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Culture Club

Global flavours are influencing almost every section of the grocery store

From tandoori chips in the snack aisle to naan bread in bakery and Korean barbecue sauce in the meat section, ethnic cuisine is in high demand.  Globe-trotting consumers combined with a growing multicultural population have contributed to the influx of ethnic dishes. As Canadians travel to exotic destinations more often and sample local fare during their trips abroad, it’s no wonder they’re looking to recreate these foreign flavours in their kitchens.

“The Canadian consumer is well-travelled and more willing to explore new flavours than a generation or two ago,” agrees Paul Uys, vice-president, fresh and Loblaw brands, Loblaw Companies Ltd. “You also have the emergence of all these ethnic foods through restaurants and takeout, so it’s creating an immense interest.”

In the U.S. alone, Mintel data shows sales of ethnic food have climbed steadily since 2004 and is set to reach a record high of US$2.3 billion in 2009. The research firm also predicts solid growth in the category of nearly 20% from 2010 to 2014.

In Canada, ethnic flavouring is reaching beyond the realms of it’s own category and translating into other non-ethnic products. “We have introduced tandoori chicken wings, tandoori chicken breasts in our deli and a tandoori barbecue chip,” says Uys. “I call it lateral thinking—once you have your Indian food established, you can then take that flavour into products where you would not have traditionally found it.” A prime example of the ingenuity of mainstream ethnic food marketing is Loblaw’s private-label brand, President’s Choice, which celebrated 1,000 Tastes of Canada in the Summer Insider’s Report. Throughout the 22 pages, 170 globally inspired tastes from Greece, India, Italy and China were featured.

Moreover, the President’s Choice team has travelled the world over the past 25 years in search of diverse and delicious flavours to bring to Canadian households. “Not only do we work hard to create delicious renderings of cultural dishes from all over the world, but we take great pride in sourcing the best authentic ingredients from first-generation manufacturers, to ensure the diverse ethnic communities that make up our country can find the tastes of home right at their local Loblaw grocery store,” says Uys.

Loblaw showed how serious it is about the ethnic market opportunity when it acquired Canada’s largest Asian grocery, T&T, for $225 million in September. When the deal was announced, Loblaw president and deputy chairman, Alan Leighton, said that the T&T acquisition is part of a plan to make Loblaw more competitive: “Today we have a relatively small share. Our objective is to be the No. 1 player and T&T gives us the platform to built to this objective.”

Convenience is Key

While consumers want to experience different flavours and tastes in their kitchens, they’re not willing to trade it for convenience. Meeting their needs, there are now a variety of international dishes available in the frozen dinner and ready-to-eat categories, which has opened the door for experimenting with little preparation, according to Uys. “The consumer wants to microwave or quickly heat a meal without being engaged in full-blown preparation,” he says. “Once they are more well-versed into the category, you can start introducing intricate meals that require more prepping.”
Thai Indochine, a company that imports products from across Asia, is also noticing the popularity of ready-to-eat meals. “With the recession taking place, a lot of people have been buying ready-to-eat ethnic food from grocery stores instead of going out to eat,” says Ted Takounseun, vice-president sales and marketing, Thai Indochine.

In fact, sushi at your grocer is as common as frozen pizza nowadays. Claire Salisbury, director of marketing, Bento Nouveau, says that Friday night is now becoming “sushi night” instead of “pizza night.” Bento Nouveau has sushi bars located in several large grocery stores across Canada where consumers enjoy the convenience of having a chef prepare sushi right in front of them. “In well-developed HMR sections, sushi is the No. 2 performer. Having it right there in the store means that a consumer can do a one-stop shop by grabbing some milk and bread, but also something they are craving for dinner, like sushi,” says Salisbury.

Grocery Aisle Diversity

* World food products comprise more than 12% of all retail food sales with a 5% annual growth in Canada.

* While immigration accounts for 70% of Canada’s population growth, by 2017 about half of all visible minorities in Canada will be South Asian or Chinese.

* Visible minorities will make up 51% of the population  of Toronto, 49% of Vancouver and 19% of
, while the rest of Canada is projected to stand at 9% by 2017.

Sources: CBS News, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, Statistics Canada, Toronto Star.

