IN THE MIX

Tortillas, beverages and canned vegetables are some of the many ethnic items that have found new favor among an audience that routinely borrows products from various ethnic groups. Retailers understand that growing sales are due to the increased audience for products that might have originally been targeted to one group only.A complete marketplace can change due to immigration patterns, as Rick Fry

Tortillas, beverages and canned vegetables are some of the many ethnic items that have found new favor among an audience that routinely borrows products from various ethnic groups. Retailers understand that growing sales are due to the increased audience for products that might have originally been targeted to one group only.

A complete marketplace can change due to immigration patterns, as Rick Fry said happened in the Los Angeles market due to the migration of Mexicans. Fry, vice president at Superior Markets, with 15 stores in the greater Los Angeles area, told SN he has lived in Southern California all his life, and he travels often.

"In any other part of the country, Mexican food tastes like hospital food. If you grow up in L.A., nothing seems hot to you," he said.

Most consumer packaged goods that are aimed at people of a particular ethnicity also target those outside of that group -- those who can't or don't know how to make the dishes themselves. Jarred sauces give cuisine an authentic flavor, even if the group that created the cuisine in the first place wouldn't be using a jarred sauce.

"You take Southern cooking, which can take hours to be authentic. Ours can get you there in 30 minutes," said Paul Fregia, owner of Grandma Maud's line of Southern products. Southern cooking can include the foods of everyone from that region, he explained, but it is a category that indexes very high in one ethnicity -- African American -- because many have Southern roots.

From its base in Chicago, the line does well in Washington state, Oregon, Denver, and all over California, said Fregia -- not places with high African-American populations. Grandma Maud's sells in Safeway nationally, he said. Its products include bean meals with a ham-like flavor profile, although they don't contain meat; a quick sweet-potato pie mix; and hambone seasoning in a shaker jar.

"When we talk about the crossover of ethnic food, a large percentage of what crosses it over is the interest in that food form, and the products that make it convenient for the consumers," Fregia said.

"Our product, when it sits on the shelf, doesn't scream, 'This is for African Americans only!' The issues we have in the supermarket industry is that when we make our presentations, they see us as African American and they automatically slot us in African-American neighborhoods," Fregia told SN.

The way he got out of that niche was through a retailer who saw the product as being attractive to someone who is not African American, and who understood that there is a built-in limit to sales if you only concentrate on one group.

"After we were in the market for a while, were able to run reports, showing that in a market like Chicago that is very diverse, I had only one African-American store in the top 20. The No. 2 and No. 3 stores were out in the suburbs where incomes were very high, and it was not an African-American neighborhood," Fregia said.

With more companies buying or importing foreign brands and developing their own with a certain ethnic twist, the crossover trend is expected to only get bigger, retailers said. "The thing we have had the most success with really has been Mexican-brand names and products," said Scott Chambers, a buyer for Meijer, Grand Rapids, Mich. Much of the reason for this, he said, is that Americans are having more and more exposure to such products.

Some of those products that have sold best are driven by a more authentic style of cooking, "not the old-school Old El Paso dinner kit, but you watch the Food Channel and it calls for ingredients such as mole," said Chambers.

"Ethnic food, as a long-term trend, will get more and more specialized as Americans discover the various regions of Italy, of China, of Mexico," said Calvin Mayne, general manager of the Dorothy Lane Market, Dayton, Ohio. "There will always be more to learn," he said.

Americans' increasing exposure to Mexican products results in more sales of these items, said Chambers, who buys specialty and ethnic groceries for Meijer's 156 supercenters.

He told SN that his chain has done very well with authentic tortillas, but mostly the products coming from regional distributors, not the major brands. In Chicago, these are El Milagro and DelRey. Tortilla chips from both companies are carried in a large portion of the Meijer chain.

"The authentic has done surprisingly well. I am happy with it, and I think that is also a trend. They don't have preservatives, and that might not necessarily be why, but I think the taste is better. Those products are close-dated, fresher. That fresh quality has led to sales," he said.

Chambers added that some of the American national-branded sauces like Herdez and Patak's, both owned by Hormel Foods, are geared to both sides of the spectrum, the ethnic shopper and the non-ethnic shopper.

He thinks the supermarket industry has been doing a better job of staying on trend. Meijer's plans to focus more on Asian next year, Chambers said.

