Once upon a time, beneath the warm glow of Tiffany-style stained glass light fixtures, Pizza Hut provided salad bars and topped them with a protostar garnish: kale.
Back then, before restaurants and foodies caught onto the fact that it was more than just a pretty face, kale was the food chain’s go-to embellishment. In fact, generations of diners might recall taking in the peculiar sight of the leafy green, clustered around the tops of buffet tables as they made side selections before heading back to eat their dinner at red vinyl booths. Likely, very few knew that decades later, those full-service restaurants would be a point of nostalgia or that a spark of interest in the once overlooked green would make for a viral trivia factoid.
In 2015, NPR baffled listeners when it revealed during one of its radio puzzle game shows that Pizza Hut was the largest purchaser of kale in the United States. To this day, every so often, a tweet, Instagram or Reddit post pops up to remind the world of this fun fact which seems absurd considering its current status as a leaf about town.
Most recently, it was a viral tweet from entrepreneur Iman Jalali that brought this info to the front of our minds.
"Up until 2013, Pizza Hut was the largest buyer of kale in the U.S.," he wrote. "They used it to decorate their salad bar."
“It was actually used to cover up the ice that was used on the salad bar to keep everything cold," a spokesperson for Pizza Hut told TODAY. "It was a common practice back then." According to the spokesperson, kale was used to make its meals more presentable. Back then, because the chain had not yet begun to use refrigerators to keep its salad bars fresh, ice was the way to go and kale was used to conceal it.
NPR’s original report wasn’t able to fact-check this information and the spokesperson for Pizza Hut was not able to confirm it outright. However, the spokesperson did note that in 2012, the chain purchased almost 14,000 pounds of kale in the U.S. for their system.
That's a kale of a lot of kale.
“We’re the largest pizza company in the world. So it makes sense that we were a huge, huge buyer of kale,” the spokesperson explained. “Not sure how that compares to other restaurants, but that’s kind of what we have for how much kale was purchased.”
Today, kale is a health nut’s must. No longer designated to the role of pizza’s unpalatable stepsister, kale is now praised and lauded by marketing brands for being a “superfood” with a large nutrient density.
The restaurant scenes of New York, Los Angeles and Chicago love kale so much they’ve used it to inspire quirky café names like Cork & Kale, Kale Me Crazy and Kale My Name. Stars like Jennifer Aniston, Gwyneth Paltrow and Beyoncé have sung kale's praises in interviews, for product placements, and while wearing streetwear. Even Harvard University can’t seem to avoid researching or publishing studies on kale's nutritional value. In fact, for some time, kale was so in vogue that, like Taylor Swift, it became fodder for a cultural phenomenon: the human tendency to delight in loathing popular things.
It didn’t happen overnight, though. It took someone to really see kale, peel back its ruffled layers and spot its potential — and that person was Oberon Sinclair. The founder of My Young Auntie Creative Agency, a New York firm, boasts a roster of clientele the likes of Vivienne Westwood, Fabergé and Hermès. Speaking with TODAY, Sinclair explained that she knew she could make the vegetable into a salad menu favorite.
After all, she’d seen the French eating it.
“People were using it as a vegetable in France,” Sinclair explained. “I really did it as a guerrilla exercise. I thought, 'It’s an amazing vegetable.' Really healthy, looked up all the benefits of eating kale, and just started the American Kale Association. And then I just started promoting the vegetable on my own.”
Sinclair began putting the item on menus of restaurants including the now-closed Lower East Side favorite the Fat Radish.
“I’ve always been a really, really curious person, you know, with a sense of humor and just curious about everything in the world as much as possible and I remember watching or reading something about Tony Hawk,” she explained. “The fascinating thing about his life is that his father started one of the first skateboarding associations. So that kind of like triggered something for me. I was like, that’s just so cool that he did that, like, no one ever thinks about that. So then I sort of bridged kale.”
For Oberon, dollar signs were never part of her effort to get kale attention. In fact, she said she’s never received any monetary gain for establishing the American Kale Association to make her effort more official and something to be taken seriously. Nope, it was, as she put it, "pure passion on my side.”
“It’s been around a long time,” she explained, emphasizing its nutritional value and then another kale factoid: chimpanzees and gorillas are also big eaters of kale.
“People have been eating it for a very long time," Sinclair remarked. "I know Pizza Hut has been garnishing with it, but yeah.”
As for whether or not Pizza Hut would ever consider bringing back kale, the spokesperson said, "We’re always exploring new options for toppings or salads so never say never."