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4 Signs of Changing Tastes: The Adoption of Ethnic Foods in America

2007-11-13

American consumers are no longer content and even are bored by the "bland" diets and dining experiences of past generations. They are seeking to spice up their food, or as celebrity chef, Emeril Lagasse would say, consumers want to "kick it up a notch." Underlying this trend is the consumer desire for higher quality foods and experiences.

Consumers are exposed to foods from a multitude of global cultures as never before. More and more Americans are traveling abroad and wanting to recreate or re-experience favorite ethnic cuisines at home. For those non-traveling consumers there is TV, where they travel and experience foods vicariously through shows on the Travel Channel and Food Network. At the root, though, consumers find multicultural foods interesting mainly because they serve as a departure from the normal American diet through a combination of "different" tastes, flavors and spices.

Here are 4 sure signs that consumers are changing their tastes in favor of exciting new foods and flavors from other cultures:

 

Sign #1: Hello Tart and Bitter, Goodbye Super Sweet

One element of the desire for new taste sensations lies in a now common cultural quest for premium sensory experiences that transcend the norm: Heavy, cloying flavors that are overly sweet or overly salty are out, and tart and bitter are in. Influences for these new taste profiles stem from regional American foods (such as Cajun/Creole and Soul Foods), and even more strongly from what everyday Americans view as the "exotic" spices, vegetables, fruits and ingredients found in multinational cuisines.

One example of a newly arrived bitter taste experience would be dandelion greens, which are now appearing on restaurant menus. Consumers describe the experience of eating unfamiliar dandelion greens somewhat like a "umami" sensation where bitter transitions into a new and different taste with more depth—something beyond the traditional four tastes of salty, sour, sweet or bitter. Many Los Angelites are hip to this new flavor flip as shown by the phenomenon of Pinkberry. Unlike the sweet and airy TCBY variety of the '90s, Pinkberry offers only two flavors of tart and tangy frozen yogurt, and many consumers love these treats for their not-too-sweet properties.

 

Sign #2: "I'll Have the Purple Potatoes" — Dining Out for Ethnic is In

Another sign of Americans seeking out new multicultural flavor experiences lies in the propensity for consumers to try new ethnic cuisines through dining out: restaurants are typically where consumers go to get what they can't recreate in their kitchens; where they go to "try something different."

The most enterprising of today's chefs are delivering authentic ethnic cuisines to patrons by going on culinary expeditions that enable them to deliver authentic, regional cuisines to diners eager to sample foods and flavors that transcend not only traditional "steak and potato" diets, but the assimilated menus of Americanized Mexican, Italian and Chinese dining. In this sense, going out for Mexican might now mean dining on real Oaxacan cuisine and not the everyday offerings of burrito and taco stands.

Consumer experimentation with new ethnic cuisines in restaurants is heavily influencing them to understand what to do with new products appearing in specialty sections of supermarkets. Having tried and liked menu items in their local Peruvian restaurant, for example, consumers are not taken aback by the sight of those strange purple potatoes seen in the produce section of their grocery store. Instead, they now are inspired to try them at home.

 

Sign #3: Ethnic Spice Bazaars

While they may depend on authentic ethnic restaurants to supply them with new taste experiences, Trader Joe's continues to mesmerize shoppers into believing that the store is a key destination for discovering new ethnic tastes, if only because shoppers tell us that they dine out on Indian food and then "discover" a new Trader Joe's sauce that corresponds to their ethnic dining experience. In truth, because product mix constantly changes, shoppers say they see Trader Joe's more as a treasure trove, not necessarily as strictly an ethnic provider.

Beyond Trader Joe's, conventional supermarkets are raising the bar on delivering more authentic ethnic ingredients to shoppers. Foodies who might have formerly purchased smoked paprika in a small Hispanic specialty store can now find such a "specialty" spice in many of the spice departments of leading grocers. At the same time, spice racks at home and in the grocery stores are undergoing their own form of quality makeover. The typically dusty bottles of McCormick lining the traditional supermarket shelves are being passed over by curious shoppers for the likes of Penzey's, which offers both virtual and retail immersions in a global world of marinades, spices, salts, peppers and herbs.

 

Sign #4: Specialty Ethnic Has Become Everyday

Another significant sign of the general movement toward enhanced taste experiences lies in the now common incorporation of formerly "special" ethnic foods into everyday use. Consumers are moving beyond the basic tastes of salt, sugar, fat or overly processed within individual categories and are beginning to distinguish subtle nuances on their palates that are inspired by more complex products. We see this occur within sauces and vinegars; and whereas it was once simply "soy sauce" or "vinegar," now it's light or dark soy sauce, infused or balsamic vinegars, and Vietnamese, Thai, or Philippine fish sauce. While formerly special ethnic foods are now commonplace in use, different occasions may signal varying levels of authenticity within a product category. Think of pre-grated parmesan cheese, as one example, in a shaker can that might migrate from the center store shelf to share refrigerator space with a pre-wrapped wedge of parmesan bought at the local supermarket. Where the "wedge" of Parmigiano Reggiano cheese matches adult desire for a hand-grated cheese, the shaker can of parmesan cheese is a perfectly acceptable alternative for kids. For special occasions, such as entertaining, a trip to a specialty cheese store might be in order to acquire a freshly cut wedge of imported parmesan, which can be sampled, and the story behind its origins learned, and then told to guests.

The quest for premium taste experiences extends well beyond ethnic foods. A quick glance around our culture shows that taste profiles and expectations have been elevated within numerous categories including but not limited to wine, chocolate or coffee. Such experiences represent a movement beyond the typically bland "mouth feel" of traditional American foods, which center on salty, sweet or fatty richness, toward the spicy "notes" and aromas of a wide range of "different" foods and beverages—a significant part of which includes those from other cultures. Another way to consider the consumer mindset toward ethnic foods is to consider that in recent Hartman Group study, Wellness Lifestyle Insights we've seen that the concept of "wellness" among consumers is now equated with ethnic and gourmet foods because such products are mentally and emotionally fulfilling. Such foods are considered by contemporary wellness consumers to be fun, to satisfy curiosities, or to alleviate boredom. Within this context, we can say that:

     

  1. Opportunities to offer new ethnic cuisines are diverse for food retailers, such as supermarket operators and others involved in prepared foods. Only a small minority of shoppers associate "stores" with ethnic prepared foods, while a majority of Americans are dining out regularly on a variety of new ethnic cuisines.

     

  2. Because of competition from "authentic" ethnic restaurants, retailers face high expectations from customers already experimenting with a broad array of new tastes; thus, any attempts at retail to offer prepared ethnic foods should be focused on providing prepared foods that can truly compete with what consumers view to be "the real thing," elements of which include authentic spices, flavors and ingredients, as well as staff and decor.

     

  3. While certain restaurant segments, such as casual dining, have been experiencing the pains of limits to growth, the overall cultural interest in multicultural foods points to interesting times ahead as Americans seek out new tastes beyond "steak and potato" dining and the already assimilated Chinese, Italian and Mexican cuisines. The cultural reliance on learning about new cuisines by dining out infers that ethnic dining in certain segments (such as fast casual) may only be in a developmental stage.

     

  4. Marketers of ethnic foods should consider that while Americans are increasingly interested in multicultural dining, ingredients and experiences, they are also satisfying their curiosities for other cultures by traveling both physically and virtually. Virtual travel, cooking and dining can include everyday exposure to portals like the Food Network, the Travel Channel, and Epicurious.com—all of which represent important channels for reaching and marketing to consumers embarking on new multicultural experiences.



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