Hunger for ethnic flavours offers marketing opportunities

Farm living editor Karen Morrison  attended the SIAL international food and trade show in Toronto.

TORONTO — Demand for ethnic food is growing in Canada, driven by immigration but also an increasingly sophisticated and well-travelled consumer.

During a panel discussion on multiculturalism and food markets in Canada at the SIAL international food and trade show in Toronto, Mubashir Jamal, senior category director with multicultural merchandising for Loblaw, said large cities are now almost 50 percent multicultural.

“Most live in close proximity to people of a different ethnicity,” he said.

The newest Canadian census will show that the ethnic mix in less populated regions is also changing.  

“Expect census surprises for all of us,” said Ravi Maharaj, category manager in ethnic fresh food for Sobeys. “Smaller cities are becoming more diverse. That’s a growing opportunity.”  

B.K. Sethi, president of B.K. Sethi Marketing, said consumers’ changing tastes are also behind the growth in the sector.

“Ethnic is our base, but mainstream is our target,” he said.

Consumers want more variety in their diet, are attracted to ethnic products and are swayed by ethnic influences of neighbours and friends.

“More are travelling more and bringing back those tastes,” Sethi said.

Salima Jivraj, account director with Nourish Food Marketing, said the proliferation of a foodie culture, TV food shows and easy access to recipes online in a digital world are also contributing to growth.

“There are no borders with digital,” she said. “It’s very accessible, it’s easy. There’s no limitations.”

In addition, Maharaj said restaurants’ ethnic mix is adding to the demand among consumers.

“They want to replicate that at home,” he said.

Maharaj said Canadians need to eat more fresh meals at home and consume less processed food, stressing the need for increased food education.

“Get people back into eating good food, get people back to the table,” he said.

Korean markets expert Chris Yu of Galleria Supermarket said trends within ethnic markets include blends of “East meets West” with consumers experimenting.

“They are incorporating flavours into their own snacks,” she said.

Sethi said that as popular as these dishes may be, they may not be easy to cook, so there are growing markets for freshly made takeout meals.

Today’s time-crunched consumers are gravitating to these convenience offerings, he added.

Jamal said demand for ethnic food will open doors for Canadian entrepreneurs to innovate and create some of these products here.

Maharaj said food sampling and knowledgeable staff are key in selling ethnic products to a wider audience.

“If you don’t know how it tastes, how can you sell it,” he said. “Educate staff and then convey it to the customer; that’s when there’s growth.”

Most panelists agreed it was important not to paint ethnic sectors with the same brush because there are segments within these communities.

Food retailers must also continue to cater to the consumers’ needs within a two to three kilometre area of their storefront and provide an ethnic assortment on the shelf that is fresh and/or priced right for local consumers. 

“You have to do your homework, check competitors and have to understand the market,” said Maharaj.

Jivraj said those catering to typically larger ethnic families need to consider larger package sizes, but ethnic-focused packaging is unnecessary.

“Packaging doesn’t need stars, moons and mosques,” she said.

She also noted generational differences among ethnic shoppers with her parents more comfortable than she is in the local halal butcher shop.

 “I don’t feel OK, I want a nicer experience,” she said, citing impediments of language, store appearance and selection.

Jivraj noted how little regulation there is in Canada for halal. 

“It’s a time for Muslim consumers right now where anything goes,” she said.

She hoped raising these concerns will bring about change.

 “The power lies in the consumers’ hands. They need to question sources, and retailers and manufacturers will follow suit,” she said. 

 “We’re talking about it now, so it is pushing industry into the right direction.”

Yu cited her success in working with the South Korean government to ensure certified and approved products.

Panelists agreed on the need to find consistent suppliers who provide authentic ethnic food and understand retail and consumer demands.

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