Church Bros. bets on red to charge spinach salesSAN JUAN BAUTISTA, Calif. — With the introduction of a red spinach variety, Church Bros. LLC becomes the latest grower-shipper to try to lift spinach consumption out of its rut.

Foodservice shipments of the heirloom spinach in red and a red-green mix began in limited quantities Aug. 6 under Church Bros.’ Tuscan label for specialty items. It won the Best New Product Launch award at the Produce Marketing Association Foodservice Conference in July in Monterey.

Fresh spinach consumption took three years to recover from the September 2006 E. coli outbreak. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, it dropped from 2 pounds per person that year to 1.6 pounds the next, not hitting the same level again until 2009.

But there’s been no growth since.

“Spinach is a category that’s been under pressure since 2006 but slowly restored itself in the foodservice business,” said Ernst Van Eeghen, director of marketing and product development at Salinas-based Church Bros. LLC. “We’ve experienced some resistance from foodservice operators to adding spinach to menus. This (new variety) brings some excitement back to the business.”

As a result of the Tuscan red introduction, the company expects sales increases elsewhere in its spinach line — baby, bunched and the rest. It’s repeating a strategy from a 2010 product rollout.

Church Bros. bets on red to charge spinach sales“We did something similar to feed our arugula program by creating wasabi arugula,” Van Eeghen said. “But that’s a real niche item. Bringing color, texture and flavor to this category is going to accelerate our spinach sales.”

“We haven’t seen innovation in this category, which is surprising because of all the nutritional benefits everybody’s chasing now,” he said. “People are willing to eat kales and chards, but spinach tastes a whole lot better.”

In recent years, new products featuring spinach consisted mostly of salad blends and kits. Monterey-based Dole Fresh Vegetables cited the importance of spinach consumers to the salad category when launching its Spinach Cherry Almond Bleu kit in April 2011. This May, Ready Pac Foods Inc. added Honey Mustard Spinach to its Bistro Bowl organic salads line. Classic Salads also is among companies that added spinach blends.

In December, Oxnard-based San Miguel Produce added a curly spinach variety to its Cut ‘n Clean cooking greens line.

Closer to the outbreak, Salinas-based River Ranch Fresh Foods LLC introduced a pair of baby spinach products under its Popeye Fresh label in March 2007.

Seed supply locked in

Church Bros.’ red spinach has been in development for about a year, grown initially at trials in the Salinas and Yuma, Ariz., areas.

The color is from the seed variety and differences in farming method, said Van Eeghen, who expects competition.

“There are a bunch of different varieties out there that we tested and really only one stood out that could be commercially grown,” he said. “We have the seed supply on that locked up through 2013.”

He declined to name the supplier. The Culinary Institute of America provided sensory analysis of the variety, plus menu and usage ideas.

The spinach is grown in limited quantities but volume will at least triple in the coming year, Van Eeghen said.