Café Spice, a New Windsor, N.Y.-based company whose Indian meals and appetizers span quick-service restaurants and kiosks, foodservice, and heat-and-eat selections at retail, has what President and Co-owner Sameer Malotra characterizes as “a special relationship with Whole Foods Market.” In fact, the Austin, Texas-based natural food retailer “has been instrumental in helping us develop many of our products,” notes Malotra.
Recent examples of those products include innovative takes on its accustomed fare — four Indian-style soups from Culinary Director Hari Nayak, and four naan sandwiches — as well as an intriguing foray into Mexican cuisine, with the introduction last fall of Beef Tamales with Charro Beans and Chicken Tamales with Charro Beans, both in 16-ounce packaging. Rollouts this spring will include extensions of Café Spice’s Small Bites and vegan lines.
Malotra attributes the launches to “increased diversification in the ethnic foods arena. Just as Italian foods evolved from Neapolitan pizzas and spaghetti in tomato sauce to specialties from the Bolognese and Tuscan regions, Indian foods will expand from generic curries into other dayparts and tastes…. Same with Hispanic foods — we’ll see fewer enchiladas and tacos, and more tamales, pozoles and molés, and foods of Peru, the Caribbean and the Yucatan Peninsula. Café Spice is on top of both of these trends with our increasing variety of Indian foods and the introduction of our new Hispanic line of products.”
But Café Spice isn’t the only company to move beyond its usual niche in a bid to gratify consumers’ evolving global palates. American Halal Co., the Stamford, Conn.-based manufacturer of Saffron Road frozen entrées and chicken nuggets, among other products, offers not only Indian-flavored options suggested by the brand name, but also items from other trending cuisines. “We are quite excited to be launching four new Mexican entrées in April,” says EVP Jack Acree. “In typical Saffron Road style, we are adding premium Nuevo Mexicano ingredients, such Oaxaca cheese, Nixtamal tortillas, Poblano peppers, etc., to set ourselves apart from the current offerings on the market.”
Further, the company’s “Korean entrées are growing very fast, and we still see a lot of traction in the Thai category,” notes Acree.
“The growth of Saffron Road’s world cuisine offerings, plus that of other more traditional ethnic brands, point to two trends,” he continues. “First, consumers overall are tired of the same thing, even if it’s packaged in a new way, say, with steam technology or in a bag. They are eating world cuisine flavors at restaurants and food trucks, and want the same options for their freezer. Second, there is a whole group of young shoppers entering the market, and they are much more adventurous. Retailers need to show relevancy to these shoppers now, or risk losing them forever.”
Kicking it up a Notch
Also in common with Café Spice, companies are goosing up traditional offerings to keep in step with shoppers’ shifting food priorities. “From [our] own research, consumers are demanding bolder flavors, healthier products and more regional and international ethnic dishes — the same ones they’re seeing on TV, reading about and experiencing at restaurants,” affirms David Weinberg, VP of marketing at Santa Fe Springs, Calif.-based Day-Lee Foods Inc., maker of the Crazy Cuizine line of frozen pan-Asian meals.
“To meet these consumer demands, Crazy Cuizine has launched a new line of products called Crazy Cuizine International Favorites,” continues Weinberg. “The first three products introduced in this line — Beijing Broccoli Beef (Chinese), Garlic Chicken & Noodles (Vietnamese), and Chicken Tikka Masala (Indian) — are popular Asian entrées, all ‘kicked up a notch’ with bolder flavors. They’re also healthier, with steamed chicken, vegetables, rice or noodles, and lighter, healthier sauces. These are just the first three products, as Crazy Cuizine is expanding beyond [the cuisine of] northern Asia into more unique, global offerings.”
For its part, Beaverton, Ore.-based Reser’s Fine Foods has come out with three bulk salads available in 5-pound containers for supermarket deli departments: Korean Beef Noodle, made with angel hair pasta with steak strips in a sweet and spicy Korean-inspired vinaigrette; Curry Ginger Couscous, featuring durum wheat couscous, garbanzo beans and raisins tossed in a light honey, lemon juice and ginger dressing; and La Fiesta Bean Salad, a Southwest-inspired four-bean and roasted-corn salad with a serrano chile lime dressing.
“The world has gotten smaller — there is less isolation and more awareness of other cultures and ethnic-inspired foods,” asserts Brenda Killings-worth, Reser’s trade marketing manager. “Consumers are more adventurous, especially Millennials, who are willing to try many more types of foods. While consumers still seek out foods they’re familiar with, they are willing to try new spices or an ethnic twist on an existing product.”
