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Detroit Free Press

Bountiful: The Hispanic Food Market Booms, Putting Variety On America's Table


April 29, 2003
Copyright © 2003
Detroit Free Press. All rights reserved. 

American cookery simmers in diversity, and Hispanic influences are bubbling to the top of the pot.

Chorizo, guacamole and cilantro are all permanent fixtures in the new lexicon of Continental cuisine. And now joining them on many a crowded plate or store shelf are culinary cousins like menudo, tamales, ceviches -- and the list goes on.

Over the last decade, attracting the Hispanic market has become an obsession for national and international food suppliers. A onetime small niche, Hispanic consumers now wield the numbers and the economic bang to get major manufacturers like Kraft Foods to create uniquely Latino products such as Mayonesa con Limon and Mandarina Tangerine Kool-Aid.

Shifting demographics have much to do with it. Led by Mexican immigrants, Hispanics are now the nation's largest minority group -- surpassing the nation's 34.7 million African Americans with 35.3 million people, according to Census 2000 data. That's 1 in every 8 people in America.

Add to that consumer buying power of around $572 billion in 2001, up from $308 billion in 1990, and Hispanics have become key to the food industry.

Given the increasing buying power of Hispanics, food sellers are scrambling to come up with products and marketing methods that are more attractive to a largely Spanish-speaking market.

Food advertisers and retailers are going out of their way to find Spanish tie-ins for their products to grow profit margins. It is now standard fare for grocery stores to have in-store sampling of Hispanic products regularly. Grocery stores like Kroger take out large ads in newspapers, trumpeting their growing rosters of Hispanic products on Latino holidays like the upcoming Cinco de Mayo. "Most of the large retailers are starting to wake up to the fact of changing demographics," says David Morse, president of the Cultural Access Group of Los Angeles, a multicultural market research and consulting firm. "The ones that are really successful take a holistic approach. They have the bilingual signage; they have bilingual employees; they have the right foods and brands. They are able to create a store that feels comfortable."

FMI is a Washington, D.C., trade group representing food retailers and wholesalers. According to FMI statistics, Hispanic consumers shop in supermarkets more often than other groups and spend more money. A primary reason is that they prepare more meals at home, and meals are a large part of the culture.

"Food shopping is a big deal for Latinos," Morse says. "It is largely done on the weekend, and is a family affair."

That translates to more fresh produce, meats and cheeses in grocery stores, and bilingual labeling on products.

Perhaps the biggest beneficiary of the shift in tastes over the last two decades is Goya Foods Inc. Nearly 70 years after the business began, the Secaucus, N.J., company is the largest Hispanic-owned food retailer in the nation, recording sales of $750 million in 2002.

Goya offers more than 1,000 products that satisfy the diverse palate of Mexican, Argentine, Peruvian, Cuban and Iberian eaters. Following in their footsteps, companies like Polar foods -- carried locally at Meijer, Kroger and Farmer Jack -- are putting bilingual labels on all their foods.

Major grocery store chains are also looking specifically to Latino tastes in some markets, with the hope of one day launching ethnic food stores. "The big pattern now is retailers like Albertsons Inc. and Minyards Food Stores are developing concepts that are totally Hispanic,"says Todd Hultquist, a spokesperson for the FMI.

Though not as significant as states in the Northeast and the Southwest, Michigan is playing an important role in the expansion of the Hispanic foods market, in large part due to steady growth in immigration from Mexico and other Spanish-speaking countries.

Places like southwest Detroit, Pontiac and Grand Rapids are boasting mushrooming growth of Pan-Latino restaurants. In Detroit, Agave Restaurant on Woodward Avenue is part of the new wave of cosmopolitan Hispanic-themed restaurants that are popping up around the country.

As food suppliers reach out, the public's embrace of Hispanic foods gets more passionate.

It's taken more than 50 years for tortillas and salsa to travel from the ethnic food section to the center shelves to sit along side ketchup and Wonder Bread at most supermarkets. But in that time, Hispanic foods have made great strides to become major players in America's mainstream menu.

People from the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Cuba, Nicaragua and Haiti can find their mofongo, plantains, cassava and other foods from their respective homelands in many more grocery stores and on an increasing number of restaurant menus than a decade ago.

When you have American icons such as Denny's, International House of Pancakes and Big Boy restaurants offering Mexican Fiesta Omelettes and other Tex-Mex standards as part of their "classic" menus, you know Hispanic foods have arrived.

"Today, a product like tortillas is as common as a loaf of bread to many younger folks," says Richard Gutierrez, co-owner of Hacienda Mexican Foods, one of several Detroit-based corn and flour tortillas manufacturers. "I mean, kids use them for everything, including peanut butter and jelly sandwiches or ham and cheese on tortillas."

Gutierrez boasts a diverse client list, including local restaurants such as Agave and Union Street, also on Woodward, and E&L Grocery Supermarket on Vernor, as well as supplying McDonald's franchises in Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania.

"Hispanic food has gone global now," Gutierrez says. "I mean you've got companies in Asia, Europe and Australia trying to get into the game now. Hispanic foods are definitely here to stay."

Hispanic food products have become such common ingredients in the nation's culinary grab-bag that you'll often find Spanish products listed in English-language dictionaries.

It's no surprise, says Aaron Sanchez, a New York chef and host of the Food Network's "Melting Pots."

"When people think of Latin culture, they think of color and passion and spice, and people are drawn to that," he says. "Those same principles apply to the food, and that's part of the reason Latin food has become so popular."

Sanchez, author of the new cookbook "La Comida del Barrio: Latin-American Cooking in the U.S.A." (Clarkson N. Potter, due out May 6) has been spreading the news of Latino food for years. Latino foods have turned into American foods, he says.

Norma Abundis-Eshaki, manager of La Jalisciense Tortilla Factory on Bagley in southwest Detroit, sums it up:

"Now the market for Latino food isn't strictly Hispanic . . . it's everyone. Everyone is eating hotsauce and salsa."

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