketing campaign for endive.

"We needed something to hang our hat on, a theme for all of our ongoing marketing efforts," he said. " 'Discover Endive' seemed to be a natural choice, given that so many Americans had never been exposed to the product."

First on his agenda was the company's web site, endive.com, which Mr. Helwig said had become rather stagnant.

"I worked with a terrific San Francisco designer, Sandra Murray, who gave us a more contemporary, inviting and easy-to-navigate design," Mr. Helwig said. "We added new educational content, including how-to videos, recipes and refined trade sections."

Traffic on the new site has far eclipsed the previous version since its debut in November 2010, with new visitors increasing by 85 percent.

The "Discover Endive" campaign was also extended to other communications venues. Syndicated newspaper recipe stories were very successful in carrying out the theme. Over 1,000 articles have appeared in print around the country; on-line stories and videos reached almost 60 million people; and TV viewership came in at 76 million.

A bonus was a current Walmart cell phone TV ad that airs nationally. In the spot, a woman is seen on her cell phone planning a dinner party. She mentions serving an endive salad, including the correct pronunciation, "on-deev."

"We had nothing to do with the spot," Mr. Collins said. "It was a like an unexpected gift, especially highlighting the correct way to pronounce endive."

 

Social media outreach

Recognizing the importance of social media in the marketing mix, Mr. Helwig chose a social media agency, which helped develop Facebook and Twitter pages to engage consumers, along with ongoing blogs focused on endive preparation and recipes.

"We also participated in blogging conferences to reach out to these new influencers and ran blogger recipe contests," said Mr. Helwig, who added that there are plans for even more social media interaction in the coming year.

 

Foodservice education

"Since foodservice makes up 60 percent of our business, we decided to get more involved in communicating with this sector," Mr. Collins said.

CVS participated in many foodservice conferences, with a special emphasis on foodservice educators. It also had a booth at the PMA Foodservice Conference in Monterey.

The company added new foodservice recipes to its web site and sent out numerous Food Educator kits. Restaurant chains were also approached with ideas for adding endive to menus, both in the typical raw application in salads and as dippers, but also cooked. A new foodservice endive ad appeared in chefs publications.

 

Focus on retail packs

"Based on our success in a national specialty food chain, we're looking to expand the marketing of our retail packs," said Mr. Collins. "Our three pack - two white and one red endive - has worked very well for us. One reason is that we developed special packaging that extends the shelf life of our product. We're now in the process of developing a new sticker brochure that will focus even more on our 'Discover Endive' message at point-of sale."

 

Future growth

When asked about goals for future endive growth, Mr. Collins said that he is looking for a 5-10 percent annual increase, with primary efforts targeted at expanding U.S. sales.

To help with this added volume, the company is now building a new state-of-the-art cold-storage facility located next to its Rio Vista grow out operation, which is scheduled for completion in October.

"Not only will it be perhaps the most energy-efficient cold-storage facility in America, it should also provide a more ideal environment for the maintaining the quality of our chicory roots. This should all translate into better production, more consistent results and lower costs."

The company also plans to double its organic endive plantings this coming year. CVS began organic production 10 years ago.

"Growing endive is difficult, and producing it organically is even more of a challenge," said Mr. Collins. "Fortunately, the organic market is expanding for us. Growing organic endive makes us better growers as well."

Could other competitors surface in America? "It certainly could happen at any time." Mr. Collins said. "Yet, after nearly 30 years, we are still America's lone producer. Endive is not easy to grow."