How Earthbound Changed the Way We Eat Salad
Pop the top of a plastic box, grab a big handful of greens and you're a few crunchy bits and a drizzle of dressing away from a delicious, healthy salad. But it wasn't always this way. Read on to see how Earthbound Farms changed to salad game.
Before the mid-1980s, "salad" meant mostly one thing: a head of iceberg lettuce. There were no neat packages of pre-washed mixed greens to be found at the grocery store, no baby arugula or radicchio. So how did the wondrous variety of greens at our fingertips become a $5 billion industry?
Who Is Behind the Salad-Green Empire
When Myra and Drew Goodman (pictured above) moved to a 21/2-acre raspberry farm in California's Carmel Valley in 1984, they knew virtually nothing about farming. The Manhattan natives viewed the move as a temporary stop on the way to graduate school and big-city careers. But they never left the farm.
"It was a very romantic time," Myra says. "We were city kids getting up with the sunrise, working all day on the farm. As more time passed, going back to school and an urban environment became less and less appealing." Earthbound Farm was born.
The Start of Earthbound Farms
They started out selling their organic berries at a roadside stand at the end of their driveway, then added lettuce to their offerings when they heard that a Berkeley chef, Alice Waters of Chez Panisse, was serving organic baby salad greens at her restaurant. They planted varieties most Americans had never heard of—Tango, Lolla Rosa, Red Oak Leaf—and found a niche market among forward-thinking chefs.
Restaurant sales were good for Earthbound Farm's business, but bad for the Goodmans' diet. After long days of farming, they were too tired to prepare healthy meals, and survived mainly on frozen pizza. "We were living this idyllic farm life but we were eating terribly," Drew recalls. "We weren't eating what we were growing."
The Goodmans began washing and bagging greens for weeknight salads and found that they loved the convenience. "We thought it was really cool that we could just open a bag and have these beautiful greens that were so alive and tasty," Myra says, "but we never thought about doing it as a commercial product."
Switching to Salad Mixes
That changed in 1986, when Earthbound lost its main restaurant client, leaving Myra and Drew with acres of organic baby greens and nowhere to sell them. In desperation, they filled zip-top bags with pre-washed mixed lettuces and took them around to retailers first in Carmel, then expanded to San Francisco.
The salads were an instant hit, prompting the Goodmans to ramp up their retail efforts. Lacking the funds for a proper facility, they started by washing and drying greens in their living room, using tubs and household salad spinners, then huge plastic garbage cans fitted with mesh bags. Later they built a washing shed with stainless-steel sinks, and Myra's father helped cobble together contraptions to streamline the process—like a hoist-and-pulley system that moved greens between bins.
Related: EatingWell's Best Salad Recipes
In the decades to follow, Earthbound Farm expanded and introduced innovations that helped the bagged-salad industry take root. The most important was a mechanical harvester for baby greens, developed in the late 1990s, which allowed farmers to increase production by eliminating labor-intensive hand-picking. Earthbound Farm was also the first salad company to adopt plastic clamshell packaging, which helped extend product shelf life by protecting tender greens from damage. And in 2006, it launched "Raw Product Test & Hold," a system to test incoming greens for E. coli and other contaminants. Under Test & Hold, lettuce is held until lab results are completed, and any batches linked to a positive test are destroyed—an important advance in food safety.
Earthbound's success inspired new players, such as Olivia's Organics and Organic Girl, to enter the market in the mid-2000s. Today the packaged-salad category accounts for nearly 75% of annual lettuce sales in the United States.
The company that Myra and Drew Goodman founded 35 years ago is now one of the largest organic growers in the U.S., producing more than 35 varieties of greens on 30,000 crop acres. While they no longer own Earthbound Farm (they sold the company in 2014 to pursue personal projects), Myra and Drew still live on the original property, and are recognized today as pioneers who transformed the contents of America's salad bowls.
EatingWell, September 2019