Canada is a country built on immigration. As a result our face is continually changing as we grow our population. With this change come new opportunities for flavour appreciation as foods that were once seen as ethnic specialties become more mainstream.
Consider that in Toronto and BC’s Lower Mainland, more that 50% of the population is of Asian decent. The numbers are also significant across the country with universities home to large populations of international students. For example at Winnipeg’s University of Manitoba roughly 10% of the student body is from outside Canada. There, GPA’s, the c-store located in the Student Union Building (UMSU) offers the standard assortment of chips, candy, and soft drinks as well as quick snacks with an international flare. And, while the students I spoke with suggested the selection was not as culturally relevant as they wished, the store’s staff reported they utilize local ethnic restaurants to supply items such as samosas and dim sum for sale fresh in the refrigerated display case.
One retailer that is taking the challenge of marketing ethnic snacks to higher level is 7-Eleven. For the past few months the chain has been experimenting with its World of Snacks program. Located close to the cash desk, the assortment includes products from Asia and Latin America that have been selling well to a mainstream crowd at stores across the country.
In Toronto where there is a great melting pot of cultures I recently discovered Sea Sticks, a crispy seaweed roll popular among those of Asian descent being merchandised alongside more mainstream snacking fare. Also present at locations in the city were products such as Sriracha Popcorn, a snack from Pop! Gourmet that delivers an ethnic flare thanks to its association with Huy Fong Foods’ fiery chili sauce. Other items found standing beside more traditional Canadian processed snacks were packages of Indian Dal Biji, a red lentil mix, and Yellow Diamond brand Spicy Chatpate snacks. From the Philippines stores were offering BBQ Cracker Nuts, and savoury garlic corn products called Boy Bawang as well as others.
And, while some products aspire to capture the appreciation of just an ethnic audience, most seek to bridge into the mainstream. A good example here is Patty King International. According to Sales Director Frank Scanlon, the move from Caribbean novelty to mainstream snack food has been intentional and required a lot of effort over the past 10 years. Today they are in all major grocery chains and he has watched as c-stores across the country have added these quick microwavable snacks to foodservice menus. The same is true for Middle Eastern snacks such as hummus and whole grain-based salads. Here Aliments Fontaine Santé inc. of St. Laurent, QC. has been marketing chickpea hummus items and ethnic-style grain salads such as taboulé, couscous and quinoa since 1991. “Our products may have started as ethnically inspired foods, but today they are well known and people from all cultures enjoy the taste and good health of our brand.”
According to Bobby Sahni, principal with Ethnicity Multicultural Marketing and Advertising, an organization that looks closely at demographic shifts and marketing opportunities, the trade for ethnically inspired foods is vast. Consider that the spending power of the South Asian and Chinese community in Canada is over $100 billion. Looking at two distinct groups; Chinese (mainland China, Hong Kong, Taiwan) and those from India and Pakistan (South Asia), Sahni and his team discovered that each group has different buying habits in C&G. For example salty snacks were in the top five among South Asians while this category was not on the list for the Chinese where chocolate was the corresponding choice in terms of sales.
He reports that Asia is currently driving the biggest numbers in new immigration with many parts of the GTA and Lower Mainland in BC both showing populations that are comprised of more than 50% of peoples with ancestry from this area. “South Asians and the Chinese visit C&G more often than the general population and are driven there based on their unique cultural preferences.” He also reports that Canada’s ethnic population is younger than the “mainstream”, is more brand loyal and is more open to product innovations than the general population.
“Canada’s immigrant population brings with it appreciation for different taste preferences and retailers need to pay attention to maximize the opportunity,” he says, echoing the well-worn marketing mantra of ‘know your customer’.
In Winnipeg convenience food store operators Rashda Irfan and Syed Ahmed saw the need and decided to open a shop that would offer the types of food their local community demanded. The pair opened Everyday Grocery – Fresh and Healthy over a year ago. The store is a 1,600 sq. ft. two-aisle, 1,000-SKU operation at the edge of the city’s south end. Inside they offer a small Halal meat counter where Syed fresh cuts lamb and beef. They also offer a wide assortment of snack foods that are immediately recognizable to their customers who comprise Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi immigrants and descendants. They also offer basics such as bread, milk, and produce to the mainstream crowd that turn to the store as the closest food and snack retailer in an area packed with single-family homes in what is known as Richmond West.
“We see children come in after school for a quick snack like crisps and families appreciate they can get the items they know from back home,” says Rasda, who points to a long section at the front of the store that offers items such as sirop pastry (Punjabi Matri), cake rusk, pastry palms, cashew biscuits, sesame candy, and milk balls in sugar syrup as well as an assortment of LU Biscuits from off shore. “We make samosas (Beef, Chicken, Veggie) on site and have these ready as a quick snack for our customers who eat them right away or take them home.”
At the POS, Rashda and Syed offer an assortment of potato and corn snacks for impulse purchase. Certainly, the Lay’s selections would be recognizable to any customer, however the pair also sourced well-known Indian snack Kurkure from an independent distributor. These offer interesting flavours with international appeal such as Rajasthani Green Chutney and Hyderabadi Hungama that include spices such as cinnamon and mace, tamarind, fennel and ginger.
Pepsico’s Frito Lay Division is the company behind Kurkure and they have looked at the power of their brand in India (Kurkure is India’s leading packaged salty snack) and have since launched this in Canada. Pepsico Foods Canada now has Masala Munch, their top selling flavor of Kurkure that is formulated and packaged in Canada for retailers here. Certainly, this overcomes Canadian Government labeling and ingredient restrictions that can be a major stumbling block to product introductions from off shore.
“The insights we had told us we needed to pay attention to the Asian consumer,” says Sreeram Rajagopalan, senior manager of sales strategy and planning with PepsiCo Foods Canada. “We discovered that first generation South East Asian immigrants preferred purchasing brands they know from home. Kurkure is dominant in the Indian market and very easily recognized.”
Rajagopalan reports Pepsico regularly looks globally for new flavours and products that could deliver the taste and excitement Canadian consumers would prefer. The group already offers one variety of Canadian made Kurkure and introduced other global flavours such Ginger Wasabi to their flagship Lays lineup (albeit as a limited offer). PepsiCo Foods Canada has recently reached out to ask consumers in their ‘Lays Do Us A Flavour – World Flavourites’ promotion to tell them what flavours they would prefer to see in Canada from a list of popular global flavours. Expect more new flavours this fall as part of Pepsi’s acknowledgement of global tastes.
Susan Dunn, Nielsen’s executive vice-president Global Professional Services puts the ethnically inspired flavour opportunity into perspective, “The competitive landscape in the snacking industry is fierce. Demand is driven primarily by taste and health considerations and consumers are not willing to compromise on either. The right balance is ultimately decided by the consumer at the point of purchase. Understanding the why before the buy provides the foresight necessary to deliver the right product to the right consumer at the right time.”