One Company's Attempts to Make Broccoli Rabe Cool
Before kale became so famous of a leafy green that even Beyoncé herself recorded a music video in a sweatshirt that said KALE on it, it was a sad, listless vegetable used as garnish at Pizza Hut salad bars to cover the crushed ice that keeps the rest of the veggies fresh. Same goes for broccoli: Before a bunch of advertising big shots got together to try to turn broccoli into a superfood, it was seen as the soggy weak link of a balanced American dinner, a food that FDR himself went on public record saying how much he didn’t like and how sure he was that he never would.
The broccoli campaign, conceived by the Denver-based ad agency Victors & Spoils, worked. The campaign was successfully able to pivot broccoli’s reputation, taking it from something traditionally served steamed-to-death and doused in cheese to a veggie with a cute flower-like aesthetic, likening it to a hardy and reliable green. Flash-forward to 2017, and broccoli’s Southern Italian cousin, broccoli rabe, is attempting to orchestrate a similar glow up.
The company behind the unbranded broccoli rabe campaign (you may have seen carefully plated food photos featuring these greens on your Instagram—ads from the handle @eatbroccolirabe—I have) is Andy Boy, the brand owned by the D’Arrigo farm in Salinas, California. D’Arrigo is a family-owned farm that was founded in the 1920s by two brothers who emigrated to California from Sicily. The farm harvests produce in the mustard green family—so that’s broccoli, cauliflower, artichokes, and 75 percent of the broccoli rabe sold in the United States. They’re not worried about competition, because they’ve got the broccoli rabe market on lock. D’Arrigo farms actually have their own broccoli rabe proprietary seed at their headquarters in Salinas, stored in a fireproof room and protected with alarms and camera systems. The only issue? Getting more people to actually eat the stuff.
“It’s difficult because most people haven’t heard of (broccoli rabe),” explains Claudia Villalobos, who does the marketing for Andy Boy. A tradition in Southern Italian cooking, Villalobos says Andy Boy historically has shipped most of their broccoli rabe to cities like Chicago and New York, cities with a high population of Italian-Americans. But they’re trying to expand their market, and trying to get people to think about broccoli rabe outside of the traditional way of preparing it with olive oil, garlic, and crushed red pepper.
Broccoli rabe’s peppery, bitter kick cooks out depending on how you prepare it (blanching with salt is what celeb chef Nina Balducci recommends), but even so, a lot of people just don’t expect to bite into a leafy green and taste such a mustardy flavor. Villalobos compares the taste of broccoli rabe to how people feel about wasabi. “When you go (out for) sushi, (you see) people eating wasabi and almost crying, but still, they (are enjoying it.) But I think when people sit down to eat a vegetable—especially a leafy green—they think, ‘It’s gonna (taste) bland, but it’s healthy so I’m going to eat it.’ So I think broccoli rabe surprises people. That’s what we’re trying to make people understand.”
There’s other ways than “bitter” to describe the peppery kick of the vegetable, of course. During the first phase of their “Eat Broccoli Rabe” campaign, Andy Boy partnered with celebrity chef Candice Kumai, who went on The Wendy Williams Show to tout the green, calling it a “supergreen.” When Kumai asked Williams, the show’s host, how she felt about the veggie, Williams said she “loved” broccoli rabe and its “bold flavor.” “We didn’t even ask (Wendy) to say “I love broccoli rabe,” Villalobos explained to me sheepishly over the phone. “She just said it. It was great.”
Another hurdle when trying to make broccoli rabe the next superfood? The confusing, hard-for-some-to-pronounce name.
“Some people just can’t pronounce it,” Villalobos explains. “We’ve heard (so many) different ways of how people think it’s pronounced.” It is a funny name, especially since the vegetable is more akin to a leafy green like, say, kale, than it is to broccoli. Known as rapini or friarielli in Italy, broccoli rabe got its western name because of a spur-of-the-moment business decision made by the D’Arrigo brothers in the 1920s, when the farm was the first to ship broccoli to the east coast on freight cars. They already had a crate established for moving broccoli, so when they put in a request for more crates for their new crop, the freight line wanted to charge them a higher rate. To cut costs, the D’Arrigo brothers insisted that their rapini wasn’t a new product, just an offshoot of broccoli—and threw out the name “broccoli rabe.” “If we had the hindsight, we never would have named it that,” Villalobos said, and mentioned their next step in social is a short video teaching consumers how to pronounce the vegetable’s name.
For obvious reasons, it’s tricky marketing produce on the internet, especially on social media, to millennials, who scroll past most ads. You need to back it with bid advertising dollars, the way Victors & Spoils did with a celebrity-fueled ad campaign to get millennials to eat more fruits and veggies, or you have to flex your creative muscles past just good copy and paid advertisements. A social campaign by the produce company Cal Giant during the last presidential debate used an interactive ad called #BerriesforPresident, in which it encouraged consumers to cast their vote on whether strawberries (red) or blueberries (blue) rule the country. More than 100,000 people voted in the interactive poll, and on Twitter the hashtag #BerriesforPresident reached the third trending topic in America for a passing moment. But D’Arrigo is a family company, and a small one at that, and didn’t expect social media marketing to be so costly. This is the first time they’ve used a PR team to help sell any of their products at all, and Villalobos jokes that they’re usually using the budget they’re allotting for marketing on packaging or for buying more land—not to get more reach on Facebook. “We have such quality products. We’ve been in the business since 1920. We think, well, it should sell by itself!”
But Andy Boy has a helpful marketing consultant. It’s Andy D’Arrigo, who’s actually the little boy on the Andy Boy packaging—the son of one of the farm’s founders. Now ninety three years old, D’Arrigo still drops by the headquarters in Salinas to check in on the day to day. Last week D’Arrigo walked past Villalobos’ desk armed with a subscription card from the inside of a Bon Appétit magazine, one that touted 75 percent off a subscription. He had been flipping through the magazine in the waiting room of a doctor’s office and tugged it out. He urged Villalobos and the marketing team to subscribe to the magazine for inspiration, and followed up a few more times over the next couple of days to make sure they subscribed.
D’Arrigo is onto something. Bon Appétit’s Instagram is the aesthetic bible to the entire genre of “foodstagram,” with its overhead table shots, color-saturated photos of dips and dishes shining bright on a table, its forks, spoons, and spatulas “hastily” stuck somewhere into the dish to evoke a context. The key to good food posts, according to a Bon Appétit designer, is to highlight the eating over the dishes themselves. Maybe that’s the answer, then; the more Andy Boy can depict broccoli rabe as a vegetable enjoyed, the easier it will be to get to people to enjoy it.
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