NEW YORK - Consumers, as a result of traveling and dining out, have acquired a taste for unusual flavors and dishes. As a result, demand for what used to be considered exotic fruits and vegetables has gone up at supermarkets.
"Some retailers are realizing and responding faster than others, like ourselves, Wegmans and Whole Foods," said Don Harris, vice president of floral and produce for Boulder, Colo.-based Wild Oats, and a member of the Produce Marketing Association board. "People like that, who are really into the food-service side and not just the deli side, are probably at the forefront of changing these items or bringing the items in and also using them for cross-[merchandising] purposes in the store.
"Your more specialty food-type markets would be the first to carry those items and then the conventionals will come along as demand goes up," he continued. "Sometimes the bigger stores wait until there's a lot of demand before they bring something out because they're afraid of shrinking it out, which is a concern for everyone, but it's just a matter of your mind-set. Do you want to sell it, or is it something that the consumers want you to bring in? We always just go ahead and bring it in, sell it to the customer, be ready with the information and have it in our food service as well."
Wild Oats has an established food-service operation, and food service and the produce department lean on each other for new product ideas and recipes, Harris said, adding the retail chain has a policy of ensuring all ingredients used in food service are also carried throughout the store.
"If the customer tastes something good in a restaurant or even from our food-service [department] and they want to make it at home, you've got to have the ingredients that are needed in there," he said.
Although many industry executives said they believe retailers are recognizing this trend and responding, retailers should continue to keep a watchful eye on restaurant trends to make sure the variety of produce offered in stores reflects current tastes.
"Some of the products are becoming more and more evident," said Mikel Weber, food-service chairman for the PMA and vice president, Eastern Operations for the Golden Corral Corporation, Raleigh, N.C. "I remember when I first saw broccolini, which was probably about 10 years ago. Now I'm starting to see it on more grocery shelves, whereas 10 years ago, you really couldn't find it anywhere unless you went to an exotic store, or a niche place in California, but you wouldn't find it out here in North Carolina, New Jersey or Pennsylvania."
Broccolini also has a following with shoppers at Wild Oats. "It has some of the same properties of broccoli in terms of health but looks completely different in presentation and people like it," Harris said.
Wild Oats also has seen a significant increase in demand for out-of-the-ordinary fruits and vegetables. "They're using a lot more specific herbs, a lot more Asian and Hispanic items, more peppers, lychee, Chinese cabbages," Harris said.
Indeed, restaurants are definitely influencing consumers at the retail level, said Janet Erickson, executive vice president of purchasing and quality assurance for the Del Taco restaurant chain, and chairman of the PMA board.
"Conventional wisdom, which I think is correct, says trends in restaurants tend to start at fine dining and work their way down to casual dining like the Applebee's of the world where it becomes more mainstream," she said. "Retailers should probably be paying attention to new products and flavors at that point because people are going to those places, trying new things, liking them and they're going to want to try them at home themselves."
Weber agreed with Erickson on the dining trend, and pointed to spring mix blends of lettuce as an example of an item that's become fairly mainstream.
"Fine dining tends to bring things in and push the envelope a bit, particularly with produce," he said. "They started with the spring mixes. You didn't see a spring mix in a Chili's restaurant years ago, but you did see it in the high-end restaurants. Then you see it move down to the casual diners, family dining and then down to the fast food in the past couple of years."
Erickson also mentioned chipotle peppers as an example of an ingredient that started in fine dining and is now used at Del Taco restaurants and supermarkets nationwide.
"In the last several years, there's been an increase in new and more exotic flavors - the more spicy foods like Latin and Asian foods, foods like that that are different," she said. "People are always looking for new experiences and the restaurant business is very competitive, so that's a point of differentiation at restaurants. I think that's continuing to increase and every time someone at a restaurant can come up with something really new and unique, it gives them a point of difference and attracts more customers."
The media's widespread coverage of obesity and healthy eating trends also has fueled the recent interest in fruits and vegetables, Erickson said.
"They're more open to experimenting with that category and I think tied to that is baby boomers aging and thinking about their health and everybody knows that fruits and vegetables are healthier for you than desserts and other things," she said.
"The population is changing, so people are exposed to new and different cuisines," he said. "The great melting pot continues to boil, so you get used to that and try different dishes. You can almost go to Asia by going to one of the Chinatowns in a major city. People get introduced to some different Asian cuisines that way. It's the same thing with the Hispanic cuisines. It's a combination of travel, the changing of America and exposure to new dishes that just keeps it coming."
In spite of rising gasoline prices, consumers are still eating out and traveling, according to Harris.
"People get different ideas from restaurants and want to prepare a dish or find a restaurant that's preparing that sort of dish," Harris said. "So, it all comes back around to us at retail in terms of having those items, or having the demand for those items increase."
Shoppers at Wild Oats frequently come in with a recipe that is similar to or the same as a restaurant's and ask for the ingredients, Harris said.
Consumers are getting more inventive and they're always looking for something new, according to Weber. "People are very aware of what's happening and the world is getting smaller," he said. "A lot of people have traveled to different places and tried new things, and wondered why they couldn't get that here, and of course when they start wondering and asking about it, that's when people start bringing them in. Produce has a wide variety of colors, tastes and textures. People are looking for freshness, flavor and something a little bit different and in the supermarkets."
Restaurants captured 75% of food-service produce sales in 2005, with 40% coming from full-service and 35% from quick-service eateries.
About 98% of consumers are eating produce in meals at home and 50% in meals away from home at least once every two weeks.