Indian food continues to strengthen its foothold in U.S. supermarkets, thanks in large part to the flood of premade convenience meals introduced in recent years.
Fully prepared dishes like tandoori chicken and vegetable chutney are now available in the freezer cases at many chains. Most retailers also carry premade shelf-stable meals, most of which are packaged in microwavable containers.
Other Indian staples such as Basmati rice and curry spice blends are starting to pop up in stores too. Many are merchandised alongside American brands like Uncle Ben's and McCormick's.
The influx of Indian products is no surprise to retailers, since they've seen it before from other regions.
“The same thing happened years ago with Italian, Mexican and Chinese, which are now so common in the States that many people don't even think of them as ethnic anymore,” said Tim Cummiskey, grocery manager for Highland Park Markets, Glastonbury, Conn. “People have been trying Indian food at restaurants, and then they come in here looking for food so they can make the recipes at home.”
An Indian eatery opened just down the street from Highland Park Market's Glastonbury location two years ago. According to Cummiskey, there has been an uptick in Indian food sales ever since.
The retailer currently dedicates an 8-foot section in its stores to Asian items. The space used to be filled mostly with Thai, Chinese and Japanese items, but Indian products have been steadily gaining in recent years.
One new brand entering its stores in 2008 is Passage to India. The supplier has a line of five Indian-inspired Simmer Sauces in flavors like Rogan Josh, Tikka Masala, Butter Chicken, Korma and Vindaloo. The blends are made with spices sourced from various regions of India and Southeast Asia. Each is preservative- and gluten-free.
According to Carla Lewis, managing partner of Collinsville, Conn., Passage to India's parent company, Passage Foods, the sauces are popular because they're convenient and healthy.
Health-conscious shoppers seek out Indian food because of the benefits of ingredients like garlic, turmeric and ginger. Others simply have a flair for the exotic, but don't want to invest the time fiddling with elaborate recipes, she said.
“Indian food is really hot right now, but time is valuable to American consumers,” noted Lewis. “With a premade sauce, all they have to do is cook rice, add their favorite vegetables or protein and they have a complete, healthy meal in just minutes.”
Passage to India and other sauces like it are selling well in the U.S. According to Nielsen Strategic Planner, a division of the Nielsen Co., sales of Oriental sauces were up 4.2% to $172.5 million in supermarkets during the 52 weeks ending Nov. 3, 2007.
Sales of frozen Oriental entrees also increased 6.7% to $479.2 million during the same time period.
Frozen Indian entrees are highly popular at Fairfield, Ohio-based Jungle Jim's International Market, for the same reason sauces have been selling well, said Tom Hann, manager of the single-store retailer's international department.
“Because of the demand for convenience, most of our growth in the category is in frozen Indian foods,” Hann told SN. “Our top-selling frozen meals are made by Deep Foods and our private-label Indian line [called Swad].”
As for shelf-stable meals, Patak's chutneys and entrees made by MTR and Swad are in high demand at Jungle Jim's. Most come packaged in ovenable aluminum retort packages wrapped in cardboard sleeves.
Hann routinely promotes Indian food in the international section of the store's weekly ad, lumping together Indian, Hispanic, Italian and other ethnic cuisine. He also stocks commodity items like Golden Temple flour and several types of coconut oil within the international section and in the main aisles next to brands like Crisco and Gold Medal.
Publix Super Markets, Lakeland, Fla., currently has 228 Indian items in its assortment, including a variety of shelf-stable sauces, condiments, spices, flour, beans, rice, chutneys, juices and herbal teas, according to Dwaine Stevens, spokesman for the chain.
“Some of our better-selling product brands are Laxmi, Kohinoor, Shamiana, Patak's, Naturally India and Kitchens of India,” noted Stevens.
At Lubbock, Texas-based United Supermarkets, most frozen and shelf-stable Indian meals are priced at $3.99, with companies like Ethnic Gourmet routinely running two-for-$6 promotions. Other food makers offer dollar-off promotions that drop the price to $2.99 on occasion, according to Suman Lawrence, marketing and education specialist for the retailer's living well department.
A common catchphrase now appearing on packages there is “ready in 5 minutes or less,” he said. “More and more Asian food companies are putting this on the front of their products now, so when someone glances at a set, they can quickly tell what items will be quick and easy to prepare.”
U.S. Census Bureau reports reveal that in the year 2002, of the total 1,063,732 legal U.S. immigrants from all countries, some 66,864 were from India. And, from 2000 onward, both the growth rate and percentage rate of Indians among all immigrants has increased by more than 100%.
“As the Indian population in the U.S. grows, and our business links to India grow, supermarkets will start responding with more Indian food offerings,” said Ted Zittell, partner, McMillan Doolittle, Chicago.
In some states, such as New Jersey, New York and California, retailers like Wegmans already boast significantly larger Indian sets, said Zittell. In recent months, Rochester, N.Y.-based Wegmans has introduced store-brand Indian-style frozen dinners in Butter Chicken, Chicken Korma and Chicken Curry varieties.
Zittell projects that supermarkets in large cities will soon follow suit.
“Our product selection has grown tremendously in the past year, partly because of the increased Indian population in the U.S.,” said Publix's Stevens.
Whatever the driving force, retailers must take the time to understand what their Indian food-craving consumer truly desires, said Kimberly Wallace, ethnic category director for Tree of Life, a St. Augustine, Fla.-based specialty food distributor.
According to Wallace, some retailers think they're targeting the traditional Indian homemaker. Consequently, they make the mistake of stocking strictly bulk items like lentils, flour and rice by the bagful.
“Retailers need to remember that their core consumer in this category isn't the first-generation Indian [American] who buys mostly bulk,” said Wallace. “It's actually a second- or third-generation Indian [American] who is very acclimated to life in the U.S. and has no interest in staying home and soaking lentils all day. They want convenience.”
By meshing Indian flavors with the Western trend of convenience, retailers can appeal to a wide array of American consumers.
To add extra flair to the category, Wallace suggests that retailers celebrate Indian holidays like Diwali, the October Festival of Lights, and Holi, a springtime festival. Such events show a chain's respect for the culture. They also create excitement in the ethnic aisles, thus drawing more attention to Eastern edibles, she noted.
Food makers have certainly done their share to accommodate U.S. consumers.
“Many of these manufacturers have reformulated their products to better fit American taste buds,” she said. “They've also repackaged the foods with labels that clearly state whether the contents are savory, mildly spiced or very spicy.”
In the future, Wallace sees shelf-stable as a sector to watch. Her favorites include foods bearing the Suhki's, Tiger Tiger and Mr. Kooks brand names.