July 2011/Prepared Foods -- Hispanics represent the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. population. The implications for anyone aligned with the foodservice or retail food industry are clear—understand Hispanic consumers’ preferences, attitudes and needstates, or risk losing their business.

Technomic developed the “2011 Hispanic Foodservice Consumer Trend Report” in order to glean insights into this powerful ethnic group. The research asked Hispanic consumers about their level of agreement with the statement, “It is important to me that Hispanic food at ____ restaurants tastes authentic or like a Hispanic prepared it.” About two thirds (64%) of Hispanic consumers say it is important that food at a Mexican/Hispanic restaurant tastes authentic or like a Hispanic person prepared it. Furthermore, more than half (56%) say the same about Hispanic food at an American-style restaurant.

To fully understand the findings, it bears noting that more than nine out of 10 survey-takers (91%) said they were raised in a household in which one or both of their parents cooked traditional Hispanic foods. This translates to a history of food authenticity that has been ingrained in most of these consumers’ minds. It also translates to understandably high expectations regarding food authenticity.

The survey data reveals an interesting correlation between age and the importance placed on the authenticity of Hispanic food: The older the consumer, the more likely he or she is to expect an authentic quality for Hispanic foods. As the chart shows, 74% of consumers aged 55 and older look for Hispanic foods at Hispanic restaurants to be authentic. This means that regardless of whether Hispanic consumers visit a Hispanic restaurant chain, like Abuelo’s or Cantino Laredo, or an American chain, such as Applebee’s, they want food positioned as Hispanic to carry attributes of made-from-scratch quality, flavor and authenticity.

To satisfy these consumers, restaurant operators and retail food providers alike might consider various approaches, from importing ingredients for their Hispanic dishes to using recipes that are specific to a certain country or region in Central or Latin America. On the restaurant side, some chains are already doing exactly that and conveying these practices to their customers. Margaritas Mexican Restaurant states its Spicy Adobo Chicken Fajitas are made with an “authentic Mexican adobo sauce,” and Sharky’s Woodfired Mexican Grill offers side options, such as poblano brown rice, Yucatan yams and Mexican-style rice.

Success-minded operators and manufacturers will want to take steps to better understand Hispanic consumers and implement strategies, such as those listed above, to meet the needs of the roughly 45.5 million Hispanics in the U.S. (according to the U.S. Census Bureau). After all, few businesses can afford to overlook such a vast customer base.

Elite at Last

July 2011/Prepared Foods -- Forget Tex-Mex burritos and greasy sports venue nachos. Real Mexican cuisine is on the rise and on-trend. So claim a spate of recent news about authentic, native Mexican food appearing on menus and on people’s dinner tables around the U.S. and abroad.

In fact, a Mexico City-based restaurant, the Pujol, has made it to an elite list of eateries—S. Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurants list, published in April 2011. Mexican dishes have drawn on a wealth of ingredients, including corn, beans and chili peppers, as well as native tomatoes, avocados or cocoa, making them both healthy and current.

Top chefs are mixing up traditional recipes with modern themes and/or ingredients. “People think that Mexican food is heavy, that you have to go on a diet of lettuce three days before you eat it,” said Enrique Olvera, owner of Pujol, in a May 22, 2011, article in UK’s The Independent.

Olvera’s restaurant recently hosted Irish rocker Bono’s birthday party; the chef has also been at the forefront of a culinary movement of chefs, professors and foodies attempting to alter perceptions of Mexican food and drink. “The fact that there’s a Mexican restaurant in the top 50 means that the world is changing,” he avers.

Cooking schools are beginning to increase their Mexican cooking classes in recent decades, and people are realizing Mexican cuisine contains valuable ingredients. Key to Mexican cooking are fresh ingredients, including the exotic prickly pear cacti and yellow zucchini flowers.

In keeping with this trend, UNESCO (UN’s central body) gave special recognition to Mexico’s entire national cuisine in November 2010, along with French gastronomy and the Mediterranean diet. In its decision, UNESCO said Mexican “knowledge and techniques express community identity, reinforce social bonds, and build stronger local, regional and national identities.”

Hopefully, the recent attention to Mexico’s culinary tradition will take the focus off the taco and back to healthier, traditional Mexican fare. pf