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Coming out of the dark

Mar./Apr. 2006 California Country magazine

Humble beginnings for this Rio Vista endive grower.


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Entrepreneur shines spotlight on Belgian endive


 

Multi-tasking has its benefits. For example, Rich Collins was washing dishes at a Sacramento restaurant when he overhead the owner grousing about the high cost of Belgian endive. The enterprising 18-year-old didn't just resume scouring and rinsing. He set out on a quest to grow endive. That decisive evening marked a circuitous, quarter-century ride that has earned Collins the distinction of being America's largest--and only--Belgian endive grower.

Collins' endive production had a humble and largely unsuccessful beginning. He bought a package of seeds from a local nursery and planted the endive in his family's vegetable garden. Then, to help the plants to mature as they should in the dark, he stored them in his parents' closet. Because the experiment didn't achieve his desired result, Collins determined that he needed to travel to Europe to see how the pros grew endive. A yearlong immersion on farms in France, Holland, Spain, Switzerland and Belgium helped get him on the right track, although no one had given him a fighting chance at succeeding.

"When we first started the farm, the company back in the early '80s was called Rebel Farms," he said. "Most everybody I talked to, whether it was in Europe or America, said that endive could not be produced here."

Today, Collins is a part owner and chief operator of California Vegetable Specialties in the Solano County town of Rio Vista. The nondescript exterior of the 30,000-square-foot production facility is deceptive. Inside is a company as unconventional as the vegetable is to many American consumers.

Endive--which can be pronounced either "EN-dive" or "on-DEEV"--is a slightly bitter vegetable most often used in salads and appetizers. Growing it for the masses takes a depth of knowledge and ingenuity.

"We've had a bumpy journey along the way," Collins said. "For about 10 years, we had a lot of learning to do and issues to deal with, not only in production but marketing as well. Luckily I have committed, patient partners who think long term."

California Vegetable Specialties endive starts with chicory plants grown on 300 acres of Northern California farmland. After five months in the field, roots are harvested in the fall and early winter and put in cold storage in the Solano County facility for up to 11 months.

The roots are awakened from their winter slumber and take three to four weeks to produce endive, or second growth of the bud. The growing process borrows a page from the movie "Invasion of the Body Snatchers," as thousands of budding roots stacked 22 feet high emerge from cellar-like conditions.

A new product that has an equally eerie appearance is a dandelion variety which, like the company's bread-and-butter product, starts in the field and is then grown to maturity in the dark. The end product is a forced white dandelion that the French call "pissenlit." It is often blanched, braised and served on salads in upscale restaurants.

A year-round work force of 60 packs the endive, which is shipped throughout the United States and to the Pacific Rim. Each year the company produces about 25 million heads of endive weighing about 4 million pounds, which is about 1 percent of the amount grown globally. Endive consumption in the United States has more than doubled since Collins began raising it. The average of about six leaves per year eaten by American consumers pales in comparison, however, to per-capita consumption of about 8 pounds annually in France and 18 pounds in Belgium.

Collins hopes to gain customers through a consumer-oriented Web site (www.endive.com) and by establishing relationships with chefs.

"Chefs are an absolute linchpin of what we do," he said. "Almost from day one, our focus was not only on the production aspects of endive, but on the chefs as well. A chef using our product becomes an ambassador for consumers, showing them what can be done with endive and how versatile it is."

One chef who prepares endive in a variety of dishes is Biba Caggiano of Biba restaurant in Sacramento. She uses the vegetable in sauces, in salads and as a side dish.

"It's important that it's grown close by," Caggiano said. "When we order from a supplier, it's with the understanding that they are going to give us the best of what they have or I will send it back. The only way my restaurant will stay on top is by using the freshest, best and most beautiful ingredients."

Collins said he hopes to oversee continued expansion of business in the decades ahead.

"We think that, as American diets and palates change, there is a great opportunity for increased endive consumption," he said. "Endive is a great, healthy, versatile vegetable. We have doubled our business a couple of times since we started, and we would love to double our business again within the next four to six years."

In the meantime, many of those who know endive enjoy it. Endive salad is a favorite of actor Brad Pitt, and Martha Stewart considers it a must-have item for preparing appetizers.

Plenty of growth potential remains for the vegetable, because millions of Americans have never tried it and probably would find it a baffler in a trivia match.

"Endive was the subject of a question on the television show 'Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,'" Collins said. "The poor guy used two 'lifelines' and still got it wrong!"

Jim Morris is a reporter/photographer in Sacramento. He can be reached at info@californiabountiful.com.


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