Asian Invasion
By Dan Raftery
Asian-inspired dishes are making their way into retail delis following continued popularity and flavor experimentation at the foodservice level.

Once relegated to the domain of restaurant takeout, Asian food products are finding an expanding market of supermarket shoppers and a wider base of eating occasions. The trend is hot and the options for meat and deli retailers are many.
The Asian population grew 16.4 percent between 2000 and 2004, or nearly four times the national average. Even so, the base is small — only 4.3 percent of the U.S. population was Asian in 2004. States with the highest concentrations of Asians are Hawaii, California, New Jersey, New York and Washington.
An expanding Asian sector is good news for retailers interested in capitalizing on the cultural influences from this infusion. Asian food growth will be driven by both the increasing numbers of Asians in the population and greater interest by mainstream consumers.
Keith Chen, president of Culinary Destinations Ltd., a Toronto-based food producer, describes it as a “migration of food trends.”
“Chefs travel and foodservice people go to seminars, so a lot of cross-pollination happens among the crowd that is coming up with the new flavors and products, he says. “The general population also is increasingly open to different tastes, while restaurateurs and suppliers are branching out in new directions.”
This was evident at the Winter Fancy Food Show in San Francisco in January, where more than 6,400 Asian-inspired products were exhibited.
Americans are interested in new flavor varieties, and the perception of Asian foods as healthy is an added plus, moving persons of all cultural backgrounds to try products. The old baggage of monosodium glutamate and other flavor enhancers also has been discarded in favor of authentic regional ingredients, many of which are commonly available.
Retailers have long been aware of the role that restaurants play in exposing consumers to new foods and flavors, before shoppers start seeking the products in stores. Mark Jansen, vice president of product strategy for Bloomington, Minn.-based Schwan’s Consumer Brands North America, a marketer of frozen-food brands, says he watches for moves from formal dining into casual restaurants as a predictor for suppliers. It indicates when they can commit to retail products with the new taste options.
He suggests that new flavors should first appear in the retail deli. The transition from casual dining to deli is easier for shoppers because the deli is “almost like a restaurant for many people,” Jansen says. The move into frozen would follow as consumers demonstrate demand for the new flavors in the deli.
But how can consumers keep all the Asian flavors, cuisines and food products straight when there are so many options?
Indeed, consumer hesitancy is sometimes driven by confusion over the range of options that fall under the general heading of Asian foods. For instance, there are an estimated 22,000-plus Chinese, Indian, Korean, Vietnamese, Thai, Japanese and fusion restaurants in the United States.
“Sampling gives customers a chance to get the food in their mouths,” Jansen says. “The rest is up tothe product.”
Because many consumers are unfamiliar with Asian cooking, there are opportunities for those deli and frozen product retailers that offer items which require little preparation.
Although consumer experience with Asian food is growing, it is by no means mature. One way for retailers to capitalize on that situation is to offer product mixes tailored to the experience levels of their shoppers. From the novice through the hardcore Asian foodie, entrees, appetizers, side dishes, spices, sauces and even utensils will generally progress from mild to hot or from simple to complex.
Chen says in-store support also is crucial for product launches. He notes, for instance, that samplings are beneficial for food novices and experimenters.
Media advertising also is an effective method for introducing Asian products to consumers. A recent survey by Stagnito Communications Inc., publisher of Meat & Deli Retailer, and Schneider Associates, a Boston-based marketing firm, found that nearly 75 percent of consumers learn about new items through television.
The National Pork Board is one association that is doing its part to build popularity and variety of Asian food beyond foodservice through media ventures, offering Asian-inspired recipes and Asian meal ideas for pork in releases and on its Web site.
Pork Board literature released around the Chinese New Year, for example, promoted pork as a perfect partner for the Chinese flavor profile, based on the wide variety of flavor options, from sweet and sour to hot and spicy, of Chinese sauces and seasonings. The Pork Board also offered tips and ideas to consumers who were interested in globalizing their search for grill dishes, giving guidelines for barbecuing pork using Thai spices and flavors.
Yet, because many shoppers have limited experience with Asian foods, it may not matter if the products are new if they are virtually novel to consumers.
Retailers that compliment advertising with in-store support of Asian products may be rewarded with spicy lifts in sales.

Dan Raftery is president of Raftery Resource Network Inc., an Antioch, Ill.-based consulting firm. Andy Hanacek, executive editor of The National Provisioner, contributed to this story.

Technology Spotlight
Starting With the Right Slices

A new state-of-the-art plant is equipped with the latest in slicing capability to meet burgeoning demand

Talk about a cut-and-dried decision. When Dakota Provisions was building its recently opened state-of-the-art plant in Huron, S.D., the company’s management team knew that the operation had to have sophisticated portion control capability for sliced and ground poultry products.
“Since August 2004, we’ve been making programs and purchasing equipment to get ready for the startup. We began with the idea that we’d be in the business of slicing and developing fully-cooked, ready to eat products,” recalls Ken Rutledge, the company’s president and chief executive officer.
According to Rutledge, who has been keeping close tabs with his team on consumer preferences and the shifting landscape for food purchases at both the retail and foodservice levels, any new processing systems had to accommodate the increasing market for sliced products. “There are a couple of things we found out. First, we are seeing major companies divesting themselves of the processing side of their business and concentrating on marketing their brands, and we believe that is a golden opportunity for a company like ours to be a preferred manufacturer for other processors,” he explains. “Second, we are seeing a growing foodservice trade in terms of pre-sliced meats for sandwiches, and we believe there is room for another quality producer of pre-sliced meats for foodservice.”
To meet the depth of demand for different types of slices and recognizing that slices are only as good as the slicer, Rutledge and others at Dakota Provisions evaluated a range of portioning machines. “One key aspect in equipment selection was cleanability, because we are seeing manufacturers putting great effort into making sure machinery is cleanable. Durability was also important, because we intend to be here for the long haul,” Rutledge recalls. “Another issue we looked at, particularly over in the finished goods slicing and packaging area, was option adaptability – can you change out a piece of equipment to produce a different style? And we also wanted service after the sale.”
Rutledge had previously worked with portioning equipment from Weber, Inc., a German equipment manufacturer with North American offices in Kansas City, Mo. Dakota Provisions ultimately decided to go with Weber slicers because Rutledge felt the equipment met all of the processors’ criteria. Weber’s 903 slicer model is now on the floor in the Huron plant, which officially got up and running in January of this year after a near-two-year construction. “Just about any pre-sliced portion control product you can think of on the slice line, we are doing,” says Rutledge of current portion control applications.
According to Rutledge, the Weber 903 model also offers speed, efficiency, and accuracy, with the added benefit of being linked electronically to Weber’s home office for immediate monitoring and troubleshooting. “They have the capability to observe functionality directly,” he notes.
Even though the plant hasn’t been in operation for very long, Dakota Provisions already has its eye on future capacity, having left room for additional systems and machines in its blueprints. “We’ll be purchasing more equipment, and at this point, I believe in terms of slicers, Weber would provide them,” notes Rutledge. “We’ve been very pleased.”