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Asian Innovation

May 19, 2010
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Whether they are savvy with chopsticks or prefer to use a knife and fork, many consumers these days love Asian foods. And many Asian dishes not only offer exotic flavors and ingredients, but also make a healthful alternative to typical American fare such as cheeseburgers, pizza and oh-so-many deep-fried foods.

According to “Ethnic Foods – US – September 2009,” a report from Mintel International Group, Chicago, strong sales of Asian foods since 2004 have been driven, in part, by the healthful eating trend.

“Asian foods are widely considered to be healthier than other cuisines,” the report says, “as [they’re] typically heavy on vegetables, nuts, beans and plant-based protein - and light on animal protein, dairy-based ingredients and saturated fats.”

Data from Chicago-based SymphonyIRI Group Inc. (previously Information Resources Inc.) covering the 52 weeks ending Feb. 21 (supermarkets, drugstores and mass market retailers, excluding Walmart) show that private label Asian foods, in particular, are selling well.

Dollar and unit sales in the overall Asian food category pretty much were flat. However, dollar and unit sales of private label Asian foods jumped 18.9 percent and 14.3 percent, respectively.

Perhaps the most impressive subcategory on the private label side was shelf-stable Asian food items, which posted a 120.4 percent increase in dollar sales and a 131.2 percent gain in unit sales (albeit from a small base).

“I think you’re seeing [Asian foods] become more mainstream, rather than being something that’s a special-occasion type [of] item,” says Keith Chen, president of Culinary Destinations, Toronto.

And people are branching out, searching for Asian dishes from lesser-known regions.

Peter Lee, chief operations officer for Water Lilies Food, Astoria, N.Y., says consumers still enjoy traditional Asian dishes, but that doesn’t mean they’ll eat the same ones over and over again.

“They want a little bit of change,” he notes. “After awhile, General Tsao’s chicken is just General Tsao’s chicken.”

The Mintel report adds that the strong growth of Asian foods over the last few years has been driven by consumer interest in Asian cuisines that are new to North American consumers.

“Chinese foods were the first to become popular in the U.S.,” the report reads. “Now, Americans are exploring other Asian cuisines, including Thai, Japanese, Vietnamese, Korean and Pan-Asian.”

Bringing It Back

Cheryl Tsang, vice president of sales and marketing for Fullerton, Calif.-based Starport Foods, says she’s been noticing a demand for certain Asian sauces and marinades that didn’t sell well in the past. One product her company recently brought back is Manila Adobo stir-fry sauce (a tart sauté sauce used in Filipino cuisine), which her company first tried releasing several years ago.

“It was a pretty slow mover, so we discontinued it,” Tsang says. “And we’ve just been considering bringing it back because there’s such a huge change in population. Now there’s tons of Filipinos. Like in Daly City in Northern California - there’s the highest population of Filipinos outside of Manila (the capital of the Philippines).”

Fusion flavors also are in demand, Tsang says. One of her favorite fusion sauces from Starport is Spicy Mango Creole, which is multifunctional - a characteristic Tsang believes many consumers desire. Consumers can use the sauce when grilling shimp or salmon, or in preparing a bouillabaisse or spicy rice. Although Starport’s version is not available for private labeling, it is a good example of the sweet and spicy flavors many consumers enjoy.

“You’ve got the spicy peppers; you’ve got the tropical mango puree; and then you’ve got some Cajun Creole herbs,” Tsang explains. “It’s delicious - and it works well with an Asian menu.”

Lee also is noticing consumers’ love of spicy flavors in Asian foods.

“There isn’t much spicy food in American food - hamburgers and hot dogs and so forth,” he explains.

Lee adds that consumers enjoy the full flavor of Asian foods. In particular, he notes that many consumers especially like flavors such as Szechuan Orange or Mandarin Orange, which usually have a spicy kick.

Easy Does It

But consumers want more than unique flavors - if they’re going to be cooking at home more often, they also want Asian dishes that are easy to prepare.

The Mintel report mentions that convenience-focused Asian foods (shelf-stable, refrigerated or frozen) were among the fastest-growing in terms of new product launches between January 2005 and June 2009.

When consumers are making an Asian dish, Lee notes, many of them have difficulty cooking the meat and preparing the sauce. If retailers want to provide solutions, he recommends that they merchandise microwaveable pouches that contain only meat and sauce.

