Romaine hearts are one of the stars of Monterey County, California’s $1.1 billion head and leaf lettuce industry.

“The growth is incredible,” said Margaret D’Arrigo-Martin, executive vice president of sales and marketing for D’Arrigo Bros. Co. of California, Salinas.

“We’re up about 7% and trying to keep up with demand. It’s just a great item for foodservice. It’s so easy to rinse compared to a romaine head. People love the versatility of it and that it lasts so long.”

Retail demand is also strong, D’Arrigo-Martin said.

At Salinas-based Boggiatto Produce, romaine hearts are the number one foodservice product, said Michael Boggiatto, president.

“We were one of the first commercial acreages for romaine hearts for foodservice when we started doing it in 1992,” Boggiatto said.

“It was double-digit growth every year for a decade, in some years nearly 50%. It became its own category. It’s leveled off to single digits, but the growth is pretty much continual. We haven’t saturated the market yet.”

As a romaine head matures, the first leaves are pushed to the exterior where they continue to grow. By the time a heart forms and a harvest crew comes along, the final product is a mix of older and newer leaves.

“When you’re packing only the younger leaves, you really extend the shelf life,” Boggiatto said.

“Our market is mostly foodservice, but we do some retail and I think the average consumer is learning that romaine hearts are a lot better than grabbing a head of romaine off the shelf. Shelf life is a big thing with consumers. You can take a bag of romaine hearts home, pull it out of the bin three weeks later, and wow, you may have to cut a few leaves, but it’s good.”

Hearts have been the romaine of choice for most restaurants for some years. They have a reputation for simplifying the wash-and-cut process. A simple slice takes off the butt end, but no fingers.

In mid-April, 12 three-count bags of romaine hearts out of Salinas cost $12.45-13.45, nearly identical to year-ago prices, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Supplies were light but expected to ramp up quickly as the deal hits its stride.

Once upon a time, USDA price reports did not even mention hearts. Demand took care of that.

Elsewhere in the lettuce lineup, Boggiatto Produce is carving out a niche market for its trademarked Iceberg Babies.

“It’s a smaller variety and we harvest it earlier,” Boggiatto said.

“There’s more green to it but it still has the crunch of iceberg. We don’t just take a big head of lettuce and ball it down to the center. We try to harvest it before it gets to the dense part. There’s open space. Chefs love it because there’s a lot they can do with it.”