American Regional Cuisines Make Their Way Across the Pond

March 12, 2013

The U.S. is home to numerous regional cuisines that are often thought of as “ethnic” by U.K. consumers. Among these are Creole, Tex-Mex and regional American barbecue—three American specialities that are all gaining traction in the U.K.

Technomic’s recent U.K. Ethnic Food & Beverage Consumer Trend Report found that more than four out of five consumers see Creole cuisine as “ethnic.” Louisiana’s Creole cuisine—dubbed “city cooking” in New Orleans—has its refined French roots. It’s a rich, indulgent style of cooking that incorporates plenty of butter, cream and tomatoes. Most consumers who think Creole is ethnic consider it to be an emerging ethnic cuisine.

More than seven out of 10 U.K. consumers see Tex-Mex fare as “ethnic.” Tex-Mex is Americanised Mexican cuisine, a twist on traditional Mexican fare. More than half of consumers consider Tex-Mex to be mainstream.

And one-third of consumers consider American cuisine to be “ethnic.” Familiar American staples include hot dogs, burgers, fried chicken and deli sandwiches. The vast majority of consumers who identify American fare as “ethnic” say it is mainstream.

ethnic_cuisine

Base: 1,000 consumers aged 18+
Percentages may not equal cumulative percentage due to rounding
Percentages do not add up to 100%. The remaining percentage of consumers do not consider the cuisine to be ethnic.
Source: The U.K. Ethnic Food & Beverage Consumer Trend Report, Technomic Inc., 2012

The United States is a melting pot of ethnicities. The foods Americans eat are deeply influenced by a vast mix of global cultures and traditions as divergent as European, Native American, Asian and West African, which have come together over centuries to represent something distinctly American. Different cooking styles abound from state to state, such as the regional barbecue methods that span the country. Other distinctive regional American influences are found in Creole cuisine as well as Tex-Mex fare. The following sections look at each of these cuisines and their influence on U.K. menus.

Creole Flavors Rose from the South

Born in the southern state of Louisiana, Creole cuisine is perhaps the first ethnic-fusion cuisine apparent in the United States. Creole cuisine combines Native American, French, Spanish, African, Caribbean, German and Italian influences. Certain elements of this cooking style reflect its refined French roots, resulting in rich and indulgent menu items that often incorporate butter, cream and tomatoes. A variation on this sophisticated cuisine is spicy country-style Cajun, also from Louisiana.

Once beloved only by those living in Louisiana and other parts of the South, Creole foods like gumbo (a traditional roux-based stew), jambalaya (a melange of rice, sausage, chicken and seafood, similar to Spanish paella) and étouffée (a thick and spicy stew served over white rice) now appear widely on restaurant-chain menus across the United States. So do traditional Cajun cooking methods and seasonings, like blackened proteins (meat, chicken or seafood that is heavily crusted with spices and cooked) and spice-rubbed barbecued meats.

The vast majority of American consumers consider these home-grown cuisines to be ethnic. Survey responses for Technomic’s U.S. Ethnic Food & Beverage Consumer Trend Report showed that 86% thought of Creole and Cajun cuisines as ethnic.

Louisiana-style regional American cuisine has a tiny niche on restaurant-chain menus in the U.K., suggesting that these cuisines may have room to grow on menus. According to MenuMonitor, Technomic’s exclusive menu database, most of these Louisiana-style items on U.K. menus simply call for Creole or Cajun spices incorporated as a rub for chicken or shrimp, a seasoning for burgers, a flavour for batter or breading, or an accent to mayonnaise or another condiment.

