A large promotional display of cabbage in a supermarket would have been unheard of just a few years ago. But today, it’s a common sight at retailers like Lucky’s Market.
The cabbage on display isn’t the just the standard green cabbage popular for St. Patrick’s Day, though. Red cabbage, conehead cabbage, Napa cabbage and bok choy are finding their way into consumers’ carts, with a little help from restaurant menus, recipe suggestions and meal kits.
“Back in the day you'd have two rows of green cabbage and one row of red on the wet rack, and that was it,” said Patrick Mills, the produce director at Boulder, Colo.-based Lucky’s Market. “Now it’s in large displays out in the center of the store and people are really gravitating toward it.”
Customers are buying it by the piece instead of pound, said Mills. Lucky’s even sells two in a pack.
Mills credits the rise in cabbage’s popularity to a few factors: “It started with the Brussels sprout because it’s basically built the same way, and it’s the same type of roughage,” he said. There’s also excitement around fermentation, and cabbage is a great item for fermented dishes like kimchi. Finally, there’s a push for starch alternatives. “Cauliflower was the crazy starch substitute for everything from pizza dough, to bread, to cauliflower rice, etc.; now cabbage is going down that road, too.”
All these factors have helped push green, red, Napa and bok choy into the top 15 items in Lucky’s vegetable category in terms of sales. These cabbage varieties are ahead in sales over cauliflower and staple items like celery, said Mills.
At Williamsville, N.Y.-based Tops Friendly Markets, Jeff Cady, director of produce and floral, finds cabbage sales in “tonnage is right up there with the heavy hitters. Sales, however, are not as strong due to lower retail.”
While Cady has seen “moderate increase on fresh cabbage, cabbage-based fresh-cut items like chopped salads have seen a huge increase and are still growing.”
Cooking with cabbage
Cabbage can still be confusing to the average home cook. But with value-added salads and meal kits, customers can experiment without the risk. In fact, when Blue Apron debuted its meal kits at Costco, cabbage was a key player in one of its pilot meals — one-pan beef stir-fry, with shredded red cabbage.
“In general, with cooking there’s the risk and reward,” said John Adler, the head of culinary for Blue Apron. When it comes to an ingredient like cabbage, it might take a bit of convincing to take the risk. But produce that’s prepackaged and pre-shredded for convenience can get customers enthusiastic about a vegetable that they previously might have considered to be staid.
“It's actually as dynamic an ingredient as you can find. It’s just traditionally gotten a bit of a bad rap,” said Adler.
“We don't look at any ingredient as pedestrian. We have a very heavily curated pantry, and the reason we are sending cabbage is because we love it as an ingredient,” explained Adler. “That’s the reason we send any ingredient, and I think that it’s easy to write ingredients off, but grilling a wedge of cabbage or roasting some diced cabbage can be a really transformative moment for people who otherwise turn their nose up at it. And that’s something for us on the culinary side at Blue Apron that is really exciting — to be able to create those eye-opening moments for people around ingredients that they thought they were familiar with.”
At Lucky’s, recipes are incorporated into their promotions for cabbage along with stories from local farmers. Different regions work with local farmers to source their cabbage.
“We like to give the produce manager and store director the autonomy to build a local program within their community,” he said. “It's all local-driven. In this day, commercial farming methods haven’t really graduated to anything that obscure just yet in the category. It’s mostly your traditional cabbage lines. But the local farms are where it’s at.”
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