Along with variety and health, convenience is unsurprisingly a major factor in consumers’ choice of frozen and refrigerated ethnic products.
“Many of these traditional ethnic recipes can be challenging to make from scratch if you’re not familiar” with them, points out Day-Lee’s Weinberg. “Buying ethnic dishes in the frozen aisle allows consumers to enjoy the same delicious and exotic flavors they would find at an authentic … restaurant, from the comfort of their own home.” He notes that the frozen and refrigerated versions of “these dishes are more convenient, quick to make, and a better value than restaurants or takeout.”
“Consumers continue to prefer foods that offer convenience, quality and great value,” agrees Rachel Cullen, president and CEO of Dinuba, Calif.-based Ruiz Food Products Inc., maker of Mexican-style frozen meals and snacks under the El Monterey brand. “This same consumer is also excited about trying new flavors, textures and heat levels.”
“Frozen ethnic foods allow consumers to be their own chefs without having to buy all the ingredients and do all the preparation,” observes Julie Henderson, VP communications for the Harrisburg, Pa.-based National Frozen and Refrigerated Foods Association (NFRA). “Frozen foods allow consumers to take risks trying ethnic foods without the potential waste.”
One such convenient product is the refrigerated Wok Me Up collection from Garden Grove, Calif.-based House Foods America Corp., “a product that combines cubed tofu and sauce in one … package,” explains Yoko DiFrancia, the company’s manager, PR and marketing. This month, House is introducing a flavor extension, Garlic Stir-fry, to the product line, and at press-time planned to cross-promote Wok Me Up with an as-yet-unannounced cut-veggie brand.
Tried and True
Getting consumers to buy frozen and refrigerated ethnic foods often means enticing them to try the product beforehand.
“We do a lot of work around sampling and demoing to really let our consumers taste and experience the authenticity and uniqueness of our products,” notes Jessica Ancheta, assistant brand manager for Hayward, Calif.-based Columbus Foods, best known for its Old World artisan specialty meats, whose newest product is the ready-to-bake refrigerated Pizza Naturale line.
“Making in-person visits to demonstrate our products at the retailers we work with has proven to be an effective strategy,” affirms Payal Malhotra, Café Spice’s VP, adding that the company and Whole Foods “are planning a national promotion … focusing on hot bars featuring Health Starts Here items, exclusive recipes developed with their global chef that fit Whole Foods’ healthy-eating criteria.”
Other manufacturers that have formed synergistic partnerships to bring products to the public’s attention include House Foods. “Currently, we’re running a promotional campaign with Doraemon, Japan’s most beloved anime character, to promote healthy eating habits and heighten tofu awareness with a younger audience,” says DiFrancia. “The campaign includes branded tofu packaging, billboard and wrap-up bus ads, event participation such as the Asian American Expo in L.A. and Japan Week in New York, and a sweepstakes promoted through our website and Facebook page.”
Outreach via social media also plays a role in Day-Lee’s marketing strategy, according to Weinberg, along with shelf talkers, trade promotions (“Buy a Crazy Cuizine entrée, get a free potsticker”), and recipe and meal suggestions on the company’s packaging, website and Facebook page.
Some companies, meanwhile, have chosen to direct at least some of their promotional and merchandising efforts to consumers belonging to the nationalities that would traditionally eat their offerings. “Retailers will find success in marketing and merchandising ethnic frozen and refrigerated foods as convenient, pre-portioned meals spanning a variety of cuisines, while focusing on the right target markets,” observes NFRA’s Henderson. “It’s not enough anymore for grocery stores to just lump the ‘ethnic food’ together on a grocery aisle; more can be done for successful merchandising.”
Goya Foods, for one, has taken this approach with its frozen Latin American items. “We … had a campaign aimed [at] the Central American market, called Sabor Sin Fronteras (Flavor Without Borders), including corn tamales, which are made of 100 percent corn and are authentically Salvadoran, being produced there,” notes Joe Perez, SVP of Secaucus, N.J.-based Goya, whose latest Hispanic offerings in the frozen section include two varieties of steam-in-bag rice and beans. Perez adds that Goya has run similar marketing campaigns for other frozen items, including arepas, churros, ripe plaintains and yuca (cassava), although he notes that such products also “add an international flair for the general-market consumer.”
“Consumers are eating world cuisine flavors at restaurants and food trucks, and want the same options for their freezer.”
—Jack Acree, American Halal Co.
“Frozen and refrigerated ethnic dishes are more convenient, quick to make, and a better value than restaurants or takeout.”
—David Weinberg, Day-Lee Foods