For America’s Food Basket (AFB), based in Lake Success, N.Y., providing ethnic baked goods is a matter of giving shoppers at its various banners what they want.
“We serve the communities we are in when it comes to carrying the ethnic breads and baked goods our customers are looking for,” explains Director of Grocery Daniel Suriel. “Because our stores are in three different states — New York, Connecticut and Massachusetts — we have customers who come from many different countries. We carry most of the ethnic buns, rolls, pitas, tortillas and snack cakes our customers look for.”
Asked about sales in the segment, Suriel replies, “We have performed well over the past year with our ethnic baked goods, because our customers know they can … find the baked goods they are looking for.”
Suppliers report similar consumer interest in their ethnic offerings. “We saw double-digit growth in the last year as ethnic products, in particular Greek and Mediterranean, continue to surge in popularity,” affirms Steve Kontos, VP of Paterson, N.J.-based Kontos Foods, which makes more than 50 varieties of flatbreads, including the popular Pocket-Less Pita. “U.S. consumers are increasingly discovering the enjoyment and health benefits of the Mediterranean diet. As a result, they are embracing quality, niche ethnic items that appeal to their desire for authentic and healthful foods.”
Alexa LaVere, sales and marketing supervisor at Mi Rancho, a San Leandro, Calif-based manufacturer of premium traditional and artisan corn and four tortillas, notes that the company’s “tortilla sales have continued to grow over the last several years. The tortilla category is growing significantly in both foodservice and retail sectors as more restaurants and grocery stores are offering their customers options on menus and options to meet the growing popularity.”
Part of the Mainstream
A key reason for this surge in demand is that such products are no longer eaten only by people who hail from the same places as their baked goods of choice. While AFB’s Suriel notes, “Many of our first-generation customers shop for ethnic baked goods as opposed to mainstream baked goods,” others, like Kontos, point out that ethnic items “have already gone mainstream — you can now order flatbread sandwiches at fast-food restaurants such as Subway, McDonald’s and Taco Bell.”
This shift in consumer preference is equally true in the supermarket channel, Kontos adds: “At retail stores, we are seeing precisely the same trend in both the deli section and retail aisle as consumers look for foods that are a bit adventurous, but safe.”
Cara Caulkins, spokeswoman for Toronto-based Stonefire, whose Original Naan (a type of bread from India) is the No. 1 flatbread SKU in the United States, according to IRI, says that the segment’s “products are unique and different from the usual bakery offerings.” Expanding on Kontos’ observation, she continues that consumers “are also seeing variations of flatbreads on menus when they go to restaurants, and want to recreate those when they’re cooking at home.”
Home cooks’ use of ethnic baked goods doesn’t stop with traditional dishes, however. “Naan is [not only] an excellent accompaniment to traditional stews and curries, but is also a fantastic base for flatbread pizzas, wraps and paninis,” adds Caulkins.
“People aren’t just purchasing tortillas to make burritos, tacos and enchiladas,” similarly asserts Mi Rancho’s LaVere. “The menu has expanded as many people are making wraps, baking their own chips and trying new recipes that fit their particular dietary restrictions.”
Indeed, many manufacturers are capitalizing on consumers’ health concerns by creating new products that combine ethnic appeal with a better-for-you nutritional profile.
“We’ve been fortunate to see both trade and consumer receptivity to … our traditional ethnic breads as well as our gluten-free lines,” notes Karen Toufayan, VP marketing and sales at Ridgefield, N.J.-based Toufayan Bakeries, whose offerings include Smart Pockets, pitas featuring a unique rectangular shape that make them easier to fill and eat, as well as providing portion control. “Our sensitivity to the growth of gluten-free items that really deliver the taste and texture qualities consumers are looking for have made our GF wraps one of our fastest-growing items.” Over the past year, Toufayan Bakeries has focused new product efforts on “healthier” versions of its basic items, resulting in the four-SKU gluten-free wrap line.
“There has been a steadily growing trend in organic offerings in the tortilla category, focused on not just functionality, but [also] the ingredients, processes and health benefits associated with each product,” says LaVere, adding that Mi Rancho specializes in such products, with eight organic and all-natural tortilla SKUs, as well as a premium traditional line.