Going forward, the trends for regional Louisiana cuisine will include more experimentation by restaurant chefs in order to showcase not just spice blends, but actual Creole and Cajun specialities. Here are two examples of classic Louisiana-style main courses as seen on the menus of major restaurant chains:

  • Creole Gumbo—served with garlic bread (Bodean’s)
  • Louisiana Cajun Jambalaya—chicken, spicy chorizo, crayfish and rice, in an authentic Creole sauce with mushrooms, onions and tomatoes (Smollensky Bar & Grill)

Tex-Mex: Americanised Mexican

Another distinctive ethnic cuisine in the United States is Tex-Mex, which melds Mexican culinary traditions with the food ingredients and preparations of the Southwestern United States—specifically, the state of Texas. Sprung from the ranching culture of southern Texas and northern Mexico, Tex-Mex fare originated among Tejanos—Texans of Mexican descent. Traditional Mexican ways of cooking were incorporated with North American food products (such as yellow cheeses) that were affordable and readily available, leading to a blended cuisine that has become known as Tex-Mex or Southwestern.

Today, popular Tex-Mex foods include chilli con carne (diced or ground beef with chillies or chilli powder), fajitas (marinated, grilled steak or chicken, cut into strips and served with warm flour tortillas, grilled onions and peppers for diners to assemble into wraps) and nachos—crisp tortilla chips topped with melted cheese (typically cheddar), chopped jalapeño peppers and assorted components ranging from seasoned meat to tomatoes, lettuce and sour cream.

Tex-Mex preparations and flavours have thrived for decades in the U.S., and there are signs that this regional American cuisine has established itself as a menu favourite in the U.K. in recent years. For example, fajitas and nachos are fixtures on many full-service casual-dining menus, and there are even major chains in the U.K. that directly position menu offerings as “Tex-Mex.”

  • Artisserie offers Tex-Mex Chicken Soup
  • Hungry Horse offers a signature Tex-Mex Burger, as well as a Tex-Mex Combo, featuring ribs and chicken
  • Pizza GoGo offers a Tex-Mex starter sampler
  • Wacky Warehouse’s Tex-Mex Criss Cross Fries are topped with guacamole, Heinz tomato salsa and sour cream

American Barbecue Is Deeply Regionalised

In the U.S., barbecue (including smoked pork, beef, chicken, sausages and other proteins—and all of its sauces and accompaniments) is a regionalised cuisine. Ask Americans in one part of the U.S. to describe their favourite barbecue meal, and the answer will differ widely from that of Americans in another part of the country. The Southern-style barbecue in Memphis, Tennessee, differs from a style of barbecue that is beloved in the Midwestern city of St. Louis, which in turn will differ from the barbecue style and barbecue sauces that are traditional in Texas.

Promoting quality and skill of preparation for regional barbecue is a solid trend on North American restaurant menus. There are signs that both brick-and-mortar restaurants and food-truck operators in the U.K. are beginning to underscore regional differences in American barbecue as well. Regionalising barbecue means successfully executing the culinary nuances between “dry” (spice-rubbed, served with no sauce) and “wet” (drenched in barbecue sauce) barbecued meats, as well as distinguishing between sauces—from the thick, molasses-based, sticky barbecue sauces of St. Louis or Kansas City to the thinner, mustard- and vinegar-based sauces of the coastal Carolinas.

For most U.K. operators attempting to operate within this sphere, it is enough at the moment to simply position American barbecue offerings as “Southern,” while also playing up the decidedly British love of roast meat preparations. This positioning works for Pitt Cue, the Southern-inspired barbecue concept that first built a customer base off its food-truck operation before launching a standalone restaurant venture. Pitt Cue offers a British take on Southern-style American barbecue. “Our food is inspired by the Southern United States of America, but as Brits we love to make things our own,” the chain’s website proclaims. “We make all our own sauces and rubs and our meat is cooked low and slow, smoked in-house and finished over charcoal. Our produce is British, ethically sourced, and our menu changes with the British seasons.”

Here are a few examples of mainstream U.K. restaurant chains that are trying to emphasise regional qualities for American-style barbecue in order to build the perception of quality:

  • Bodean’s signature pulled pork shoulder is accompanied by a Carolina-style barbecue sauce
  • Miller & Carter’s St. Louis Ribs are served with an “authentic American barbecue sauce”
  • Tavern Table offers a Memphis Cherry BBQ sauce as a barbecue accent to various items, including rotisserie chicken

Key Takeaway

Consumer interest in and demand for ethnic foods at restaurants and other foodservice locations is on the rise. For operators seeking to differentiate their menus through globally influenced offerings to gain an increased share of consumers’ foodservice spending, American regional cuisines can be a flavourful tool in their arsenal.

