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Fresh herbs: from seasoning to marketing tool

Herbs can convey an emotion more than anything else, and herb suppliers are well aware of that. At the same time, there’s a certain scarcity on the market. How do suppliers position their herbs? And which are this season’s seasoning? We’ve asked producers of potted and freshly cut herbs.

Plukkruidje: Premixed packaging creates value
Entrepreneur Timo Kleijwegt supplies fresh herb mixtures to the catering industry with his company Plukkruidje. The company provides its own interpretation of freshly cut herbs. It offers tea blends in 9-gramme packaging. “Our blends are already in the right dosage for one-time use. At catering wholesalers you’ll mostly find 75-gramme packaging. The disadvantage of that is that herbs have to be immediately consumed when taken from their packaging. Smaller packaging is also better, considering the hygienics,” Timo explains. When refrigerated, Plukkruidje guarantees a shelf life of at least 16 to 19 days.

In addition to its own cultivation, Plukkruidje maintains direct contact with all their customers to think about the marketing opportunities of its tea blends. To supply year-round, the cultivation site in the Netherlands was discarded, and they decided to move Plukkruidje to Ethiopia, where there’s a packing station as well. Timo came into contact with a flower grower who made part of his greenhouse available. The company now produces approximately 10,000 sachets weekly, on about 4,000 m2. For this seasoned fresh produce trader it's is a modest volume, but that’s the charm of it all, according to Timo. “The fresh produce world is focused on day prices, on the masses. We from Plukkruidje focus on smaller quantities and adding value and marketing to our herbs. We offer our blends at 50 cent for 9 grammes. Bulk prices don’t even come close to that.” 

“To catering entrepreneurs, our concept offers unique presentation possibilities. The bags can be served next to the glass. The customer opening it is the first user: for his experience, the herbs are as fresh as can be.” By now, more than 300 catering establishments buy the blends, including Van der Valk. Ninety per cent of the trade is distributed by Plukkruidje, the remainder is done through wholesalers. Plukkruidje also supplies the catering industry with fresh cooking herbs in 75-gramme packaging. If the market asks for it, the company could also approach growers for this.

Plukkruidje is convinced herbs have medicinal properties. “Each herb has its own special effect. For example, fennel stimulates digestion. That inspired us to name one of our blends ‘Goed Buikgevoel’ (Good Stomach Feeling). This is a marketing tool for both us and for catering establishments. To the host, it offers a topic of conversation with their customers. You have unique content when you can inform customers of the effect of ‘immortality herbs,’ which are grown hardly anywhere. That creates more experience and direct contact with the customers,” Timo continues.  “We have seven blends in total, each with a positive boost to the body.”

For customers who want that catering industry feeling at home, there’s the option to sign up for a delivery service. Every two weeks, they receive a box filled with various tea blends, so they can brew their own, luxurious, cup of tea.

Despite the diverse flavour combinations, mint is the one that does best in general. “Mint tea is consumed year-round,” Timo says. He predicts that the premixed packaging will be much imitated in the coming year.

Gipmans Planten / Vitacress Real: The vegetable garden craze and organic trend
The packaging units for herbs are fairly fixed, but we are talking about plants that can’t be measured in levelled volumes. “Diversification in potted plants is mostly in offering a change in assortment and following the current organic trend,” says Erik Gipmans from Gipmans Planten. Gipmans supplies both national and international retail with herbs through grower’s association Fossa Eugenia, of which he is the contact.

Over the past three years, the nursery-garden invested in organic. “We still have a conventional part as well, but the majority is organic by now. Because we offer both, there are some challenges regarding cross-infection. We import herbs from all over Europe. In organic farming you cannot afford to find any sort of insect. That's why we like to be well-insulated in our organic cultivation.”

Yet the cultivations don’t differ that much in practice. “Within our conventional assortment, only the fertilisers aren’t organic. I can’t remember ever using pesticides during the raising period,” Erik explains. The price difference between conventional and organic is about 10 to 15 per cent within potted plants, he estimates. Erik mainly attributes this to the turnover rate of the cultivation. For much fresh produce, that percentage is significantly higher.

Within the potted herbs department, basil is still the most popular. It is a law of communicating vessels with the freshly cut product, according to Erik. “Cut basil is found less prominently on the shelves. Packaging this herb remains challenging because of its limited shelf life.”