Chuck Serafin, a buyer for Penn Traffic, Syracuse, N.Y., said he no longer views Italian foods as ethnic because of their popularity in the mainstream, and that other international foods, mostly Mexican and Asian, are becoming so, too. "Kids don't think of Taco Bell as a Mexican restaurant. They are part of American culture," he said.

As for crossing from one group to another, Serafin mentioned Goya as an example. The brand is perceived as a Hispanic product, "but you're getting a lot of people to buy it because it's a quality product at a reasonable price," said Serafin, who is the specialty and DSD buyer for Penn Traffic. "There is crossover, from Puerto Ricans to all Hispanics, and the more Americanized."

Those of Spanish descent are the fastest-growing ethnic group, and the tortillas native to Mexico have become a big crossover item since sandwich wraps took off in the last decade. "Manny's tortillas is a huge line for us," Serafin said. "Another item we're bringing in is Green Mountain Gringo salsa -- here you have a company in Vermont making a typically Mexican item, so you almost can't call it Mexican anymore."

Penn Traffic's banners are testing another Hispanic line, the Vadia line of spices and marinades like mojo sauce, which he said is very popular in Florida.

Brett Vitek, assistant manager for Jungle Jim, the Fairfield, Ohio, superstore that carries hundreds of ethnic products, has noticed Hispanic shoppers buying what he calls "Mexican Pepsi" and "Mexican Coke," those beverages in 12-ounce glass bottles that are made with cane sugar instead of the usual corn syrup; they sell for about $1.19. These soft drinks don't have Spanish-language labels, he said, but the cane sugar taste and the packaging appeals to people from Mexico. Glass packaging appeals not only to that group, but also to American-born customers, including kids who have never seen a glass soda bottle before.

"We have a lot of college kids in this store who are adventurous," Vitek said, and Jungle Jim's also reaches out by offering school field trips for younger kids. "We do three or four school tours a day here," he said. The result is that youngsters ask their parents to bring them shopping at Jungle Jim's, where they might try another Mexican soda, Jarritoes, which comes in fruit flavors like tamarind and fruit punch, and also in the 12-ounce bottles.

Every four to six weeks, the supermarket has a big sampling event, when 70 demos go on throughout the store. The next one is set for around Cinco de Mayo, May 5, which marks the victory of the Mexican Army over the French at the Battle of Puebla, in 1862, well after Mexico became independent. Over the years, and with commercialization, Cinco de Mayo has become more of a Chicano holiday than a Mexican one. Although the Mexican Army was eventually defeated, the battle came to be a symbol of Mexican unity and patriotism. People of Mexican descent in the United States celebrate this day by having parades, mariachi music, folk dancing and other types of festivities.

At Jungle Jim's, each department will have something Mexican, such as Mexican meats and cheeses, beers and wines, ethnic produce items, and seafood, Vitek said. There will be tie-ins with salsa-flavored chips and beverages, too.

In the wine department, Sangria and Ceretto are popular, said David Schmerr, wine manager of Jungle Jim's. With the coming of Cinco de Mayo, and better weather, Schmerr said, "People will be getting more into drinking beer and the lighter wines; we really tie in anything with Mexican and Spanish wines. They are readily available, at excellent price points, and they taste great. They're a big crossover item."

So are Mexican beers. Corona, Pacifico and Negra Modelo are the big three, Vitek said. They are the superpremiums that are "on fire" now in terms of sales, said David "Bump" Williams, senior vice president, client services and global consulting, Information Resources Inc., Chicago.

Vitek said his store sells a lot of frozen Goya products and frozen peppers from Bueno Foods, Albuquerque, N.M. -- red and green chiles that come in plastic cups. He said Mexicans will buy their ready-made tamales, even though Mexican Americans are known for cooking from scratch. "And the Americans will buy them, too, because they are not mass produced. They've got the corn husk."

Meijer's categorizes products by country, merchandising by sections, such as Italian, Greek, French, Polish, Scandinavian, Middle Eastern and Dutch, because of the people of Dutch ancestry in Michigan, Indiana and Kentucky -- states that are part of Meijer's five-state trading area.

"There is a consumer who is willing to experiment because it's fun, and we try to merchandise it that way a little bit. We want people to walk down the aisle and feel that they can explore and feel like they have discovered something, whenever they come into the store," Chambers said.