Darren Tristano is Senior Managing Director of Technomic Inc., a Chicago-based foodservice consultancy and research firm. Since 1993, he has led the development of Technomic’s Information Services division and directed multiple aspects of the firm’s operations. For more information, visit http://www.technomic.com.


Hot & Healthy; On the Menu: Chipotle Teaming Up with Oakland Tofu Company for a New Veggie Dish in Selected Markets

March 6, 2013

It’s an unlikely union: tofu and Mexican fast food. But a restaurant chain known for burritos the size of footballs and nighttime crowds of college students has teamed up with a small Oakland tofu company to use the vegetarian-friendly Bay Area as a testing ground for a new menu and image.

Starting Tuesday, Chipotle will add a new vegan burrito filler made with tofu from Oakland’s Hodo Soy to the menu at seven Bay Area restaurants. If diners approve, Chipotle says it will add the tofu dish, called Sofritas, to restaurants across the country, part of the company’s efforts to hone its reputation as healthier and more earth-friendly than its fast-food competitors. That move could also catapult Hodo Soy from a locally grown, 30-or-so-employee company into a major supplier for one of the country’s most popular quick-serve food chains.

But for Hodo Soy founder and chief executive officer Minh Tsai, the thrill of the new partnership is more about the opportunity to change tofu’s bad rap than the potential sales boost. He’s on a mission to demonstrate that tofu can taste better than the mushy, tasteless white cubes that gather dust on supermarket shelves.

“The win here is people will be exposed to tofu like they’ve never been,” said Tsai, 42, who models his recipe on the tofu he grew up eating in Vietnam.

But before Hodo Soy can change the minds of tofu skeptics everywhere, Bay Area vegetarians first have to approve of Chipotle’s new dish, which will compete with the likes of San Francisco’s Gracias Madre and Berkeley’s Flacos, popular vegan Mexican eateries, and dozens of veg-friendly taquerias in San Francisco’s Mission District — the very place Chipotle co-CEO Steve Ells began his culinary career. Chipotle will track sales for several weeks, but expectations are high.

The San Francisco Vegetarian Society has given Chipotle’s idea a thumbs ups, and the Maryland-based Vegetarian Resource Group, predicts the new dish will be a hit. John Cunningham, consumer research manager for the resource group, said Chipotle already has a loyal following of vegetarian customers who order meat-free versions of its tacos and burritos. The restaurant was hailed as the No. 1 choice among vegetarians for quick-serve food in a survey by Vegetarian Resource Group, which educates the public about vegetarianism.

It may not be the totem of health food — its chicken burrito has been named among the 20 worst foods in America for its high calorie and fat content — but Chipotle is a popular hangout and lunch spot for college students and millennials, among whom vegetarianism is most popular.

“This provides the type of alternatives” that vegans and vegetarians want, said Darren Tristano, executive vice president for Technomic, which studies food industry trends.

Chipotle joins a growing number of restaurants adding vegetarian and vegan items to their menu. Burger King has added a veggie burger, Subway tested vegan sandwiches and Smashburger won praise for its black bean burger. With more people going meat free, Cunningham said, restaurants without a veggie option are bound to lose business.

This isn’t Chipotle’s first try at pleasing the meatless crowd — it tested a vegan burrito a few years ago that was pulled from menus after even the company agreed it didn’t taste so good. The Bay Area is the obvious place for Denver-based Chipotle to try again.

“They’re definitely looking at a market with high concentration of vegan and vegetarian eaters,” said Angelica Pappas with the California Restaurant Association. “That’s smart. They’re going to see right away if there’s a demand for what they’re serving up.”

