If you were asked to describe baby broccoli, would you know what it looked like? Probably not. That could be about to change, however, as a small Irish outfit called Good4U starts to infiltrate the multiples with its products.
Working out of Loughry College Food Incubation Complex in Northern Ireland, the family-run company has been supplying Dunnes,
Superquinn, Supervalu and Tesco in the Irish Republic with its Brocco Shoots for two years.
The product will be also be stocked by Sainsbury in Northern Ireland from this month, and will shortly be crossing to England via listings with Fresh & Wild, Sainsbury's and Tesco.
It has been driven by a hike in appetite for super-healthy 'microgreens'. Bernadette Butler, MD and founder, says: "I saw research claiming that broccoli shoots can help reduce the risk of cancer and that really excited me. They are new and unique."
The product line includes three
other plants - alfalfa, clover and
radish -all in shoot or sprout form, and all with their own health claims: lowering bad cholesterol, detoxifying the blood, helping fight viral infections and containing high levels of antioxidants.
They shouldn't be seen as a mouthful of medicine though - the company's web site contains more than 50 recipes using Brocco Shoots, which are particularly ideal for providing a spicy, crisp crunch to salads, wraps and stir-fries, says Butler.
Indeed, this type of young vegetable has been exciting chefs for some time now. Fennel shoots, chard shoots and red cabbage shoots all have their fans due to their unusual and expressive flavours. Richard Vine, a top salad supplier to chefs such as Gordon Ramsay and Tom Aikens, is perhaps the most fervent advocate of microgreens, or microherbs.
He says: "There's fennel shoots, broccoli shoots, and - I tell you what - just try one chard shoot and the taste will blow you away. Red cabbage shoots are amazing too. From the normal seed, you get these lovely looking shoots and they're full of flavour."
The key to it all is the seed, says
Butler. "We source from the US, Canada and Italy, and always go for the best. About 50% of our seed is organic, but I wouldn't worry if this fell to 30% as long as we carried on getting the best seed. The slightest thing can alter the quality of the shoot."
Once the seeds are in they are tested for pathogens, washed and sanitised and put in growing chambers. Six days later they are harvested, washed and dried, packaged and refrigerated before being sent out.
Although Brocco Shoots form the backbone of Good4U's business, the company has recently expanded into seeds too, selling packs of pumpkin and sunflower seeds, and will soon launch lines using linseed, sesame and poppy seeds. They come in combinations of vanilla -coated, toasted or plain and variously proclaim to be high in combinations of vitamin E, Omega- 3, selenium, iron and zinc.
Good4U also sells organic wheatgrass growing kits. Consumers can use them along with a juicer that the company sells to make their own nutrient-packed drinks. Apparently they don't taste that great, but they are full of enzymes, vitamins and amino acids. Four new ranges of shoots will also be launched next month, comprising various combinations of alfalfa, garlic, lentil, pea and onion shoots. "We've had to add value to the brand. The pressure is on from the multiples now to launch new lines and they're leading it as much as we are," says Butler.
Marketing, though inevitably small-scale, has included a tie-up with Philadelphia, in which Brocco Sprouts were sold along with packs of the cheese spread. Recipe cards have been produced, as have marketing leaflets. Butler also takes the product to consumers when she can, and recently set up stall for a day in Covent Garden. "Getting a listing isn't the tricky part; it's getting the consumer to take it off the shelf. We want to get people to taste the product; so far we've had a tremendous reception," she says.
So much so, in fact, that there are plans to buy a factory soon. "The facility here at Loughry College is fantastic, but we're growing fast and will have a capacity issue in 18 months or so."
The company would like to find a facility in the Irish Republic, but is also looking further afield.sprouting up
A claim from John Hopkins University Medical School that broccoli shoots contain 50 times the concentration of anti-cancer agent sulforaphane than mature broccoli was what first got Bernadette Butler intrigued. After 20 years in charge of a business selling coleslaw and potato salads to retailers, she was ready for something new. "Selling platter foods and wet salads to retailers is a very competitive business, so I was happy to move on. I stumbled across this idea after seeing the research and thought it sounded like an exciting product. Broccoli shoots were virtually unheard of in Ireland, though, so our first major challenge was to create consumer awareness."
Bringing her daughters Laura and Michelle on board, to take care of marketing and product development respectively, has been an immense help. "There are incredible challenges when you first set up. The initial investment was quite considerable and because I wanted to grow fast we had to develop new lines quickly. Getting product to market is also hard and you're continually trying to reduce costs too. Having my family with me through all that has made things a lot easier."
That support will come in especially useful when Good4U comes to the more competitive UK market, where shoots and sprouts have been around a while.