By Darren Rovell and Meredith Frost
California’s Salinas Valley is known as the “salad bowl of the world,” because most of our vegetables are grown there.
But one leafy green is quickly taking up more and more of the area’s valuable soil – Kale, planted as far as the eye can see.
What used to be used as a garnish on salad bars has now climbed into our salad bowls. Culinary shows extol the virtues of kale and celebrities like Gwyneth Paltrow are hailing the leafy green have helped spawn a kale economy. Now there are kale smoothies, kale chips, kale martinis, even kale nail polish.
Mentions of kale on American restaurant menus over the last two years are up 233 percent, according Technomic, a food industry tracking firm. Whole Foods now sells more than 22,000 bunches of kale per day in its stores.
In turn, farmers and distributors have had to keep up with the exponential demand, devoting more land than ever to grow this fashionable foliage.
Church Brothers Produce, a produce grower and shipper, has a 10-acre ranch in the valley that grows roughly 80,000 pounds of kale. Ernst Van Eaghan, vice president of marketing and product development for Church Brothers, said they are planting six times the amount of kale now that they planted three years ago, and can’t seem to harvest it fast enough.
“That’s how much people like it,” said Eaghan.
Aside from its growing celebrity status, kale’s biggest marketing ploy is that it’s really good for you. Kale has the maximum amount of nutrients, vitamins and minerals possible for a single food, along with Swiss chard, watercress and collard greens, according to the Aggregate Nutrient Density Index (ANDI) Scoring System, which rates foods based on nutrient content.
As the leafy green has grown in popularity, it’s snuck its way from the produce section into the healthy snack foods.
Kale chips and flavored dehydrated kale are destined to make Brad Gruno a millionaire. Gruno is the founder and CEO of Brad’s Raw Foods and is riding the kale wave. The Pipersville, Pennsylvania-based company will pull in an estimated $20 million this year, with 70 percent of that from kale products.
Four years ago, long before seemingly everyone knew about kale’s magical secrets, Gruno was selling bags of his kale chips at a farmer’s market in Bucks County.
“I remember the boxes I would carry them in. These old flower boxes,” Gruno said. “I’d give it away all the time. Just give it away. ‘Taste it, taste it.’ Just saying that same story over and over again about what it is.”
When people kept buying his chips for $7 a bag, he knew he had a winner.
“I got into this industry when the whole economy took a downturn,” he said. “People thought I was crazy and then look what happened to my business.”
Gruno is now using 40,000 pounds of kale a week, and is planning to release chocolate kale later this year.