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Success in the Supermarket by Translating TrendsSuccess in the Supermarket by Translating Trends

February 1, 1995

10 Min Read
Success in the Supermarket  by Translating Trends

Success in the Supermarket
by Translating Trends
February 1995 -- Perspectives

By: Andrea Horwich Allen
Associate Editor

  When Campbell Soup Co. picked up Pace Foods Ltd. last November for $1.1 billion, it signified more than a savvy -- if belated -- move into the salsa market by the Camden, NJ-based mega-manufacturer. By acquiring the San Antonio, TX-based picante sauce company, Campbell provided dramatic evidence of the mainstream acceptance of Mexican-style salsas.

  Just as intriguing to food designers and marketers, the buy-out illustrated the wisdom of keeping a close watch on the latest trends emerging from restaurants and specialty stores. Many food professionals can recall when salsas and picantes could be found only at Mexican restaurants and gourmet retailers. But these days virtually every supermarket in the country carries at least one brand of Mexican-style salsa, and most industry sources agree that the category's sales have outpaced ketchup's several years running.

  The "pockets of influence" where successful products originate -- in other words, the specialty stores and trend-setting restaurants -- have launched a number of other consumer favorites over the years. Chris Wolf, marketing director for the new product development group at Noble & Associates, Chicago, points to salsas as well as gourmet cheeses as items that have become ubiquitous in supermarkets. So have whole-grain foods such as granola and whole-wheat bread, and exotic juices such as mango and guava -- all of which used to be the exclusive provenance of the natural-food stores, he notes.

  The savory qualities of gourmet cheeses, not to mention the health benefits of whole-grain foods, are indisputable. But there are plenty of other products with great taste, good nutritional profiles or both, and not all of these have been embraced by mainstream America.

Cache of convenience

  How can food designers determine which trends they most likely will be asked to transfer to the supermarket aisles? Although there's no easy answer to that question, one of the precious few magic words today is "convenience." That means that no matter how popular a concept is among upscale restaurant patrons or dedicated home chefs, if the busy, mainstream consumer finds it too troublesome to duplicate at home, it isn't going to enjoy widespread acceptance.

  Some of the most successful recent introductions from Kraft General Foods bear out that piece of conventional wisdom, such as the company's line of DiGiorno refrigerated pastas and sauces.

  DiGiorno's staying power in the marketplace reflects "the growth of Italian cuisine to the point where it is mainstream," says Patricia Shafer, a spokeswoman for the Glenview, IL-based food giant. More to the point, though, the DiGiorno line enables consumers to prepare restaurant-quality Italian meals at home for considerably less money and a minimal amount of time.

  The popularity of fresh, refrigerated pastas and sauces reflects the current tendency of consumers to try to save money by cooking at home, while also saving time by using as many prepared ingredients as possible. Industry trend watchers refer to this phenomenon as "speed scratch cooking."

  Thus far, one of the main beneficiaries of this consumer trend has been the fresh-produce industry. Supermarket produce aisles are now brimming with user-friendly foods such as pre-cut and pre-washed vegetables and fruits, not to mention the extremely successful pre-torn salad greens that are bagged with single-use envelopes of dressings, croutons and other trimmings.

Speed-scratch story

  Food designers haven't been excluded from the speed-scratch loop. Products that can help consumers duplicate restaurant-quality meals or ethnic cuisines -- without costing them too much time or money -- have been well received. Specifically, introductions such as dressings, sauces and condiments have been picking up steam in the marketplace, says Robert McNath, director of the New Products Showcase and Learning Center, Ithaca, NY.

  According to figures from Marketing Intelligence Service, a Naples, NY, company that tracks product introductions on a database, a combined total of 853 new dressings, sauces, gravies and condiments were introduced in 1994, counting all flavors and sizes in each line. By comparison, 747 new meals and entrees were introduced.

  The growth of these ingredient-type items is eclipsing complete meals such as frozen dinners. In fact less than 30% of the population consumes frozen dinners, says Mona Doyle, principal of Consumer Network, a Philadelphia marketing consulting company.

  "It hasn't grown to where the expectations were," Doyle says of the frozen-dinner category. Still, those who do consume frozen dinners consume many of them, making them an important category.

  Doyle says that her surveys reveal more households are using pasta sauces. She places the figure at an impressive 72%. "Even people who can't cook well and don't have the time can do pasta," she explains.

  Kraft's research shows that the average household has five bottles of salad dressing on hand, three of which are open at any given time. Witness the success of Kraft's fat-free Honey Dijon, the best-selling fat-free dressing from the company that leads the category. The product combines the health benefit du jour, namely a fat-free formula, with great taste and a familiar name. Plus, it capitalizes on what Shafer calls "the broadening of the American palate to include both ethnic and more robust flavors."

  For products that provide those ethnic and robust flavors in a convenient format, witness also the recent introductions from other industry leaders. Last year McCormick & Co., Hunt Valley, MD, introduced a line of herb-and-spice blends that allow the home cook to get an ethnic flavor profile just right without having to stock up on individual bottles. And most of the 10 Spice Islands Quick Meals, a new line of one-cup meals from the San Francisco manufacturer, are inspired by ethnic cuisines.

  Even Kraft's Velveeta has turned up the heat with an Italiana version and a Salsa Dip Kit, which includes a bottle of Pace picante sauce. In 1993, Campbell breathed new life into two of its best-known brands with V-8 Picante Juice and Italian Tomato soup.