Erik says growth in the UK has mostly stabilised. “In the Netherlands, the market is also likely to become saturated in the short term: the growth in double digits has already stopped. And this is especially the case for the standard range: basil, parsley, chives. By positioning the herbs, the market can still be penetrated. Think of new varieties: a different looking basil will still sell.”

“I think everyone could supply herbs, but positioning them well within the department and ensuring retail adjusts their range to that requires a bit of research,” Erik says. Gipmans gets this useful information via grower’s association Fossa Eugenia, which organises the National Vegetable Garden Count using their internet platform. And the vegetable garden trend is the one giving the supplier most insights. Many end users repot the herbs after purchase, for example. “This year we held the second Vegetable Garden Count. This gives us a good view about what’s going on in the field of herbs, and what vegetable gardens are made up of in 2017. We can see exactly which role our herbs have in the whole, and where we can find opportunities.”

Within the freshly cut herb segment, mint has been the undisputed number one in Dutch sales for years, according to Ralph Coenen from Vitacress Real, a joint venture with Gipmans. However, that’s not just the case on the domestic market. “Mint is also noticed much more across the border for its possibilities. It’s gradually being discovered that mint is so much more than just a tea leaf,” says Ralph. Over the entire category, parsley and celery are also profitable, products that the company has carried for some time now,

“The development of glasswort has been remarkable. We have seen demand for that rising considerably in recent months. We strongly focus on current consumer trends. We get a lot of positive feedback about glasswort, which is well-suited to this. It is ideal seasoning to reduce salt intake, yet it enhances the flavour of dishes. People are currently caring a lot about reducing their salt consumption,” Ralph continues.   

The final users know exactly what to do with the ready-made fresh herb mixes for eggs, herbal butter, fish, meat and mussels. But there are still a number of herbs for which this is not the case, Ralph realises. “Oregano and dragon, for example, both are good in consumer dishes, but unknown, unloved. Our challenge is to inform consumers about this.”

Van Vugt Kruiden: Edible flowers also enhance flavour
The Dutch season has also started again for Van Vugt Kruiden. The horticultural company, located in Ridderkerk and with Piet van Vugt at the helm, has been on the market for aromatic cutting herbs since the 1990s. The grower sells these herbs in packaging of the desired size (dishes, sleeves, flow-packs and more) to wholesalers, retail in Europe, and exporters. Especially mint is still very popular. “It’s not surprising, but that has become a very big product. Practically every restaurant serves fresh mint tea.  But mint can be found in many different shapes and sizes: we grow 12 varieties now. Our final users specifically ask for that,” the pioneer says. He has also noticed an increased demand for flat parsley and coriander, now that the Eastern kitchen is becoming more popular.

Van Vugt Kruiden’s assortment consists of 95 per cent freshly cut herbs. “We supply tailor-made products, and devote ourselves to exclusive products for our customers. To us, it’s very important that their product stands out on the market in the field of size, packaging and appearance, and that it suits the rest of their range. Think of special compositions of herbs, a miniature packaging of 3-gramme film and a label in their own style. Furthermore,we think herbs – whether they are packed in teabags, sleeves or punnets – should always remain a seasoning.”

“In order to realise this, it’s very important each herb grows where is does so best. Our herbs are grown authentically in the soil without unnecessary tools to speed up the growing process. Regarding pesticides, major strides are made to meet the customer’s strict requirements. The latest developments in the field of cultivation methods are tested in our trial greenhouse, but so far our ‘old-fashioned’ method seems to be giving the best flavour and shelf life. And that naturally decides it for us,” Piet continues.

Van Vugt Kruiden has started specialising in edible flowers in recent years. The flowers are used as decoration and as seasoning. “Flowers are gaining more and more ground as seasoning. That’s also why we’re continually looking for new varieties. The product group has become an integral part of our product range. It’s a challenge to grow all types year-round,” the entrepreneur concludes. Last year, Van Vugt Kruiden introduced a new packaging with an improved look and shelf life.

More information:
Van Vugt Kruiden
Piet van Vugt 

Gipmans Planten / Vitacress Real
Erik Gipmans

Ralph Coenen

Publication date: 7/21/2017



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