The Birth of BROCCOLINI® baby broccoli
I’m not a betting gal. But if I was, I’d venture to say that if you asked any random person on the street if they knew what BROCCOLINI® baby broccoli was, they’d say yes.
BROCCOLINI® baby broccoli – that elegantly green vegetable with the slender, edible stem, tender miniature florets and a taste sweeter than broccoli – seems like it has been in our lives forever. Not so. In fact, baby broccoli has only graced our plates for less than 20 years. So just how did a brand new vegetable go from non-existence to near-ubiquity in such a short period of time? The answer lies somewhere between an amazing product, a market hungry for something new, and some impressive marketing acumen on the part of a company called Mann Packing.
Let’s rewind a bit to July, 1997. At the time, Mann’s was the world’s largest shipper of fresh broccoli. Tom Livingston, then Director of Foodservice Sales at Mann’s, began hearing buzz at the Produce Marketing Association’s Foodservice Expo of a broccoli-asparagus hybrid that chefs were clamoring for in New York City. He had never heard of such a thing, and brought it up to Joe Nucci, then the VP of Marketing. At the time, Joe laughed off the impossibility of it, but two weeks later he had some answers.
He had contacted Sakata Seed, founded in Japan in 1913 and one of the world’s major seed companies. Mann’s was one of their largest broccoli seed customers, and Sakata knew exactly what Joe was talking about with his inquiry into the new vegetable. The elusive item that the New York chefs wanted wasn’t a broccoli-asparagus hybrid, but a broccoli-Chinese kale combination that had been in development by Sakata. Using hand pollination, Sakata’s plant breeders spent seven years teasing out broccoli’s color and head of flowering buds along with Chinese kale’s tender, edible stalks.
Sakata named its new product “Asparation,” implying a connection to asparagus with the vegetable’s slim, sweet stem. A small grower in El Centro, California had been running trials for Sakata, and had sent samples to some distributors and restaurants, which was how the New York chefs had gotten a hold of it.
When Sakata sent some Asparation to Tom and Joe here at Mann’s, they understood why the chefs were so excited, and decided to throw the company’s resources into marketing it. A couple of details needed to be ironed out first, though. One: the name. To Tom and Joe, Aspration sounded like a lung disease. And two: we wanted exclusivity on the seed.
Mann Packing had an enviable track record in introducing new broccoli products, including the first pre-cut broccoli florets for the foodservice market and Mann’s Broccoli Cole Slaw (read about Broccoli Cole Slaw’s creation here), a packaged salad that had achieved cult-like status among its admirers.
The grower in El Centro didn’t have the resources to grow and market Asparation nationally, but Mann’s did, so it was agreed that Mann’s would re-name the product and bring it to the American market while the El Centro grower would continue to grow the product in Mexico and sell it under the Asparation brand.
The strategy in introducing the new vegetable to the country began with the foodservice market – chefs in white tablecloth restaurants who could not only afford it but also bring a level of creativity to using it that the average consumer wasn’t capable of. Tom took the vegetable straight to a group of chefs at the Culinary Institute of America at Hyde Park, NY. Not only did they give us great feedback on the viability of the vegetable itself, but they helped us name it.
We had asked Mann Packing employees to submit ideas for a new name, and Tom brought with him to New York a list of twenty or so possibilities. Joe Nucci’s wife, Debbie, had come up with the name “Broccolini,” and as Tom and the CIA chefs discussed the list, it came close to being a unanimous choice. Tom returned to Salinas and declared that he had a winner. BROCCOLINI® baby broccoli was born, and we immediately applied to register the name as a trademark of Mann Packing Company.
What happened next was a whirlwind of demonstrations at food shows, visits with distributors who had the appropriate clientele and PR in foodservice publications. Once the push into foodservice was underway, the team launched a consumer press tour to educate people about the exciting new vegetable. Lorri Koster (now our Chairman and CEO) and Gina Nucci (now Director of Corporate Marketing) were in charge of that effort, and they landed coveted spots on Good Morning America and in The New York Times, Harper’s and The Washington Post, among many others. Sales started to roll.
Fast forward to today. Mann Packing is still the one and only grower and supplier of Broccolini in the United States, and the vegetable continues to be a darling of chefs and consumers alike. It is currently one of the fastest-growing vegetables on restaurant menus – up nearly 19 percent in the past year, according to Technomic. Read my article here about how BROCCOLINI® baby broccoli became a new side dish at Chick Fil A.
We of course have had some bumps along the way – all produce people know that Mother Nature is the real boss, and thankfully distributors and chefs understand that too. But at the end of the day, who can refuse the “itsy-beany, teeny weeny, slender greeny Broccolini” as it was dubbed by USA Today? Not us.