Comfort foods are the order of the day in today's cooking. That leaves plenty of room for growth for natural, organic and specialty food categories, say consumers and food experts.
Just because people are longing for the foods of their childhood doesn't mean they're willing to sacrifice freshness, taste or quality. There's income to be earned by retailers who can identify and fill those needs.
"I think they're in the catbird seat, quite frankly," said Marian Burros, New York Times food columnist and cookbook author.
Burros' new cookbook, Cooking for Comfort (Simon & Schuster, 2003), brims with dishes that might send a chill down a gourmet-store owner's spine: meatloaf, spaghetti sauce, brisket. But look closer: Burros' macaroni and cheese recipe calls for Dijon mustard, extra-sharp aged white Cheddar, Parmigiano-Reggiano, hot pepper sauce and corkscrew pasta—Burros suggests cavatappi (a short, ridged macaroni).
"We have all kinds of stuff that our mothers and grandmothers didn't have available to them—the best cheese, the best butter, the finest chicken," she said. "We also want more pumped-up flavors, and we know about fresh herbs."
Organic Consumer Evolution 2003, a new study from The Hartman Group of Bellevue, Wash., found strong preferences for organic products among shoppers who identify themselves as both health-oriented people and "foodies." Midlevel consumers, who make up 53 percent of U.S. households, use increasing numbers of organic products but have not embraced a full-fledged "organic lifestyle," the study reports. Two-thirds of study participants rank health as their prime motivator for buying organic, but "taste" was cited by 38 percent.
At Sandy's Fine Foods in Westerly, R.I., store manager Jim Goddiess grew sales more than 17 percent last year by focusing on taste. "The key questions are: How does it taste? What's the packaging? How much does it cost?—in that order," he said. "Nothing goes on any of our shelves unless it tastes good."
He thinks natural and organic lines have made their current gains by improving quality and taste, making products more consistent and sharpening price. "I'm standing in my back room, looking at a wall of Muir Glen products that are just fantastic—you won't find any better."
Among the most popular items in the store's prepared food line is a vegetarian shepherd's pie "that people just go bonkers over." Turkey chili elicits similar raves, Goddiess said, and Sandy's promotions emphasize quality ingredients and scratch preparation. People want to indulge, and, according to Goddiess, they don't mind paying $24 for a bottle of aged balsamic vinegar if they know the taste difference it will make in their cooking.
Has the term "gourmet" become a meaningless word, beaten to death by marketers?
Goddiess votes yes. "Please call it anything else but that," he said. Artisan, handmade, homemade, imported, specialty, natural, heritage are all fine with him, but "gourmet" means "overpriced" to his customers.
"People shy away from 'gourmet,'" said Amy Barr, who runs a natural products marketing firm in Longmont, Colo. When she wrote for Good Housekeeping magazine 10 years ago, "gourmet" was a word to be avoided because it sounded snooty and intimidating. Now the impression it gives among food folks is naivete.
"Nobody even knows what it means anymore," said Burros, "other than 'expensive.' "
San Francisco cookbook writer Eric Gower, author of the forthcoming The Breakaway Japanese Kitchen (Kodansha, 2003), thinks "gourmet" had the most meaning in the mid-1970s, when chefs Julia Child and Graham Kerr set out to redefine how Americans cooked and ate. "It had the most meaning when contrasted to what it wasn't," Gower said. "In the '80s, Alice Waters took it elsewhere. In 2003, we're sort of postfoodies."
In France, "gourmet" is a noun meaning "a lover of fine food and drink." In the United States, it's become an adjective and is almost as untrustworthy a descriptor as "classy."
Where do the worlds of specialty foods and naturals intertwine? Anywhere ruled by taste, said shopper Lee Chubb, a computer maven in Ketchum, Idaho. "A simple piece of meat is gourmet when the texture of its crust and the combination of crust and meat flavors make you stop in midbite, just to make sure that you're really tasting what you're tasting. All the other stuff is just window dressing."
Kevin Coupe of MorningNewsBeat.com thinks retailers should take that idea and run with it: "Somehow figure out a way to make naturals and organics connect to that absolutely fabulous, sinful taste that people are just going to have to have."
To do that, pull shoppers from the perimeter departments into the center store with demonstrations and sampling, Goddiess suggested. If customers come into your market for fresh meat and produce, show them the bottled sauce that pulls ingredients together or the Forbidden Black Rice that makes a perfect side dish.
Goddiess samples five or more products a day and just started a more extensive sampling program among Sandy's 400 house charge customers, sending them a gift certificate every month for a free item. Customers on the mailing list and e-mail list get dollar-off coupons for the same item, which is displayed on an end cap. "They take it home; they try it; they love it; they buy it again," he said.
Many mainstream consumers haven't yet figured out the connection between natural ingredients and good taste. Coupe used his wife as an example: "She thinks natural, organic, she goes straight to tofu." Craft an image through merchandising, advertising and store design that stresses naturals' abundance, quality and wide range of flavors, and you will appeal to shoppers' urges "to eat stuff that just tastes good, to say, 'I don't care, tonight I'm having the crème brûlée.'"