Consumers also seem to enjoy the “just add water” approach to food preparation, says Shigery Shirasaka, president of Irvine, Calif.-based Marukome USA Inc. His company recently introduced a freeze-dried instant miso soup in response to consumer demand. The product is available in three varieties - Tofu, Green Onion and Spinach & Corn - and comes packaged in its own cup. It can be prepared in seconds.

Consumers just open the lid, tear open the flavor package, pour the package contents into the cup, add hot water and stir.

Shirasaka says the product was designed not only with the on-the-go consumer in mind, but also for the health-conscious person - the soup is rich in antioxidants, high in protein and low in cholesterol.

It’s also important for retailers to communicate a product’s health benefits on packaging, Shirasaka says.

“I strongly believe private label products should send a clear message of what benefits they bring to the consumers - including health benefits,” he notes. “Today’s consumers are looking forward to receiving the ‘benefits’ [offered] in food items.”

And packaging could - and should - communicate much more than just health benefits. Keith Chen says packaging should advertise any sustainability initiatives retailers are taking on both the product and packaging sides. He notes that Culinary Destinations communicates its partnerships with the Marine Stewardship Council (for sustainable seafood) and the Forestry Stewardship Council (for sustainable paper-based packaging) on packaging wherever applicable.

Packaging also can share creative ways to use a product. On ingredient items - such as sauces or noodles - retailers could print simple recipes that incorporate common pantry items on the back of packaging. Tsang believes recipes are especially useful when it comes to versatile products such as Starport’s Garlic Sesame sauce (which can be used for grilling and stir-frying, or mixed with rice vinegar and vegetable oil to make a salad dressing).

“That kind of thing is great because a lot of common items in your pantry can be easily transformed ‘Asian’ with just a little creativity,” she says. “And people don’t even know that - they don’t even understand it.”

Inspire the Troops

Some retailers take things a step further when it comes to educating consumers. For example, Rochester, N.Y.-based Wegmans offers recipes and demonstration videos covering various Asian cooking techniques (such as stir-frying) and dishes (such as sesame chicken with lo mein) on its Web site. The retailer also provides its patrons with Menu, a quarterly magazine featuring recipes, new products, party advice and more.

Lee admires the publication.

“If you shop at Wegmans, the Menu magazine almost becomes like a Bible,” he says, noting that many consumers see the publication as a “gotta have it” item when it comes to learning about the latest recipes, cooking techniques and private label products from Wegmans.

“It’s up to the magazine to really educate people here,” Lee adds. “You pick up this sauce; you pick up this lo mein; you pick up some vegetables, some chicken, and there you go - a dinner for four.”

Along with the “hows” of promoting their products, retailers also need to consider the “whens.” Stephen Chen, president of Joyce Chen Foods, Acton, Mass., believes Chinese New Year (aka Lunar New Year) is a critical time for retailers to market their Asian foods.

Tsang agrees.

“I have been trying for years to get [retailers] to do a whole Lunar New Year concept,” she says, adding that the holiday offers many cross-promotional opportunities with many different Asian foods, including noodles, canned goods, cookies and more.
Retailers don’t need to rely solely on ethnic holidays to promote Asian foods, though. Keith Chen notes that foods such as potstickers, spring rolls and egg rolls make good appetizers for most holidays or events - especially Super Bowl parties.

Stephen Chen agrees.

“There are a lot of Asian foods that go well with groups of people,” he says. “Potstickers do well with more of an appetizer situation.”

Stephen Chen adds that if retailers want the “average Joe” to give a product such as the potsticker a try, they could give the product a clever name. For example, Joyce Chen’s branded potstickers retail under the name “Peking Ravioli,” a name coined by Stephen Chen’s mother, Joyce, in 1958. This name especially appeals to consumers on the East Coast, a region heavily influenced by Italian culture. Stephen believes consumers can enjoy potstickers in the same way they enjoy ravioli or pierogi.

And Tsang believes consumers can enjoy Asian sauces in the same way they enjoy traditional American grilling sauces - retailers should consider marketing their Asian sauces during grilling season.

“It doesn’t just have to be barbecue sauce,” she stresses.

What’s more, Tsang says retailers could come up with unique ways to market rice paper to customers. For example, after she holds a dinner party, she likes to offer boxes of rice paper to her guests to take home with leftovers. Her friends put the leftovers in the paper, roll them up and enjoy them as a hand-held snack.

Consumers can put anything in rice paper, she adds.

“It’s fun; it’s healthy; and it has no calories!” PLB

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