And the Bay Area sits conveniently between other prime vegetarian and vegan markets — Southern California, Portland and Seattle. If Chipotle passes muster in San Francisco, it likely will appeal too broader West Coast demographic, Tristano said

But don’t expect Chipotle to be the next vegan mecca. The company has made strides to debunk its image as just another fast-food restaurant — McDonald’s was its largest investor until 2006 — but it hasn’t been a smooth transition. Chipotle outraged vegetarians a couple years ago after customers discovered pork was added to a bean dish that had been passed off as vegetarian, and its 1,000-plus calorie burritos are shunned by some as worse for the waistline than a Big Mac.

“They’re moving in the right direction, but I don’t think most consumers think of them as healthy,” Tristano said. “Their target audience is still going to be a young male looking to a one and a quarter pound burrito packed with chicken and steak.”


Growing Taste for Mediterranean

March 5, 2013

Inside a refurbished two-story warehouse in Paterson’s down-at-the-heels Bunker Hill area, a homegrown company is riding the nation’s wave of enthusiasm for Mediterranean cuisine.

Workers dressed in white overalls operated a mechanized production line Wednesday morning, mixing, cutting and shaping fillo — a paper-thin dough made by Kontos Foods that is used to make Greek or Middle Eastern pastries.

The production line, which was opened about a month ago, is the latest move in a steady expansion by family-owned Kontos, which in recent years has included buying its leased manufacturing and distribution facility, expanding the building and buying another one to house the fillo dough operation.

The projects were backed by the New Jersey Economic Development Authority, which issued bonds that were acquired by TD Bank. The two property acquisitions, the purchase of machinery and equipment, and related expenses cost $11.5 million, according to EDA records.

And despite the fact that the company added a second floor to double the size of the latest acquisition to 45,000 square feet, the expansion is still not enough, said Warren Stoll, the company’s marketing director.

“This was pretty much maxed out the day we started,” said Stoll, as he showed off the refurbished building with Steve Kontos, company vice president and a co-founder.

“We are working 24 hours a day to fill orders for Singapore, Taiwan, Korea and China,” Kontos said. He said the company added a second floor to the building, rather than develop the parking lot, so that it would still have space to expand there in the future.

The company was started in 1987 by Kontos and his father, Evris, at the time making pita bread. It now has 200 employees, 10 of whom were added when the new facility was opened. And the product line has since expanded to include 50 bread products, as well as yogurts, crepes, wraps and other items sold nationwide through retail outlets and to restaurants and hotels.

While the expansion is driven in part by growing name recognition for Kontos products, another key factor is the rising interest among American consumers in Mediterranean foods, Stoll said.

Darren Tristano, executive vice president for Technomic, a Chicago-based food industry research company, said the increased interest in Mediterranean foods can be seen in the rise of Greek-concept franchises, such as Little Greek and Hungry Greek in Florida, and the Garbanzo Mediterranean Grill chain, which is soon to open a restaurant in Florham Park. In New Jersey, the It’s Greek to Me chain now has 10 restaurants, six of them in Bergen or Passaic counties.

“The second important indicator is the health and wellness trend,” in which Mediterranean food is perceived by consumers to be healthy, Tristano said. “These Mediterranean-style foods are designed for healthfulness, for lower calorie counts and are generally fresh in nature.”


Biggby’s Big Gulp: Metro Detroit Plan is Litmus Test for U.S.

March 4, 2013

AR-302179975.jpg&MaxW=290The executive team behind Biggby Coffee wants to turn the Lansing-based chain into a national brand. But first, they say, the company has to dominate Southeast Michigan.

The company looks to open 136 Biggby Coffee shops in metro Detroit by the end of 2015, bringing its total store count in the area to 150.

President Mike McFall and CEO Bob Fish of Global Orange Development LLC, which operates as Biggby Coffee, said mastering metro Detroit is a litmus test to see whether the company can dominate a larger market.

“Metro Detroit is going to get every ounce of effort we have,” McFall said. “We are not spreading resources over seven states. Rather, four or five counties.”

Biggby has a strong presence in Kalamazoo, Lansing and Grand Rapids — about one store for every 24,000 people. In metro Detroit, it looks to open one store for every 30,000 people, following a food chain market penetration model.

“I know what we can do per a given population in other areas of Michigan, and we think metro Detroit is a similar market,” McFall said.

