"If it's hot, if it's hotter, if it's hottest, it's going to sell."
So said Sandy Kapoor, a professor at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, Calif., in her remarks to an audience at Natural Foods Expo East on the subject of condiments and other food trends.
The dietitian and former restaurant owner attributed growing preference for the piquant in spices and condiments to increasing cultural diversity in the United States. The foreign-born are broadening the American palate by adding their cuisines to the melting pot. At the same time, many mainstream consumers are eager to add new flavor profiles to their own culinary repertoires.
In addition, aging baby boomers are experiencing the effect of aging taste buds, and it takes bolder flavors to make an impression, Kapoor said.
Nancy Childs, a professor in the department of food marketing at St. Joseph's University, Philadelphia, attributes the increasing popularity of stronger flavors not only to ethnic cuisines and aging palates, but also to earlier education in exotic tastes.
"We are getting a very cosmopolitan palate at a much earlier age, by introducing variety into children's meal occasions so much earlier," noted Childs. "Even in candy, like Starbursts, there is a much more intense set of choices. So you've indoctrinated that part of the population to expect flavor variety and flavor intensity," she said.
Indicative of condiment trends, the consumption of salsa has been steadily increasing in the United States and, as reported in SN, began to outpace ketchup about six years ago. Sales data from Information Resources Inc., Chicago, show that since 1993, Mexican sauce and marinades beat plain old ketchup, usually by about a $200 million margin. For the most recent time period, the 52 weeks ended Sept. 13, 1998, ketchup sales were $462 million, while Mexican sauce, or salsa, had sales of $778 million.
Nonetheless, Chris Fromm, grocery division category manager for Certified Grocers of California, Los Angeles, said that "in percentages, if you lumped the two together, salsa does 27% and the rest is ketchup. Those are our numbers. The Los Angeles region, our core business, is about 60% Hispanic, but those customers still use a lot of ketchup." Certified has 3,400 member stores.
Ketchup is hanging on at the A&P stores, too, said Mike Reuling, director of corporate brands for the Montvale, N.J.-based chain with 750 U.S. stores. But he also noted that Taco Bell products have re-energized the salsa category.
"Our America's Choice brand is one of the best moving lines of salsa in the section," Reuling said.
The size of the condiment section is generally about 16 running feet, Fromm said. Generally a section is four or five shelves high.
"It's a real mixed bag, depending upon how an individual retailer perceives shopping patterns. You'd think they would merchandise it all in one place, but they want you to walk the store," Fromm observed.
He said consumers do favor bold, distinctive flavors, and so there have been attempts to launch line extensions of different flavors in highly recognized brands. As an example, Fromm pointed to the new sauce from Lea & Perrins, a hickory/Worcestershire combination.
In the A&P stores, ketchup and sauces range from 16 to 24 feet; mayonnaise and salad dressings from 12 to 20 feet; salsa and Mexican from 8 to 16 feet; and pickles from 12 to 20 feet, depending on the size of the store and market demographics, Reuling said.
Most specialty sauces are delivered to A&P stores through a direct-store delivery supplier. "Doing it that way allows us to better manage warehouse slots, and we can direct these types of items specifically to areas where there is adequate demand," Reuling said.
"We will, on occasion, cross merchandise within the meat departments or on a grocery wing display. Demos are welcome at any time; it's a great way for the manufacturer to gain trial and, at the same time, create a little excitement within our stores," he continued.
Among condiments, Reuling said that all categories are fairly stable. Sales are highly impulsive and profitable to the retailer if the sections are correctly merchandised, he noted, with one exception -- steak sauce.
"This segment has some upswing in movement, depending on how much advertising and/or couponing the A1 Brand is doing. When they are in the midst of a heavy ad campaign, they bring customers to the section that normally might not shop that section. Also, when this happens, we see an upswing in the movement of our Master Choice and America's Choice brands," Reuling said.
Seth Pollard, manager of specialty foods for Central Market, two stores in Austin and San Antonio, Texas, said a whole aisle is devoted to condiments -- 28 linear feet of Metro racks that are 72 inches high. The aisle gets a lot of traffic.
