Every ethnic product in America goes through a continuum,” explains Howard Eirinberg, president of Kronos Foods Inc., Glendale Heights, Ill. The first step in this journey for many ethnic and international products is as a specialty stock-keeping unit (SKU) that appeals only to specific groups. As it gains popularity among specialty food shoppers, online communities and eventually “foodies,” the product can grow into a brand that appeals to a broad audience.

“Hummus is a great example of that,” Eirinberg continues. “Eight years ago, most Americans didn’t know what hummus was. Today, it has made its way to the masses as a delicious dip and spread. [Annual] retail sales are more than $450 million.”

The good news for manufacturers is that the popularity of ethnic and international snacks as a whole—not just hummus—is on the rise. “Ethnic foods are popping up in traditional grocery stores throughout the U.S.,” agrees Peter Cokinos, general manager at Grecian Delight Foods Inc., Elk Grove Village, Ill., maker of a wide variety of flatbreads, hummus and other foods. “Even conventional options are embracing ethnic flavors for new product line extensions.”

Bakers and snack manufacturers need look no further than the chip aisle: Lay’s Sriracha-flavored potato chips are proof that the international flavor profile has hit the mainstream.


A portal to the exciting


Food manufacturers cite a number of reasons why ethnic foods are experiencing a popularity boost. The first lies with the shifting palette and growing buying power of Millennials. “Millennials love food, and their passionate interest is led by their desire to understand where foods are from, how to prepare them and how to serve them,” Eirinberg explains, adding that this group will represent 19% of the population by 2020.

Because ethnic foods offer unique origins, marketers will find success appealing to the hungry minds of Millennials, who are enticed by the traditions of international products. By their very nature, ethnic foods often boast unfamiliar flavor profiles, tapping into to Millennials’ desire for excitement.

“Ethnic foods offer a portal into flavors of a world that is not known by everyone,” agrees Deepak Kanda, president of Punjabi Popcorn, Old Bridge, N.J. “Shoppers are intrigued with the origin of new flavors, creating curiosity. These are all new experiences to those who are used to the same general flavors in today’s snacks.”

For Kanda, shoppers may turn to ethnic snacks as a result of boredom with their standby potato chips. “I truly believe that people are tired of the same general flavors that have become associated with snack foods, like sweet caramels with peanuts, cheese or salt-and-vinegar flavors,” he explains, noting that today’s shoppers want unpredictable flavors. “They want a love affair with something exotic and exciting instead of the same flavors they are so used to eating.”

But it’s not always about taste. According to Lonnie Williard, vice president of marketing at Mediterranean Snack, Boonton, N.J., the positive momentum around the Mediterranean diet and known health benefits associated with the Mediterranean lifestyle have increased shoppers’ interest in foods originating in that part of the world. “The interest in foods with international origins and flavors is also rooted in the availability of ingredients from the European Union that come with better-for-you attributes, as many Europeans also tend to have interest in foods that are natural, gluten-free and not genetically modified organisms  (GMO),” she adds.

The key for manufacturers is expediting the sometimes long and winding road from specialty food to mainstream mainstay. “Some consumers may be afraid to try new ethnic foods,” Cokinos warns. “Once they try the product, they often come back for more, but getting over that initial barrier is important.” Indeed, assuaging shoppers’ hesitation is the most critical step and biggest barrier, but there are a number of ways manufacturers can ensure repeat purchase by easing customers into that first purchase.


Packaging’s appeal


One sure way to catch a consumer’s eye is with packaging. For international foods, it’s important to strike a balance between appealing to a shopper’s desire for something new and exciting and looking familiar enough to ease fears about disliking a new taste. “Consumers always eat with their eyes,” stresses Cokinos. “It’s important that retail packaging showcase the food item in an approachable, familiar way. We work hard to give consumers a description that helps them understand what the products contain.”

“Our baklava trays are a great example of how packaging can set a product apart,” Eirinberg points out. Especially in an unfamiliar category, shoppers find comfort in seeing a treat through a transparent film window on the package lid. This takes the guesswork out of wondering what a new product will look like, while simultaneously showcasing its strengths.

“Each of our baklava trays features a variety of baklava pieces and types,” Eirinberg explains. “They’re all handmade and hand-loaded. The presentation sells the product at retail, and the taste is what brings the consumer back for more.”

Another way packaging can appeal to new shoppers is by harnessing familiar trends, as Grecian Delight Foods has successfully done. For example, Cokinos explains that a package might call out that the naan bread inside is made with Greek yogurt, to appeal to those followers of that trend, while Skinny Buns’ packaging might highlight that the product has “only 90 calories.”

Mediterranean Snacks’ tapaz2go also has found great success in harnessing a trend for use in packaging. Leveraging the popularity of tapas, tapaz2go provides shelf-stable, on-the-go snacking with international ingredients and convenient packaging. “We recognized that our Lentil Crackers pair perfectly with hummus and wanted to tap into the interest in global culinary trends, such as small-bite tapas,” explains Williard. “The differentiated mini-meal package structure sets us apart, as the carton opens and flips over to become a no-mess serving tray.”

Minimizing risks at retail

“When people go to a restaurant, they order the same thing every time for the same reason: Fear of disappointment,” Cokinos says. Ethnic baked goods and snack food manufacturers run the same risk of losing shoppers to the familiar (and sometimes cheaper) options on the shelf. Manufacturers would be wise to work with retailers on ways to head off shopper hesitation in-store and grow everyone’s bottom line in the process.

Shoppers’ unfamiliarity with an international product’s flavor might cause them to pause at the register. Bakers and snack producers can nip this hesitation in the bud by encouraging sampling at retail. “It’s increasingly difficult to market our product without potential consumers taste testing,” Kanda says, noting that Punjabi Popcorn’s flavor varieties include Spicy Curry; Desi Mirch; and X-tra Hot Desi Mirch, which tap into the current spicy trend.

But they also might scare off more conservative palettes. “We need to allow consumers to taste our product prior to purchasing, so we can allow them to have a group or an individual experience,” he adds.

For Kanda, price is also a barrier, because international spices can be difficult to source and often carry a higher price tag than their conventional or domestic counterparts. A positive sampling experience might be the difference between a shopper who’s willing to pay for quality and uniqueness, and one who is turned off by price.

When sampling isn’t an option, manufacturers can assuage shopper hesitation with a sale or coupon, if possible. “The price point needs to be set at a level to reduce the risk associated with buying something new,” Cokinos states. “By offering coupons or promotions, consumers are more likely to take a chance on an item they’ve never tried.”

Kronos Foods takes a different approach with its riskier SKUs: It waits until a product begins to appeal to consumers before it enters the retail market, therefore eliminating altogether the issue of unfamiliarity. “For example, we introduced Chicken Shawarma [a preparation in which the meat is placed on a spit and grilled for an extended period] to Costco stores once American consumers had become familiar with the product,” explains Eirinberg, who waited until several Mediterranean chains formed in the U.S., and offered shawarma on the menu. “Thus, we don’t market specialty ethnic products. We wait until they begin to catch on in the U.S. and then introduce them through retailers that like to be on the cutting edge.”