  Clearly, Campbell recognizes the acceptability that both Mexican and Italian flavor profiles have achieved. Last fall, well before the company's stunning Pace acquisition, the company had introduced four new soups to its Home Cookin' line: Fiesta Soup, Italian Vegetable, Savory Lentil and Tuscany-style Minestrone. All are characterized by robust flavor profiles, and three are inspired by either Mexican or Italian cuisines.

  According to the company's own consumption figures, the time was right to expect mainstream acceptance of these flavor profiles. A spokesperson noted at the time that consumption of Mexican foods had recently increased 57% and that spice and seasoning consumption had increased 34%. Since 1983, restaurant consumption of Italian food increased 53%, as Campbell reported last year when it introduced its Italian Tomato soup.

Marketing to the masses

  As popular as these once-ethnic cuisines have become, though, the products being introduced by the market leaders today are at least somewhat "Americanized" for mass consumption. Certainly DiGiorno and its competitors are a far cry from the early canned spaghetti products that represented Italian cuisine in American grocery stores decades ago. But even Campbell's new Fiesta soup is less of a gamble than another new variety from the same company. Last June, Campbell rolled out Crema de Chile Poblano soup, a condensed Mexican pepper and corn blend marketed as both a soup and sauce. It's in distribution in the Southwestern United States, and its bilingual label targets both English- and Spanish-speaking consumers.

  Can a product with that much heat, or a pronounced use of any herb or spice note, ever achieve mass distribution at the national level? True, Pace and other salsas and picantes are available everywhere in "hot" versions. But for the most part before major manufacturers step in, an ethnic cuisine has to have become both familiar and acceptable to mainstream consumers. Shafer says Kraft closely monitors the restaurant business, among other sources, to ferret out which trends will have staying power.

  Using restaurants as a measure of acceptability, Italian and Mexican cuisines have long since proven themselves by inspiring both mid-price outlets such as Olive Garden and fast-food chains such as Taco Bell. So has Chinese cuisine, which, along with Mexican and Italian, is among the top three ethnic cuisines as reported by the Food Marketing Institute. In fact, many food professionals and consumers no longer regard the big three as "ethnic."

  Other ethnic cuisines have remained so, however, judging from the restaurant scene and the supermarket aisles. For example, one of the trendiest but shortest-lived movements of the 1980s was Cajun food. Yet even the looming presence of chef Paul Prudhomme never did inspire mid-priced restaurant imitators throughout the country.

  Still, Cajun sauces and spices can now be found just about anywhere, although most are manufactured and marketed by smaller, single-unit companies. So can Japanese and Thai sauces and condiments for home cooks who want to duplicate what they've sampled at the restaurants that are becoming increasingly common in major U.S. cities.

  Indeed, Japanese sauces like Kikkoman have long been in mass distribution.

The Asian inspiration

Asian cuisines in general merit careful monitoring on the part of food designers, especially considering their growth on the restaurant scene as opposed to their actual volume. According to the Thomas Food Industry Register FoodTrends '94 survey, which polled 485 foodservice managers, Mexican is the fastest-growing cuisine in the United States. Thai came in third, followed by Chinese, Italian, Japanese and Indian. Interestingly, the number-two position belonged to Caribbean cuisine, despite the fact that relatively few Americans have sampled authentic Caribbean food. Where Caribbean restaurants have sprung up, in locations such as South Florida and New York City, diners have responded enthusiastically.

Caribbean sauces and marinades are gaining distribution, although, like the Cajun condiments, these usually are manufactured and marketed by smaller companies. A notable exception is industry leader McCormick. Never slow to identify a winner, McCormick last year introduced its own Caribbean Jerk Seasoning blend.

Of these top ethnic cuisines, Indian food has been heralded for the past several years as the next great trend, largely because of the growing interest in vegetarian lifestyles. Indian foods -- including frozen dinners, canned side dishes, and bottled sauces -- have been gaining space in natural-food and specialty stores.

Still, Indian foods have yet to command any significant share of supermarket shelf space. Despite the growing popularity of Indian restaurants and the healthful characteristics of Indian cuisine, the Indian flavor profile has not become sufficiently "Americanized" for mass consumption.

New cultural encounters

What will become the next major trend in ethnic eating? If any cuisine can achieve acceptance levels approaching Mexican, Italian or Chinese, it most likely will come from the Pacific Rim, says Jeanne Voltz, chairman of the American Institute of Food and Wine. She cites Thai, Vietnamese, Indonesian and Malaysian, although she acknowledges that the number of Thai restaurants across the country makes that cuisine the leading contender.

Another likely candidate is Mediterranean cuisine, which has been receiving nothing but favorable press now that nutrition experts are touting the health benefits of "The Mediterranean Diet." Of course, Mediterranean cuisine means different things to different people. As Voltz points out, many Americans have dined at Greek restaurants, and most have consumed Italian food. To most Arab-Americans and many American Jews, though, Mediterranean cuisine connotes Middle Eastern foods that are far less familiar to mainstream consumers.

What all these have in common, though, is the heavy use of olive oil. A current favorite among nutritionists because it is high in monounsaturated fats, olive oil has become familiar to most Americans. Therefore, Voltz points out, "It's not considered eccentric."

Whatever trend captivates the American palate next, food designers should not underestimate the difficulty of translating the restaurant version successfully. As readers of Food Product Design's "Flavor Prints" column can attest, an authentic profile can be complex, and ingredient costs or processing methods could preclude an exact reproduction.

Nor should food designers ignore the challenge of achieving mass appeal while maintaining at least some degree of authenticity. With taste turning up as the consumer's number-one priority in survey after survey, failing to find the right balance in translating trends for a mainstream audience would doom the new product before it hits the supermarket shelf.

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