A crescendo of interest in Mediterranean food has retailers stocking more items like couscous and falafel.
This popularity of Mediterranean fare has grown apace in the last two years, according to Dave Thorp of Food Markets Northwest, Seattle.
Patricia Jordan, gourmet/specialty food buyer at Andronico's Market, Albany, Calif., explained that her stores have sold Mediterranean products for a number of years, but that new lines have been recently added.
"Ethnic foods have been very popular for the last five years. If you are in the food business and not in the ethnic food business, you are not on target at all," Jordan observed.
While Mediterranean foods have been around for years and have enjoyed popularity on both coasts, demand for them has increased in the last few years, according to Jay Rosengarten, president of the Rosengarten Group, Rye, N.Y.
"These foods have a nice flavor to them and are familiar to most Americans, if with a slightly different combination of ingredients. They also tend to be fairly healthy, and that fits with current national trends," observed Rosengarten.
Mediterranean encompasses Italian food, as well as Middle Eastern food from countries like Lebanon, Israel, Syria, Turkey, Greece and Spain. According to Rosengarten, Spanish food is still a hidden gem.
Rosengarten says supermarkets are not capitalizing on the trend.
"Why not put in an ad program? Why no point-of-sale material? Why not do what you do for a normal grocery item?
Jordan of Andronico's said Greek food is currently very popular. Andronico's now carries a new line of Gaea products, a Greek brand that includes olives, olive oil, vinegar, jarred olive salad and dolma (stuffed grape leaves).
"This month, we brought in a couple more Spanish olive oils, and a new line of authentic Spanish capers and caper berries from De Franco," she said.
Andronico's also carries the Peloponnese line of Greek groceries, along with a wide variety of Mediterranean spices, couscous and other Middle Eastern items, like hummus and babaganoush.
Thorp of Food Markets Northwest also stocks Peloponnese items, and carries couscous, tabouli, hummus and falafel mixes from companies like Fantastic Foods and Casbah. Bulgur wheat and polenta have recently been gaining in popularity, says Thorp.
Rosengarten said that Peloponnese changed its packaging about two years ago, creating a look that is both mainstream and distinctive.
While Andronico's has an international aisle, most Mediterranean items are integrated with similar groceries. For example, the Mediterranean olive oils -- about 30 stockkeeping units from Italy, Greece and Spain -- are in line with the rest of the oils.
Jordan explained that separate sections often result in lost sales. Middle Eastern items can be found near the kosher food.
Food Markets Northwest also does not believe in segregating specialty items, so Mediterranean food in these upscale supermarkets is not set off in any way.
Thorp explained that the stores created a customer education program for about six months, in which natural, organic and specialty foods were flagged with shelf talkers and signs. About four months ago, however, that program was phased out.
Rosauers Supermarkets, Spokane, Wash., also believes in integration of specialty foods like Mediterranean items, said Pat Redmond, grocery buyer for the chain. In the last year, Mediterranean selections have gotten "quite a bit better," according to Redmond.
One way to promote Mediterranean food is through sampling.
Food Markets Northwest has a very sophisticated demonstration program. Cooking takes place at in-store kiosk areas seven days a week, with Mediterranean being featured at least twice a month.
Andronico's also has an ongoing demonstration program. Mediterranean items are demonstrated three or four times a month, as well as promoted in ads. For example, when SN spoke with Jordan, the chain just finished promoting gourmet olive oils from Italy and Spain with a full-page ad.
Rosauers promotes Mediterranean items, which have picked up in the last year, about two or three times per year. Food Markets Northwest does not use price reductions, but relies on customer willingness to buy gourmet food at regular prices, once they've sampled them.
All the retailers SN polled were sanguine about the future of this category.
Jordan predicts that more olive oils will be coming from Spain, saying that country has recently realized that they too can cash in on the demand for fine, imported oils. Currently 60% of the olives used to make Italian oil come from Spain.
Another trend that will gain more momentum is to treat oil similarly to wine by identifying varietal olives and creating new blends and formulations, such as delicate extra virgin, according to Jordan.
Oil connoisseurs are becoming recognizable among the gourmet food cognoscente, said Jordan. This appreciation is reflected in the prices of some new imports. For example, Andronico's just featured a 16.9-ounce bottle of Badia a Coltibuono, an Italian oil from the Tuscan region, for $17.99, regularly priced at $19.99.
Upscale Italian items in the Mediterranean category are also carrying higher price tags; for example, imported Rusticella pasta, at $6 per pound, and pasta sauces at $10 a jar.
As reported in SN, H.G. Hill Stores, Nashville, Tenn., recently installed freestanding gourmet and specialty aisles in some stores.
"We have had good success promoting Mediterranean foods for their low-fat and unusual taste qualities," said Ashley Caldwell, spokeswoman for the chain. "For example, couscous and tabouli are excellent substitutions for rice and just as healthy."
H.G. Hill carries Casbah, Near East and Fantastic Foods products as part of its Mediterranean mix.
"Olive varieties have been popular, especially stuffed olives. Customers are curious about capers, hummus and olive oils that are also merchandised with the other Mediterranean foods," Caldwell said, adding that the chain samples these items.