Biggby set aside $1.1 million to spend on advertising in the metro area, McFall said, mostly through cable TV and billboards, to generate buzz about the company and attract potential new franchisees.

“We are using broad-based marketing,” he said. “We believe that by building the brand and developing and building successful units, that will, in the end, get us more franchisees.”

Biggby’s real estate strategy is different than other franchise systems. Instead of selecting sites “at the corner of Main and Main,” McFall said, the company looks for sites that are slightly off the main drag or perhaps are existing independent stores that can be converted.

The company said it has borrowed many of its expansion ideas from Subway, the sandwich giant operated by Milford, Conn.-based Doctor’s Associates Inc., that ranks as one of the world’s largest and fastest-growing franchises, according to Forbes.com.

In fact, McFall said, Subway has been trying to acquire both Global Orange Development and Global Orange LLC, a separate entity created to own the intellectual property, but neither party could agree to terms for a sale.

He said a 2006 conversation between himself, Fish and Fred DeLuca, co-founder of Subway, changed Biggby’s business plan.

“Fred is an advocate on focusing on one thing or the other, either being a franchise-based company or owning the units,” McFall said. “He told us, ‘You guys are doing both marginally.’ His position was to make sure we chose to be one or other.”

Fish and McFall listened. In 2006, they sold nine company-owned Biggby stores to focus on franchising. Delivery and roasting also are outsourced; Biggby uses Lansing-based Paramount Coffee Co. to roast its beans.

“The idea behind selling stores was we wanted to focus on being the best franchise company we could,” McFall said. “We will get back into owning stores, but we will be franchisees of our own concept and hire an operator.”

There are 142 Biggby locations throughout the Midwest, all of which are owned and operated by franchisees. The company does not sell territories.

Systemwide sales for Biggby reached $59 million in 2012, and McFall said revenue is expected to reach $68 million in 2013.

But make no mistake: The goal for Biggby is turn it into a national brand. “This is step one of developing a much bigger company,” McFall said.

Alan Liddle, managing editor of special projects for industry publication Nation’s Restaurant News, said Biggby has a shot at reaching its goal of opening 136 stores in two years if it finds the right franchisees and sites.

“It’s ambitious, but if the stores are small and don’t require a great amount of capital, it could happen,” he said.

Potential franchisees are required to have $70,000 in liquid assets and a total available credit line of $250,000, which covers the entire cost of opening a franchise, from equipment, furniture and outdoor signs to inventory. A common target for potential franchisees are empty-nester couples where one spouse can focus on the coffee business while the other earns money from an existing job.

The average Biggby coffee shop is 1,400-1,500 square feet. Franchisees pay 5 percent of total sales in royalties to Global Orange Development and an additional 2.5 percent is used for advertising.

“And if you have a system which relies on franchisees to do the leg work, then you are cutting down on resources you need to open 136 stores.” said Liddle, adding that Subway has been successful using that model.

But there is a downside, too.

“As a franchisee, you wonder if the company is as invested in each store,” he said.

Biggby isn’t the only coffee company to see metro Detroit as a growing market.

In 2012, Oakville, Ontario-based Tim Hortons Inc. made a big push in metro Detroit. Tim Hortons opened its 130th store in metro Detroit in December 2012. The company declined to comment due to a quiet period before their fourth-quarter earnings are released Thursday.

Minneapolis-based Caribou Coffee Co. has 22 locations throughout metro Detroit.

“We are always looking to expand our footprint in our key markets,” Alfredo Martel, senior vice president of marketing and product management for Caribou Coffee, said in an email.

Darren Tristano, executive vice president of Chicago-based food industry research firm Technomic Inc., warns that coffee is becoming over-saturated and established brands like Seattle-based Starbucks Corp. are contracting.

“Coffee is very saturated today and it’s full of a lot of major brands who have strong brand recognition,” Tristano said. “And growth in individual units that are specifically serving coffee has begun to slow.”

But Tristano says there is room for growth if Biggby can keep operating costs down.

