The Marriage of Convenience with Culture

Dec 09, 2004

By Thomas Tseng

A new market report, “The U.S. Market for Hispanic Foods and Beverages” by Packaged Facts, powerfully demonstrates the convergence between two parallel trends going on right now in the food industry: the continuing drive for convenience and the growing demand for bolder ethnic flavors. According to the study, sales of mainstream Mexican and authentic Hispanic convenience foods have more than doubled over the past five years — climbing from just under $250 million in 1999 to $505 million in 2004.

In contrast to conventional ethnic marketing wisdom, which holds that meal preparation from scratch is the norm among immigrant groups, a great deal of this growth is being driven by Hispanic consumers — many of whom are increasingly seeking efficient meal solutions to alleviate cooking burdens. This can only be attributed to acculturation. As U.S. Hispanic consumers acculturate, the demand for expediency increasingly plays a prominent role in their kitchen and at their dinner table.

But despite this greater push towards convenience, it’s apparent that Hispanic consumers are unwilling to completely sacrifice their food or flavors to accommodate a busier, frenetic lifestyle. While the daily pace of life may change, the demands of the palate do not. Frozen pizzas and chicken pot pie TV dinners simply will not do for the vast majority of these consumers. As a result, one is now equally likely to find canned menudo and packaged salsa next to the Kraft cheese in the cabinets and refrigerators of Hispanic households.

But perhaps of greater significance is that the biggest proportion of growth among Hispanic convenience foods is being fueled not by Hispanics, but by the general U.S. population. Increasingly, the crossover appeal of Hispanic foods is reaching its way across the nation as a whole. Says Don Montouri, Acquisitions Editor for Packaged Facts:

“Hispanic on the run — from pseudo Mexican creations such as breakfast burritos to more authentic items such as Salvadoran papusas – appeals to our changing national tastebuds, populace and demand for convenience. If you consider the fact that nearly 90% of tweens told researchers that quesadillas are an ‘everyday food,’ it’s not wonder that Hispanic cuisine is poised to eclipse Chinese as the favorite foreign food for Americans.”

Moderator’s Comment: Will the introduction of more convenient forms of ethnic food lead to much quicker adoption
with mainstream consumers?

Just like pizza, spaghetti, beef stroganoff, and a whole litany of culinary forebears before it that now comprise “American” food today, “Hispanic” foods
(and others including Chinese food) are making their inevitable headway into the mainstream gastronomy. In particular, Mexican food and its variants — whose ubiquitous restaurants
and food chains now dot the landscape of nearly every single American city corner and suburban strip mall — is now simply another meal option, not a distinct ethnic category.

Increasingly, ethnic food categories are dissolving or will gradually lose their root meaning as well. Once that happens, formerly Mexican fare like Chicken
Mole and Tortilla Soup will likely become as American as, well, apple pie.

Thomas Tseng – Moderator

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