Prepared Foods Exclusive: The Ethnic Foods Market
William Roberts, Business Editor

A recent study from Iowa State University (ISU) found that ethnic foods account for $1 out of every $7 being spent on groceries. Overall, Mintel estimates ethnic food sales in the U.S. exceeded $2.2 billion in 2009 and predicts the trend will increase sales by 20% into 2014.

The largest segment of the ethnic foods market, Mexican/Hispanic foods, is responsible for 62% of sales. While Hispanics are by no means the sole purchasers of these foods, it should be noted the buying power of the Hispanic demographic is growing at a steady clip: the Selig Center for Economic Growth at the University of Georgia estimates the group’s buying power stood at $978 billion in 2009 and projects it to rise to $1.3 trillion by 2014.

That said, the source of the growth of Hispanic flavors in the U.S. cannot be solely attributed to that demographic. Indeed, the U.S. food market overall has undergone a “Hispanic-ization,” notes Juan Tornoe, founder of, to the point that salsa outsells ketchup and tortillas outsell white bread. A rise in international travel and a desire to replicate those flavor experiences at home has led to a burgeoning popularity of flavorful dishes, both in the home and in restaurants. This is reflected somewhat in the unique items found on experimental menus in major U.S. population centers. New York Magazine recently explored the popularity of cuitlacoche (a purplish fungus that grows on corn and is widely referred to as "corn smut"), parboiled grasshoppers and jumiles (beetles) commonly served with guacamole. However, the most telling sign of the popularity of Hispanic cuisine may simply be the fact that it is popular across the country, from major urban centers to small towns, thanks in no small part to the emergence of quick-service restaurants with Mexican fare as a focus, a trend which shows no signs of stopping -- or even slowing.

Mucho Burrito is a fresh-Mexican grill concept slated to open its all-natural take on Mexican foods in Seattle on May 15. Featuring a menu quite similar to Chipotle’s, the chain got its start in Canada and promises a “focus on health,” with three different sizes of burritos, an effort to avoid the “overfull” feeling numerous consumers equate with some Mexican fast food, notes Alex Rechichi, the  company’s founder.

Opening on the same date, Pure Tacos will take the all-natural Mexican concept to another level, when it debuts its gluten-free menu to visitors to the boardwalk in Ocean City, N.J. Pure Tacos’ fusion-inspired menu items include chicken & bacon ranch nachos and cheeseburger tacos, while its authentic menu boasts a street-food inspiration and ingredients such as citrus guacamole, tomato-chipotle salsa and citrus-chile de pasila salsa -- all served with roasted corn tortillas or freshly made corn tortilla chips.

However large the market for Hispanic cuisine, the ethnic foods market in the U.S. does have a variety of offerings, and Mintel finds that the popularity of ethnic foods is being driven by the Asian and Indian food segments, growing 11% and 35%, respectively. Similar to the market for Mexican foods, the former segment has benefited strongly from a surge in quick-service options, though retail options for Asian foods have also propelled some of the growth. While Indian food has yet to meet the high expectations afforded to it, the market does show signs of strength, and one Chicago entrepreneur is betting strongly on it.

Chutney Joe’s is a Chipotle-style Indian food franchise hoping to lure “Main Street America,” its founder, Vijay Puniani, envisions. Similar to Chipotle, the menu is simple: a $5.99 price for one of four meat or four vegetarian entrées and either rice or naan, the thin flatbread. Condiments for the dishes are complementary. The menu does adhere to certain preferences of American consumers: its samosas (dumplings) are baked instead of deep-fried, and cream and butter/ghee (hallmarks of Indian cuisine) are not to be found. Certainly, Indian food has room to grow; of the estimated $2.2 billion ethnic food market in the U.S., Mintel puts Indian cuisine’s share at only $40 million.

Other Web Resources
* Ethnic on the Menu

From the April 12, 2010, Prepared Foods E-dition