RETAILERS EMBRACE VARIETY AT FIRST HISPANIC EXPO SHOW

LOS ANGELES -- Expo Comida Latina -- the inaugural showcase for Hispanic lines -- appeared to fill a market void in its debut last week, with food retailers telling SN they were impressed by the variety and innovative products they found there.The show's organizers said it was successful enough that they plan to repeat the event here next year and also to expand to another city -- possibly New York."Whereas

LOS ANGELES -- Expo Comida Latina -- the inaugural showcase for Hispanic lines -- appeared to fill a market void in its debut last week, with food retailers telling SN they were impressed by the variety and innovative products they found there.

The show's organizers said it was successful enough that they plan to repeat the event here next year and also to expand to another city -- possibly New York.

"Whereas the Hispanic flavor in Southern California is primarily Mexican, a New York-area show would have the flavor of Cuba, Puerto Rico and Central America," according to Denyse Selesnick, president of International Trade Information, a co-organizer of the show. "Los Angeles was chosen for the first show because we felt it is the heart of the Hispanic world in this country, but we've learned that food is a regional business.

"We had expected the show to have a local appeal, but we attracted people from New York, Pennsylvania, Texas and other states because the Hispanic culture permeates every level of society and people are finally beginning to pay attention."

Selesnick said she hopes to bring the show into the New York area next year and possibly to one more city by the following year. Next year's Expo here is already 50% sold out, she added, based on exhibitor satisfaction with this year's show.

Retailers who attended the show reflected a similar satisfaction when contacted by SN. "This is really the first show I've seen totally targeted to the Hispanic market," Rick Thrasher, director of purchasing for Jon's Markets here, said. "With so many large retailers beginning to target the Hispanic community, we're always looking for ways to get an edge."

Thrasher said he was impressed "at how well the show was put together, with a lot of varied brands and unique items. Our Hispanic base comes largely from Central America, and I saw a number of vendors there with a variety of items from that area.

"In fact, I saw probably three or four vendors I hadn't seen before, and I invited them to call on me at my office. And I recommended that another buyer from our office attend the show."

Morrie Notrica, owner of 32nd Street Market here, said he saw "a lot of made-in-Mexico products I normally don't see."

What really impressed him, Notrica said, was a thaw-and-serve bake-off demonstration "because the Latin consumer goes for a lot of sweet goods as well as the bolillos [Mexican bread], and that demonstration strengthened my resolve to pull out a gondola and put in a bake-off operation because by not having it, I'm losing a lot of sales."

Ed Vela, general manager for Jax Markets, Anaheim, Calif., said he was impressed with the large number of vendors at the show. "There was quite a variety of different labels that we hadn't been exposed to before, including a lot of merchandise from South America, and I saw products like carnitas in a can that I hadn't seen before.

"We also got a few good ideas, such as possibly installing a machine to keep churros warm. We asked the company that sells those machines and several other vendors to send us more information."

According to Selesnick, being Hispanic was not trendy prior to the 2000 Census. "But since the Census, the food industry has discovered the buying power of Hispanics, so being Hispanic became 'la moda' -- in style."

Selesnick, who has been organizing similar shows in Latin America for years, said the idea for a U.S.-based show originated about 18 months ago when the exporting arm of the Mexican government suggested to her that Mexican companies exhibiting at restaurant shows were getting lost.

Expo Comida Latina -- which translates as Latin Food Show -- featured 250 exhibiting companies in 372 booth spaces, Selesnick said, with a pre-registration of 3,000 and another 1,000 people added through on-site registration. She acknowledged that the show probably benefitted from being held concurrently with the International West Coast Seafood Show, which also took place at the Los Angeles Convention Center.

She said Expo expects to increase overall space by 35% next year.

Expo Comida Latina featured three kinds of exhibitors, Selesnick said: mainstream American companies looking for a shot at the Hispanic market; Hispanic companies looking for a shot at the mainstream market; and companies from Spanish-speaking countries looking for a shot at any market.

The international manufacturers comprised 25% of the show's exhibitors and encompassed 67 companies from Mexico alone, plus others from Guatemala, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Brazil and Colombia.

Selesnick's ITI, which is based in Woodland Hills, Calif., partnered with Diversified Business Communications, Portland, Maine, to develop Expo Comida Latina.