Suriel, of AFB, has observed the same trend from his vantage point at retail: “We find that more and more customers are shopping for healthier ethnic baked goods, as there is greater awareness and more educational resources now than before.”
Placement is an important consideration in selling ethnic baked goods. “When it comes to merchandising, we incorporate the ethnic baked goods and mainstream baked goods within the same section, because we want to offer as much variety as possible to our customers,” notes Suriel.
Many manufacturers concentrate on making their products pop on the shelf — wherever that shelf may happen to be in the store. “We have had significant success with in-store displays that highlight our products and the Kontos Foods brand,” says Warren Stoll, the company’s marketing director. “When space for a floor display isn’t available, we flavor spring-loaded shelf racks.”
“The retail tortilla category is crowded and often disorderly on the shelves, so you have a short amount of time to allow your product to stand out,” says LaVere. “We stand our tortillas up in plastic trays so that the consumer can see the face of the product, rather than a small shelf-talker with the name of the product. This has proven beneficial and helped Mi Rancho tortillas stand out of the shelf. We also utilize small display racks to feature our best-selling items in prevalent areas throughout the store.”
“Since most of our products are distributed in the deli section in our own racks, or in the ethnic bread section, we adapt our signage to this environment,” asserts Toufayan. “We also seek to highlight our newest items to gain awareness and greater visibility.”
Packaging is another major concern. “For our packaging, a successful strategy has been printing recipe suggestions,” observes Stoll. “We’ve also tried peel-off recipe stickers, which consumers seem to really appreciate.”
“With our packaging, we try to communicate the benefits of the product as clearly and as simply as possible, while making sure that the tortilla is visible and the main focus,” notes LaVere. “Consumers want to know what is in the foods that they’re eating, so further emphasis on education and communication has become key.”
That’s why, using both up-to-the-minute and tried-and-true marketing methods, companies are making sure their products are known to consumers, in or out of the store. “We are firm believers that social media and public relations are an excellent way to generate excitement about our brand,” says Stoll. “We’ve held recipe contests and regularly post recipes for consumers to try out. We also share recipes with bloggers and other food writers on a regular basis.” In a more old-school move, Kontos Foods has also “worked with retailers to offer in-store discounts — another great way to get consumers to try our products.”
Meanwhile, another supplier has actually taken to the road in support of its products. While noting that the brand also has “various marketing and merchandising strategies executed at the store level,” Caulkins relates: “This spring and summer, our Stonefire Food Truck toured across the country, stopping in retail partner locations from coast to coast. The food truck stops give consumers an opportunity to sample recipes using our flatbreads and receive coupon incentives to purchase that day. We’ve seen tremendous success in specific store sales during each event.”
Exploring Through Food
The general consensus is that the ethnic baked goods segment is on the rise.
Karen Toufayan, for one, expects the emphasis on health to continue. “A variety of ancient grains, products with chia, sprouted grains, and multigrain and whole wheat varieties will continue to see particular growth as consumers become better educated about the importance of these grains that are high in fiber and protein content, as well as omega-3, and offer nutritional benefits not found in many traditional breads,” she says.
Top of mind for many consumers, though, is the ability to explore their own or other cultures through food. “We expect demand to grow for ethnic breads and baked goods as consumers continue to try out fun new dishes for family meals, parties and even school lunches,” predicts Kontos Foods’ Stoll. “Remember when Mexican food was exotic? Now it’s an essential part of American cuisine. That’s how we see Mediterranean and other ethnic breads evolving.”
“We find that more and more customers are shopping for healthier ethnic baked goods, as there is greater awareness and more educational resources now than before.”
—Daniel Suriel, America’s Food Basket
“The retail tortilla category is crowded and often disorderly on the shelves, so you have a short amount of time to allow your product to stand out.”
—Alexa LaVere, Mi Rancho
“We expect demand to grow for ethnic breads and baked goods as consumers continue to try out fun new dishes for family meals, parties and even school lunches.”
—Warren Stoll, Kontos Foods