EXPO COMIDA LATINA

NEW YORK -- Manufacturers who want to sell their ethnic wares to mainstream consumers need to have a distinctive product and be prepared to educate retailers about its potential outside the ethnic aisle, said two speakers at Expo Comida Latina, the Hispanic Food & Beverage Show, here last week."The whole idea of mainstreaming stems from the hope that you can be beyond just being in the international

NEW YORK -- Manufacturers who want to sell their ethnic wares to mainstream consumers need to have a distinctive product and be prepared to educate retailers about its potential outside the ethnic aisle, said two speakers at Expo Comida Latina, the Hispanic Food & Beverage Show, here last week.

"The whole idea of mainstreaming stems from the hope that you can be beyond just being in the international aisle," Paul Mena, senior category manager for Hispanic at the distributor Tree of Life, St. Augustine, Fla. The key is to convince the retailer that the product can appeal to a wide audience, he said, and "not just the sombrero-wearing Mexican."

Joining him on a panel was John Corella, a partner in Ventana, San Clemente, Calif., a company that develops nutritional products and services aimed at Latinos. They offered the following advice to small manufacturers seeking to sell their products in the mainstream aisle:

- Natural/organic ethnic products, or those with a healthful image, have the greatest potential to cross over, Mena said. For that reason he saw strong potential in Indian foods, which often are low in preservatives and vegetarian.

- Look for distinctive products, avoiding categories like salsa and tortillas that are already saturated. "Don't think anything you have is too exotic," Corella said. He suggested giving the product the "grandma test:" If grandma's heard of it, it's probably too common, he said.

- Research the market. Smaller stores with a reputation for ethnic-product merchandising may be easier to break into. When approaching a chain retailer, know which store locations offer the best potential for ethnic foods to succeed in the mainstream aisle. Show the retailer how it can benefit, Corella said. Retailers "need the customer to go down every aisle," he said. "Otherwise, they're getting cherry-picked."

- Pay attention to packaging. Avoid stereotypical ethnic color schemes that will appeal to a limited audience; do use bilingual labels.

Manufacturers can expect to face obstacles from those retailers that persist in segregating ethnic products, even when they stock a lot of international foods and have enough ethnic customers to justify an integrated approach, Mena said.

"They want that consumer, but they're not sure they want to completely embrace that consumer," he said.

The traditional category manager organization adds to the difficulty, as mainstream and ethnic managers compete for space. "There's an internal battle going on there," Mena said.

Crossover is happening in distinctive retailers, often small independents, and is starting to take place in conventional retailers, though, the speakers said. "I used to go to the Korean market for bulgogi," Corella said. "Now, I go to Trader Joe's."