SAVOR THE FLAVOR

The consumer palate is getting more sophisticated, thanks to the growth of international travel, food shows and celebrity chefs. Spices ranging from salt and pepper to lemongrass and wasabi powder are benefiting from it.Dollar sales in food stores for the top 50 spice brands generated $1.1 billion for the 52 weeks ending Nov. 2, 2003, a 4.3% increase, according to Information Resources Inc., Chicago.While

The consumer palate is getting more sophisticated, thanks to the growth of international travel, food shows and celebrity chefs. Spices ranging from salt and pepper to lemongrass and wasabi powder are benefiting from it.

Dollar sales in food stores for the top 50 spice brands generated $1.1 billion for the 52 weeks ending Nov. 2, 2003, a 4.3% increase, according to Information Resources Inc., Chicago.

While spices are being used more on an everyday basis, consumption skyrockets during big holidays. At Big Y Foods, Springfield, Mass., fast movers during Easter and Thanksgiving include traditional spices like cinnamon, nutmeg, apple pie spice, sage and poultry seasoning, said John Corcoran, grocery category manager.

"Sales of many spices depend on the season," observed Corcoran.

During November and December, Big Y uses endcap displays in all stores. About 50% of its total yearly sales are generated in these two months, Corcoran said. Yet America's fascination with spices is extending far beyond the holidays, other retailers noted.

America's annual consumption -- imports and domestic production, minus exports -- of spices has exceeded one billion pounds since 1998, reported the American Spice Trade Association, Washington.

As of 2000, the most current data available, the top 12 spices based on volume were dehydrated onion/garlic, mustard seed, red pepper, sesame seed, black pepper, paprika, cinnamon, cumin seed, white pepper, oregano, poppy seed and ginger, respectively, according to the ASTA.

Of these, the "hot" spices are growing the fastest. The top hot spices -- black/white pepper, red pepper and mustard seed -- represented 41% of U.S. spice consumption in 2000. Since the '80s, black and white pepper usage has climbed 55%; mustard seed, 76%; and red pepper, 85%, stated the ASTA.

The shrinking globe and ensuing discovery of regional ethnic cuisine are the main reasons for the popularity of spices, said Laurie Harrsen, director of public relations for spice manufacturer McCormick & Co., Hunt Valley, Md.

"Consumers taste certain flavors at restaurants and want to make them at home," she noted.

However, many home cooks don't want to break their family's budget to add a kick to the meals they prepare. Reluctant to spend $2, $3 or $4 for a national-brand spice, some shoppers are open to buying lower-price, private-label varieties, retailers told SN.

Such is the case at Caputo's Fresh Markets, a three-store operator based in Addison, Ill., which carries a broad selection of bulk spices marketed under the La Bella Romana private-label brand. The spices are sold by the pound in plastic bags in an eight-foot section.

Prices vary depending on the spice. For instance, an 0.18-pound bag of bay leaves sells for 77 cents, or $4.29 a pound; an 0.11-pound bag of parsley flakes sells for 93 cents, or $8.49 a pound. Oregano and bay leaves are the most popular sellers, according to Robertino Presta, vice president, Caputo's.

"For what customers would pay for one ounce of a big national brand, they can [get] eight ounces of our private-label spices," said Presta.

Along with the price, another convenience of the La Bella Romana line is that, because it's bulk, customers can buy as much or as little as they need.

"Depending on how people cook, they can grab a little or a lot," Presta said.

To complement its bulk spices, Caputo's started selling plastic spice shaker jars several months ago for $1.49 each.

"The jars are another option for our shoppers. It gives them a place to store our bulk spices," he said.

Duthler Family Foods, Grand Rapids, Mich., has also found success with low-price spices. The retailer recently brought in a new line of family-size stockkeeping units called Spice It. Each sells for $1, according to Jon Duthler, owner.

"Many customers don't want to spend $4 for a bottle of spices that's one-quarter of the size of one they can get for 99 cents," he said.

The line is merchandised in the spice aisle, and sometimes featured on wooden racks in the front end. Paprika and garlic salt are among the popular sellers.

"We haven't heard from any customers that the spices are any worse than the big brands," Duthler noted.

In response to the store-brand threat, some brands are adding value to their packaging, and retailers point to the success of McCormick's Grinders line as an example. The items, bottles that come with built-in grinders, cater to consumers who want spices that are freshly ground, which is said to deliver a fresher flavor and aroma to food.

"With McCormick Grinders, people can crack the pepper at the exact moment they're ready to use it, ensuring fresh flavor each and every time," said Harrsen of McCormick.

Flavors in the Grinders line include black peppercorn, peppercorn medley and sea salt.

"The peppercorn Grinders do the best of all the Grinders in our stores," said the wholesale buyer, who requested anonymity.

McCormick's Grinders also do well at Big Y Foods, as do organic spices. Big Y now carries four organic spice varieties.

"Organic spices continue to grow," Corcoran noted.

Spice It Up

The Top 12 Spices to Watch:

Bay Leaf

Chile Peppers

Cinnamon

Coriander/Cilantro

Lemongrass

Mustard

Pepper

Sea Salt

Sesame

Turmeric

Vanilla

Wasabi

SOURCE: McCormick & Co.'s Flavor Forecast