Indian Influence

Among all the ethnic fare in the grocer’s pantry, Indian is the most dominant flavour. At Loblaw, the President’s Choice Indian Butter Chicken is the biggest selling single-serve entree in the entire frozen-dinner category. “Indian has been enormously successful for us. After we introduced naan bread within our bakery, it became just as popular as traditional hot dog or hamburger buns and flatbreads,” says Uys. “Samosas and Indian dips have also done extremely well and are selling beyond the traditional East Indian communities to the whole of Canada.”
He adds the next generation of consumers will likely not think of Indian and Thai dishes of being “ethnic.” Instead, they will be looking for other exotic flavours to take their place. “People joke that butter chicken is Britain’s traditional food these days. It’s just going to become common fare for us,” he says.

Brad McMullen, owner and general manager, Summerhill Market in Toronto, has also seen the rise in popularity of the Indian food trend at his store. “The Indian lines have a few more suppliers these days, so our selection has become better and sales have picked up,” he says. “For example, our papadums are starting to sell very well, whereas before no one really knew what they were.”

Takounseun adds the growing popularity of Asian and Indian cuisine is causing this type of food to become part of the mainstream Canadian diet. “It’s similar to the Italian trend that started in the 1950s. Back then, ‘ethnic cuisine’ was still considered Italian, but now it’s everywhere you look and it’s difficult to find a menu that doesn’t have some sort of pasta on it,” says Takounseun. “What is considered ethnic today will eventually be considered mainstream tomorrow.”

Exotic fruit is also gaining traction within the ethnic category as consumers are looking for new produce. Takounseun has seen an increase in the demand for a fruit from Asia called “durian.” “People have a lot more access to information on the health benefits of this fruit, so they are becoming a lot more adventurous than they used to be,” says Takounseun.

Humphrey Dayes, president, Kawbowd International Inc., says the demand for exotic fruit hasn’t even scratched the surface yet. “I’ve noticed a huge demand for it over the last five years and it is translating into the products that we import from Jamaica,” he says. The company recently added both mango and pomegranate flavours to their line of beverages called Bigga Jamaican Kola.


- North American potato chip flavours such as sour cream and onion are unpopular in China, so researchers developed new flavours inspired by traditional Chinese food, such as savory Sichuan spicy, sweet and sour tomato and sugary options such as cucumber, lychee and mango.

- Beijing stores carry familiar labels, but feature flavours that definitely aren’t. Tropicana cantaloupe juice, orange-flavoured Chips Ahoy cookies, Minute Maid aloe juice and Chinese herbal medicine Wrigley’s gum are the norm.

Merchandising Advice

Consumers are certainly more open to trying new flavours through in-store sampling and demos. “It’s easy to advertising something in a flyer, but the way to really capture your audience is to let them try it and taste it in person,” says Kathren Starogiannis, sales manager, Steve’s Produce Organics, who imports Silver Leaf olive oils from Greece.

Placing different segments of the ethnic category it in it’s own section has proven effective. For example, someone who wants to try Caribbean cooking for the first time might not know where to find all the ingredients to create an authentic meal if they are scattered all over the store. “From a merchandising standpoint, if you can get all of these products onto one shelf then it will prevent your customer from having to go to several shelves,” says Lucky Lankage, CEO, Grace Kennedy, maker of Caribbean beverages, food and spices. “Also, people might not know what they require, so try putting a recipe card beside the items.”

Making sure that product is in a high-convenience area is also a way to ensure customers don’t miss it. “The centre of the store is the primary location. We have seen a 30% to 40% increase in sales when sushi is placed at the front of the store. If it’s toward the back near the fish or deli departments, the sales significantly drop off,” says Salisbury.

Finally, before a major celebration such as Lunar New Year, retailers can try cross merchandising several products that will attract attention from all customers. “Create a small area in your store and decorate it with some Chinese writing, or red, which is a very lucky colour and promote the celebration within the mainstream community as well,” says Takounseun. A tradition during Lunar New Year is to give a red envelope containing money, so he suggests putting chocolate gold coins in envelopes to encourage the celebration of Canada’s ethnic diversity. “It’s great for the mainstream consumer to see the retailer embracing the diversity of food and culture,” says Takounseun.

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