These days, talk of food trends invariably turns south – as in Argentina, Brazil and Peru. South American cuisine is on nearly everyone's list of the hottest foods to watch, with the region's produce gaining particular attention.
Earlier this year, Chicago-based research and consulting firm Technomic called South America "the next frontier." Restaurant-goers who've long favored Mexican food will be seeking out new Latin flavor experiences from countries like Brazil and Argentina, the firm predicted.
South American fruits and vegetables are unmistakably at the heart of this heightened interest in Latin flavors. NBCLatino, which reported "6 Latin Food Trends for 2013," says people will be savoring the sour flavors of passion fruit, tamarind and lime. It also sees health-conscious younger Hispanics looking for traditional superfoods like nopales (a dish made from prickly pear) and chayote squash.
The nation's love affair with fusion food, as well as a growing ethnic population, is also bringing more South American flavors and produce to the table.
|In the U.S., there's a boom in fusion restaurants that integrate tropical products into different dishes."
–Marion Tabard, Turbana Corp.
"In the U.S., there's a boom in fusion restaurants that integrate tropical products into different dishes," notes Marion Tabard, marketing director for Turbana Corp. "Taking into account the increase in Hispanic and Asian populations in the U.S., chefs are innovating and adding tropical flavors to popular dishes to invite all kind of cultures into their dining establishments."
The Coral Gables, Fla.-based produce importer recently introduced a program for its Tropicals line that's designed to help retailers capture the growing ethnic market. Turbana cites recent Nielsen data indicating that the U.S. Hispanic and Asian populations increased 47.3 percent and 51 percent, respectively, between 2000 and 2012. Nielsen expects that increase to triple by 2050.
Making this demographic all the more important to supermarkets, notes Tabard, is the frequency with which ethnic consumers cook from scratch and eat at home (four to five times per week).
To help retailers capture this home-cooking consumer's buying power, Turbana is offering a mobile application that allows retailers to log in to learn more about ethnic tropical produce, as well as the demographics for each of its market areas. Certain items in Turbana's tropical line, which includes yucca, chayote, eddoes, batata, malanga lila, calabaza, yellow yam, dry coconut, ñame, aloe vera, malanga coco and malanga blanca, will also feature QR codes linking to creative recipes.
As an independent upscale grocer, West Point Market, in Akron, Ohio, is well versed in exotic produce and gourmet ingredients. But when the economy took a nosedive, so did its customers' willingness to pay more for, say, cherimoyas versus cherries.
"Americans got a little tighter in their belts, and exotic produce was an easy thing to let go," says Produce Manager David Lukens. "As the economy picks up, we're starting to see more interest from customers wanting to try something new again."
Exotics aside, West Point is selling 50 percent to 60 percent more South American fruit than five years ago, estimates Lukens. Grapes, apples, pears, citrus, bananas and cherries from South America are all strong sellers for the grocer.
Grapes are West Point's most significant South American product. "My big thing is keeping them fresh and keeping them reasonably priced," says Lukens. "Most bags are so highly printed, so I merchandise them with the backside up to show how nice and fresh the grapes are. ... Off-season apples, early-summer Fuji and Grannies, also do really well."
Thanks to better shipping and storage practices, says Lukens, "you can't tell the difference in quality between peak-season South American fruit and peak-season fruit from the U.S."
Jason Kazmirski, produce/floral director at Northwest Grocers, in Tukwila, Wash., agrees. "The quality of products from Chile has really improved over the years, and we're definitely seeing more Chilean produce in our stores, because people are feeling more comfortable with the quality of it," he says. "Customers come back and want to buy more."
Chilean grapes are also among Kazmirski's biggest South American sellers. "Chile is doing a great job with grapes, and their season fills a nice gap in our grape program," he says. "When Chilean grapes are at peak season, they are fantastic, and there's a lot of sales to be made there."
|"When Chilean grapes are at peak season, they are fantastic, and there's a lot of sales to be made there."
–Jason Kazmirski, Northwest Grocers
Color From Chile
In addition to quality, Kazmirski is excited about the welcome color break that Chilean produce provides in the dead of winter. Last year, Northwest Grocers ran a blueberry display contest with the help of the Chilean Fresh Fruit Association and invited all of its stores to participate.
"We wanted to create something exciting in January and February, when you feel like you've been doing nothing but citrus for months," explains Kazmirski. "The promotion helped drive sales for our stores and the product itself. It was a win-win."
"U.S. per capita consumption of blueberries has more than doubled since 2005, and consumption continues to grow," says Karen Brux, managing director of the Sonoma, Calif.-based Chilean Fresh Fruit Association. "The availability of Chilean blueberries from November through March enables consumers to enjoy blueberries 12 months a year and contributes significantly to category growth."
In the summer, citrus is a novelty, so Northwest Grocers recently decided to run a similar display contest among its stores that was tied to Chilean citrus. "It gets the produce managers involved, and then they use their creativity and tell the story about the product," notes Kazmirski.
Monumental Avocado Introduction
It's no secret that avocados have experienced explosive growth in the past decade. According to the Hass Avocado Board, in Irvine, Calif., Hass avocados – which represent more than 94 percent of the U.S. avocado market – accounted for $1.4 billion in 2012 retail dollars.
Unprecedented demand for this lusciously textured fruit has caught the attention of Peru, which just happens to cultivate Hass avocados. "The U.S. market is growing from all suppliers cementing consumption of avocados. In some months, demand is higher than supply," says Xavier Equihua, CEO of the Peruvian Avocado Commission (PAC).
Washington, D.C.-based PAC made its foray into the U.S. avocado market with the "Monumental Taste" campaign in 2012, and is planning to increase its market presence substantially in 2014.
The campaign included demos at more than half of Costco's locations, promotions with Stop & Shop and Giant, and radio tags with Walmart, the last of which represented a first for the avocado category, notes Equihua.
Future promotional efforts are expected to include a new website slated to debut in May/June 2014 at the start of the Peruvian avocado season, which typically runs from June to September.