From a tray of Jordanian baklava, I pick up a small cluster of phyllo pastry, honey and pistachios. The tiny sweet is still moist after being carted halfway around the world. Chewing, I ask the woman at the booth if they’re available in Canada. No, she says, eyes downcast. They’re here looking for a distributor. Al Nejmah Sweets sells in the USA, Europe and in Gulf states. But not here.
Like hundreds of other delegations carrying thousands of other products — Turkish licorice; cattle bits from Shanxi, China; Spanish chips flavoured with truffle, caviar and sparkling wine — they’re here at SIAL, a food industry trade show held recently in Toronto, to find a foothold in the Canadian market.
Some, like the European countries that dominate the display floor with huge, central booths, have visitors queuing up for food samples, sales reps constantly locked in conversation with potential buyers. The Spanish pavilion employees can’t slice Iberico ham fast enough.
It’s around the perimeter that I find the booth from Jordan, along with smaller-market countries like Sri Lanka, ignored by the crowds. But while they are on the periphery, quite literally, at this event, interest in these products is growing.
Inside a cozy conference room, while 100 marketing executives furiously scribble notes, food mogul Vikram Vij, his branded boil-in-a-bag curries displayed on a screen behind him, delivers a keynote on the subject that feels somewhat like a Denzel Washington motivational speech. “Cuisines are like a river,” says Vij. “They should constantly move. If they don’t, they become stagnant.”
It’s slightly off-message for the theme of the panel, “Authenticity in Multiculturalism,” for Vij to stake out a pro-fusion position. But it’s also realistic. No cuisine stays 100 per cent the same after traveling around the world, or even one town over.
Historically, the question of marketing “ethnic” food has been a matter of appealing to white consumers seeking to expand their culinary horizons (or at least feel like they are). What’s changing is both that the creators and curators of these products come from the cultures whose food they are promoting, and that new generations of immigrants are seeking genuine, and not just branded, authenticity.
“The customer wants authentic,” says Mubashir Jamal, senior category director of multicultural merchandising for Loblaws. If it’s authentic, it’ll go mainstream.”
Jamal is part of a panel discussion at the conference on this issue, along with Ravi Maharaj (ethnic category manager for Sobeys); Chris Yu (category manager for Galleria Supermarket); Salima Jivraj (account director for Nourish Food Marketing); and B.K. Sethi (a wholesaler and marketer of imported food products).
- Chasing authenticity at the dinner table
- The trouble with political correctness
- The Agenda: The trouble with cultural appropriation
- The Agenda: Someone else’s recipe book
Supermarkets don’t just randomly select products and put them on the shelves. They have category managers, like produce, baked goods, frozen meals, meat, cereal, and so forth. Ethnic is a category. And according to Maharaj, it’s growing, with places like Pickering, Ajax and Whitby seeing an expansion of their Caribbean, African, South Asian, and Southeast Asian populations.
The experts on stage say they customize product allotments for a small catchment area, no more than 2 or 3 kilometres from each store. “We are only concerned with segmenting the consumer,” says Sethi.
A new generation of immigrants to Canada has more money and education, he adds, and doesn’t need to be pandered to. “The young generation expects more,” adds Jivraj. “It doesn’t need to have stars or mosques on the package. We don’t need that anymore. It’s not enough to focus on Asian or South Asian. That can mean so many different subcultures.”
The short answer to the question of how new international products arrive on the shelves of major supermarket is: they don’t. Not directly. They need to get carried by wholesalers of imported foods, who also distribute to smaller supermarkets, and then pitch new products to the majors based on what is selling down-market.
The general consensus is that social media and food service drives interest in new foods. Chefs see and taste new ideas. They adapt ingredients, dishes, and methods into their repertoire. And then these things take off on Instagram. Just five or 10 years ago, you’d have to eat in someone’s restaurant to see what they’re doing. Now, fads and trends spread from chef to chef much quicker. When other chefs see new ideas, they ask their distributors for ingredients they’ve never encountered before. Then the chain restaurants, reading trend reports, borrow from the independent chefs. Eventually it hits the mass market consumer.
At the end of this line is the chicken teriyaki sandwich at Subway, which once upon a time would have been considered exotic. Although 100 years ago, garlic would have been in the ethnic aisle. But more and more, customers are short-circuiting this chain. They’re getting excited about cuisines and searching them out in real time.
At Galleria, a primarily Korean supermarket, sales from non-Koreans have doubled in the last three years, according to Yu. The Halal Food Festival, which Jivraj helps organize, keeps seeing growth in its non-Muslim audience.
“Ethnic is our base,” says Sethi. “Mainstream is our target.”
Photo courtesy of Lisa Norwood and licensed for commercial use under a Creative Commons licence. (See the uncropped version.)
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