Foreign flavors are spicing up retail meat counters.
The general popularity of ethnic food, and the growth of Hispanic and Asian communities are boosting demand for ethnic meats and driving changes in merchandising.
At Jungle Jim's International Market, the meat department resembles an exotic bazaar. The Fairfield, Ohio-based retailer carries a huge assortment of specialty items, from pork bellies and pigs snouts to beef tripe, oxtails, duck heads and chicken feet. To make shopping easy, the retailer displays ethnic items in self-serve cases. The wide variety makes the department a destination for ethnic consumers and restaurant owners, and sets the retailer apart from conventional food stores in the market, including Kroger and Meijer.
One shopper, the owner of an Asian restaurant in Columbus, buys about 200 pounds of pork bellies every other week, said Mike Daniel, the manager of the meat department. Jungle Jim's also sells hundreds of pounds of boerewor sausage to a community of South African families who travel to the store from northern Ohio. The retailer makes the sausage, using special seasoning shipped in from South Africa. Another hot seller is ground pork, popular with Asians. Jungle Jim's sells around 700 pounds every week, Daniel said.
Though the retailer has many years of experience with the category, officials keep an eye on customer preferences and make changes when necessary. For example, Jungle Jim's used to buy beef tripe in case-ready packages.
"A lot of Oriental and Mexican [consumers] are not used to purchasing it like that," Daniel said. "We went back to buying it in bulk. Sales went through the roof."
The retailer also increased its selection of family packs, including 10-pound bags of chicken leg quarters, beef and pork products.
Ethnic meats make up a good share of overall meat sales at Jungle Jim's, he said. By Daniel's estimate, sales of the specialty meats have increased by 10% to 15% over the past five years. Demand continues to grow, particularly for certain sought-after cuts.
"Our Hispanic clientele likes thinner slices of meats," he said. "We're putting out more thinner cuts."
Essential to fajitas, carne asada and stir-fry dishes, thin cuts are gaining mainstream appeal. Packages of thin-cut beef and pork used to be sold at a handful of stores operated by Sheboygan, Wis.-based Fresh Brands. Many of the retailer's conventional stores are in rural areas of Wisconsin, mainly populated by Anglos. The stores carry the usual assortment of typically ethnic products, including beef tripe and pork steaks, and they represent a tiny portion of overall meat sales. However, about 18 months ago, the retailer expanded thin cuts to all stores.
"We've made more of an emphasis on it, mainly because of the success we've seen in some of our stores where we had it," said Joe White, director of meat and seafood at Fresh Brands, which operates about 100 corporate and independent franchise stores under the Piggly Wiggly banner. "I attribute it to cultural overlap. [Consumers] want to replicate what they're eating in restaurants."
The meats typically come in small, half-pound to three-quarter-pound tray packs. "The beauty of it is the thinner you cut it, the smaller the unit price is," White said. "We try to make more of a margin on our thin cuts."
The growth of the Hispanic population combined with the popularity of ethnic dishes is a boon to the beef industry. The National Cattlemen's Beef Association doesn't track sales of product by cut, but an official told SN the demand for thin cuts no doubt is tied to consumer interest in ethnic cooking.
"It's a combination of the growing Hispanic population and the fact a lot of Anglos are eating traditional Hispanic dishes and therefore require thin-sliced meats," said Randy Irion, director of retailer for the NCBA. "Just as Italian food has been extremely popular for decades, Mexican food will be, too. As we get immigrants from a wider array of Latin countries, that will continue. More restaurants are serving those dishes."
The industry recorded a 15% increase in sales of ethnic specialty items -- tripe, hooves, tongues and hearts -- between 2003 and 2004, but officials attribute the jump to greater availability of product in the United States, the result of closed export markets. The increase doesn't represent much in real dollars; sales of ethnic cuts represent less than 1% of the overall beef business, Irion said.
Far more important, Hispanics are proving to be good customers for mainstream beef cuts. At the same time, the industry is putting more effort into targeting Hispanics. Last month, the NCBA introduced a redesigned beef and veal ad planner, in English and Spanish. The planner offers tips to retailers on how to promote beef and veal, with color photos of raw cuts as well as beauty shots of cooked products on two compact discs.
"We're selling a lot more beef to the Hispanic population, and not necessarily the cuts we think of being sold in bodegas or places like that," Irion said. "Hispanics are going into supermarkets and buying traditional cuts. We've found the best way to reach people who primarily are Spanish speakers is through retailers. For stores in areas where Spanish is the first and maybe the only language, it's important to have this bilingual communication."
Nevertheless, Spanish-language signs and other literature only address a small piece of a diverse population that includes many consumers who speak fluent English. For retailers, it's crucial to understand and meet the needs of their local market. In Miami, it means targeting Cuban-born shoppers. In New York, it means courting Puerto Ricans. In south Texas, it means focusing on Mexican Americans.
A marketing official with the National Pork Producers agreed it's important for retailers to get to know their customers. Often, that requires talking to shoppers directly, said Karen Boillot, director of retail marketing for the National Pork Board, Des Moines, Iowa.
"When you talk about the Hispanic segment, as a rule, they're not going to be real vocal unless you ask them," she said. "A retailer may be missing an opportunity, not because they're unwilling to do it, but because they haven't heard from their customers. The advice we give retailers is to observe your consumers. Talk to them."
Like the NCBA, the NPP provides bilingual signs that encourage shoppers to try new cuts of pork. Bone-in pork chops, pork shoulder and pork butts are among the cuts favored by Hispanics.
"I do think retailers are getting better at looking at the demographics within their stores, to make sure they're providing the right mix of products within the different areas of their entire market," Boillot said.
Like Hispanics, Asian consumers are diverse, and cannot be served by a one-size-fits-all approach. For mainstream meat marketers, Asians are elusive. Just as Hispanics like purchasing meat at carnicerias, many Asian consumers, particularly older people, prefer to buy meat at small ethnic markets.
"That population is even more diverse than the Spanish-speaking population, as far as the number of countries and languages," Irion said. "As most of the Hispanic people speak English, an even larger percentage of Asians come into the country speaking English. They're from so many different countries."
Fresh Brands operates a half dozen stores in the Racine and Kenosha area of southern Wisconsin, where the Hispanic population is sizeable. But Southeast Asian consumers, including the Hmong and Laotians, are a much bigger market. White estimated a good 30 stores in the Sheboygan and Appleton areas have a large Southeast Asian population. The size of the market is too big to ignore, White said.
"I don't know what it is about the Hmong," White said. "They like those little stores. We'll see them come in for specials but we don't see them come in regularly. They're a faster-growing segment of our population than the Hispanic [market]. We have not done anything differently but down the road we'll have to. We'll have to find a way to appeal to them."