It's a new world for ethnic snacks

Ethnic snacks are a great way to drive sales as immigrant numbers move consumer appetites beyond traditional options

By now the much-trotted out statistics about Canada’s rising immigration population are well known to grocers. (In case you missed it, ethnic shoppers now represent 31% of consumers, and that figure should continue to rise.)

One potentially overlooked category that could become a grocer’s secret weapon in meeting the appetites of immigrants, while at the same time driving sales among both immigrants and traditional shoppers: snacks.

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When people think ethnic foods, they mainly think of spices, sauces and other cooking ingredients. But Terry Wong, who handles marketing for authentic ethnic at Calgary-based distributor Tree of Life, says those products are typically in a low-turnover category.

“You leave it in your cupboard for who knows how long until you need it again,” he says.

Snacks, he says, move a lot faster. “I always tell retailers that if you’re limited for space, you should make sure to leave space for snacks, biscuits and crackers,” says Wong, adding “it’s a fast turnover category. People eat it, they buy it, they come back and they buy some more... It’s a fantastic category to be in.”

Canada’s snack-food imports, including chips, popcorn, nuts, candy and cookies, have grown by US$316 million since 2006, according to the January 2013 GAIN report from the USDA Foreign Agricultural Service.

The report attributes the rapid increase in imports in part to new products in the category, many of which are targeted at specific ethnic groups.

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To meet the taste preferences of ethnic consumers, snack makers are spicing up their product lines.

Earlier this year, PepsiCo Foods Canada brought a popular snack from India to the Canadian market: Kurkure. The spicy masala-flavoured snack (imagine Cheetos minus the cheese) is mainly targeted at Southeast Asians, especially Indians who enjoyed the product in their birth country.

But the chips also appeal to mainstream Canadians, says Ian Adler, senior director of new business ventures and partnerships at PepsiCo Foods Canada. “Canada is a multicultural country, and so Canadians are more open to trying interesting flavours,” he says.

Ethnic food manufacturers are finding a similar story as they branch out beyond their core customers. New Jersey–based Punjabi Popcorn aims to get a foothold in the U.S. market before expanding into Canada, which it hopes to do soon with its recently launched line of popcorn with East Indian flavours such as cumin and turmeric.

“It is imperative grocers carry items that will remind consumers about where they have come from and, at the same time, open the door for seasonings and flavours that give people a cultural culinary experience,” says Punjabi Popcorn founder, Deepak Kanda.

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Kanda says a more diverse population means consumers in general are more open to “being introduced to a variety of new flavours and seasonings.”

Hot and spicy snacks, for instance, could emerge as a popular category. Currently, such snacks are extremely popular with Korean consumers.

“While local Canadian consumers enjoy salty chips, Korean consumers get used to hot, spicy snack flavours, since lots of Korean recipes contain hot peppers,” says Shawn Kim, senior marketing manager at Galleria Supermarket, a Toronto-area Korean grocer.

One popular Korean snack is Ppusyeoppusyeo, which contains dry noodles and a seasoning pack. It comes in flavours such as barbecue, spicy rice cake and bulgogi.

Spicy noodles may not appeal to every Canadian, but one foreign-born food has proven that ethnic snacks can hit the mainstream in a big way.

Hummus, the Middle Eastern chickpea spread, has 84% awareness in Canada and is a fast-growing food type, according to Chandler Gotschlich, brand manager at Sabra Dipping Company.

“I think it is resonating ,” says Gotschlich. “It is a mainstream product. You go to any grocery banner or mass market store such as Walmart or Target, you will see hummus in the dairy case.”

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