Sales of fresh-cut herbs show no sign of wilting, with several up-and-comers gaining on category leader basil and new data showing that the gourmet herb shopper may be a produce manager’s best friend.

“It’s exciting because the category continues to grow annually and perform robustly,” said Steve Wright, vice president of sales and purchasing for Harrisonburg, Va.-based Shenandoah Growers Inc., which produces organic fresh-cut and potted herbs.

“From a business standpoint, the Food Network and meal preparation kits with accelerated menus are great PR for the herb business, presenting it as a natural, fat-free and healthy way to flavor foods,” he said.


Super shoppers

A recent study Shenandoah conducted with Nielsen showed that while the average U.S. retail basket is $35, shoppers with herbs in their cart spend $80, he said. When retailers offer the eight common culinary herbs plus newcomers such as savory, chervil, lemongrass and marjoram, Nielsen found the basket size jumps to $120.

“That’s the natural, organic, super-premium customer retail stores want,” Wright said. “Somebody who comes in and buys not only more produce, but more high-margin items.”


Basil rules

Though its crown has slipped a little since last year, basil continues to grow and dominate the herb category, especially in summer, said Micki Dirtzu, marketing director for Thermal, Calif.-based North Shore Living Herbs.

“People aren’t just using basil for Italian tomato dishes anymore,” Dirtzu said. “You’re seeing blueberry basil ice cream, grapefruit basil martinis, and the basil chocolate cake we made for Valentine’s Day was to die for!”

Basil represents 95% of the organic herb category, said Robert Schueller, director of public relations for Los Angeles-based World Variety Produce, which markets under the Melissa’s label.

“Most retailers carry organic basil, and more progressive retailers also carry organic mint, dill, thyme, rosemary and more, with organic sage popular around Thanksgiving,” Schueller said.


Thai basil hot

Several growers, including Miami-based Infinite Herbs & Specialties, have seen dramatic increases in Thai basil in the past year. Characterized by a purple stem and narrow leaves, it has a stronger licorice flavor and aroma than Italian sweet basil.

“Everyone wants to try new things,” said managing director-partner Camilo Penalosa.

“We’re finding usage of Thai basil and epazote (beloved in Mexico) increasing among all American consumers rather than a particular ethnic group.”


Mint matters

Though mint lags far behind basil at 12% of the herb category, lately it has been “charging ahead,” Wright said.

“We actually have a few customers where mint outsells basil,” he said.

He attributes mint’s popularity to its heavy use in summer cocktails, fresh fruit salads and infused water.

“Mint has come a long way, for savory and sweet dishes,” Schueller said.

Potted herbs and living herbs in a clamshell are also gaining ground, Dirtzu said. 

“When North Shore came out with living herbs 20 years ago, consumers said they didn’t want dirt in their food,” she said.

“Now the ‘greenhouse clean’ feel of our hydroponic herbs is inspiring people to create an instant herb garden in their kitchen window.”