“I would say, there is room for opportunity if they can keep unit economics down,” Tristano said. “They would need to be profitable with about $400,000 in annual sales and look for nontraditional sites (like a food court, airport, hospital, university or convenience store).”

Beyond bricks and mortar, Biggby is working on a prepackaged line of coffee drinks, and has its beans in 300 grocery stores, including Costco and Sam’s Club. But McFall and Fish refuse to lose sight of their goal of becoming a national coffee chain.

In fact, McFall said Biggby has been approached by myriad businesses looking to help it expand its product offerings and retail presence in stores.

“We don’t mess around with every single idea that other people think we should do with our company,” McFall said. “There are a million ideas out there, from gift baskets to online clubs, but we are solely focused on being an extraordinarily good coffee retailer.”


Asian food companies buy O.C. factory space

March 1, 2013

Their acquisitions help nourish county’s hot industrial real estate market.

Many Orange County residents enjoy wantons, azuki-filled pastries and other Asian foods. And that’s helping to fuel a rebound in the industrial real estate market.

Even as some traditional manufacturers have closed plants and moved out of the area in recent years, a number of large Asian food companies have purchased industrial properties in Orange County to expand their local operations. Among the growing companies are CJ America Inc., the South Korean maker of Annie Chun’s packaged food, which acquired industrial property in Fullerton, and Imuraya USA, a Japanese dessert company, which bought a plant in Irvine.

Allen Buchanan, a principal with Lee & Associates who helped broker the CJ America deal, sees a trend. “We have seen a few examples of food companies backfilling industrial buildings formerly occupied by companies that vacated O.C.”

Buchanan noted that the area’s large and growing Asian American population and the need for food production to be close to consumers are factors in the rising interest among Asian food companies for manufacturing space.

The vacancy rate in Orange County’s industrial market was below 4.7 percent at the end of 2012, down from nearly 6 percent two years earlier and among the lowest levels since the beginning of the recession, according to new data from Voit Real Estate Services in Newport Beach. Over that same span, average lease rates rose 6 percent to 57 cents per square foot and sale prices climbed 15 percent to about $149 per square foot.

“The numbers have been positive,” said Jerry Holdner, Voit’s vice president of market research. “The industrial market has performed very well since 2010.”

The vacancy rate increased slightly in the fourth quarter, but Holdner said that was partially due to a dwindling supply of choice properties in the local industrial market. Some companies that want to expand have struggled to find the space or land to do so.

CJ America, which was looking for a space that could accommodate growth, bought a 68,466-square-foot facility that sits on nearly 7 acres of land. The company paid $8.2 million for the property, a former commercial refrigeration manufacturing plant at 500 S. State College Blvd.

In July, a Taiwanese bakery chain called 85 [degrees]C cafe paid more than $5.6 million for a 70,492-square-foot property in Brea that will be a commercial kitchen supplying its growing operations. The company, which opened its first U.S. location in 2008, has three local stores and expects to open five this year.

“We have plans to continue our expansion,” said Stephanie Peng, project manager for 85 [degrees]C. “Ever since we opened the store in Irvine, there’s been a huge demand for our products.”

Peng said the company’s products have become more popular with non-Asian-American customers, which has helped accelerate the company’s growth.

Darren Tristano, executive vice president of food industry consulting firm Technomic, said many menus reflect a trend toward Asian-food flavors, which have become more popular among mainstream consumers in the United States.

“What’s happening is that American consumers, especially millennials, are developing more adventurous taste palates. You can see it in the emergence of Japanese, Korean and Vietnamese, in addition to Thai, restaurants,” he said. “Those organizations that already produce those products internationally are opening production facilities in the U.S.”

Robert Socci, an executive vice president with Voit who specializes in industrial properties, said he has noticed more interest from Asian food companies, but he said there are larger factors influencing the market’s rebound, including an improving economy and limited supply of space.

“It’s recovered very quickly,” he said. “Everybody’s looking for land, there’s a very big demand for sale product, prices are increasing very quickly … and business overall is doing better. It’s a convergence of a lot of different factors that are contributing to a very hot market.”