"It gets a lot of attention, due to the fact that the hot sauces are in that aisle. We have a great number of different sauces. Now people want flavor in their hot sauces, as well as 'heat,' he said.
"That aisle includes all of our marinades -- from regular fajita marinades, and the Allegro brand, to new things like Dr. Pete, which has a burgundy-lime sauce, and a praline mustard glaze. It's a big hit; we are trying to bring in a pallet display," Pollard said.
He noted that the stores have had success with Fischer Weiser condiments, from a local vendor in Fredericksburg, Texas. "We've been really successful with one of their products that we showcased, a raspberry chipotle sauce. It very versatile: spicy, with the sweetness of the raspberries. People use it over cream cheese, on crackers, on eggs, even on vanilla ice cream. They use it on the grill. The price is about $7.89 a bottle; we have sold at least 1,000 cases in the last year," he said.
Central Market also features sauces from local barbecue restaurants. One new one, Terrapin Ridge, has some innovative products, said Pollard, like a grapefruit peppercorn sauce. The restaurant makes a line of 10 different mustards, including wasabi lime and mole, and those sell best, he added.
"We've been bringing in a lot of new products," Pollard explained. "We might have only one or two facings of each." One drawback, initially, is that such variety and abundance is too much to take in, which is why Central Market employs culinary consultants who roam the floor looking for confused customers to help.
Besides the new and exotic, the store carries regular mayonnaise and ketchup, in several brands, but it also carries organic ketchup and some sweetened with honey.
In the salsa-ketchup contest, salsa wins hands down at Central Market. Pollard said he keeps three facings of Heinz, but four Metro racks full of salsa, plus side stacks. Salsa probably sells 10 to one against ketchup. Central Market's chips and salsa are in a separate area, where salty snacks are.
Central Market demos aggressively. "That is one way we like to get our products out and into the mouths of our customers. If it's new, or priced high, we demo it out and it flies off the shelf," Pollard said.
At the 154 stores in the Giant Food Stores chain, including Edwards Super Food Stores and Martin's Food Markets, the condiment section averages 24 feet. Some cross merchandising is done with barbecue sauces and steak sauces behind the meat cases, and also with the deli and seafood departments, said Denny Hopkins, spokesman for the Carlisle, Pa.-based chain.
"When these condiment items go on 'Bonus Buy' [temporary price reductions], we do as much cross merchandising as we can. We support a lot of these condiments with recipe demos in stores; either live product demonstrations with the marinade being used, or we hand out recipes," said Hopkins.
Stronger flavors in condiments are also being used to create a healthier meal, noted Childs of St. Joseph's University. "As you reduce salt and fat, one of the ways to retain taste is to add flavor, and to add bold flavor," she said.
Nonetheless, consumers are not giving up the fat in mayonnaise. For example, Certified's Fromm told SN that in the mayo subsegment, which includes Miracle Whip and all the diet products, regular full-fat mayonnaise still comprises 93% of the business, while 7% of sales is in "lite" varieties.
"No- and low-fats are included in the 'lites.' The initial launch of lower fat products did not have the consistency and taste that people wanted. If they're going to use mayonnaise, they want to enjoy the taste," he said.
The full-fat version outsells low-fat three to one, A&P's Reuling said. The picture is similar at Giant, where low-fat is preferred over fat-free by two to one, according to Hopkins.
Kraft introduced flavored mayonnaise recently, in Roasted Garlic and Roasted Onion, but Reuling said it is too early to tell what effect this will have on the category.
In pickles, Reuling said, Vlasic has introduced a few innovative items over the past few years, such as sandwich slices, which do well in the A&P stores. But, Reuling noted, "Our America's Choice like items are doing quite well also.
"The pickle category is a very impulsive category. The more you display, the more you sell. The new large hamburger slices [from Vlasic, called Hamburger Stackers, and due to ship next month, according to the company] are brand new." Reuling called the new product "a very unique and novel item that should do well if promoted and merchandised correctly."
Meat marinades are a subsegment of condiments that is growing, especially teriyaki, according to Hopkins. Another trend is that more and more companies are using coupons, good for a free pound of chicken, say, with the purchase of a bottle of their sauce.