The small city of Lafayette, Colo., seems an unlikely place for an Indian grocery store.
Fewer than 100 Indians live in this town of 23,000, and only 3.3 percent of residents are Asian, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. In fact, in 2000, only about 12,000 of the 4.3 million Coloradans were of Indian ancestry, and only 2.2 percent of the state's citizens were Asian.
And yet, Lafayette's Aladdin Market, which opened last December, is thriving, according to its Pakistani owners. The reason? Crossover shoppers—growing numbers of non-Indians who, for a variety of reasons, want to experience the delicacies of Delhi. And the same is true at markets throughout the country. Although only sixth-tenths of a percent of the U.S. population is Indian, Indian food is one of the fastest-growing categories in American grocery stores.
Schaumburg, Ill.-based market research firm SPINS reports that in 2006, total Indian food sales increased 23 percent, to $16 million, in U.S. natural foods supermarkets. Everything from frozen saag paneer entr?es to packaged chicken tikka masala mixes posted sales increases between 22 percent and 35 percent. The only segment that didn't show double-digit growth was frozen and refrigerated convenience foods such as samosas, and that's only because fewer manufacturers are making them. "I think more companies are concentrating on full Indian meals," rather than single-item convenience foods, says Vincente Hernandez, SPINS' product library operations lead.
Natural foods manufacturers report similarly robust sales figures for their Indian foods. Santa Rosa, Calif.-based Amy's Kitchen introduced six frozen Indian entr?es in 2004, and now the products are "selling right at or near some of our best-selling products, like lasagna or our bowls," says Steve Warnert, Amy's director of sales and marketing.
Overall, Indian food is "one of the highest-growing ethnic food categories," Hernandez says. "There's a greater demand for it from clientele, which results in expansion of existing lines, and more lines being picked up by more national distributors." Adds Don Montuori, publisher at Rockville, Md.-based market researcher Packaged Facts: "From a broader trend perspective, Indian has been an up-and-coming cuisine for the last several years. There are more Indian restaurants, and the Indian population in the U.S. is growing."
Although Hernandez says the largest selections of prepared and packaged Indian foods are showing up in mass merchandisers such as Target and Wal-Mart, they're also very popular in natural foods stores. "Many Indian foods are vegetarian or vegan, and the products have the reputation of being clean foods," without many preservatives or additives, he says. Montuori points out that Indian food often uses ingredients already popular in natural foods stores, such as rice, lentils, vegetables, spices and yogurt. He says natural foods shoppers tend to be more receptive to diverse cuisines and unusual flavors than conventional shoppers, which also helps drive Indian food sales.
Warnert says that surprisingly, even though the largest concentrations of Indian restaurants are on the East and West coasts, Amy's Indian entr?es are "selling well all over. We've had really strong success in places like central Texas and the Midwest." The most frequent buyers are college students. "They tend to skew vegetarian, and their sense of travel and the world can be broader than other folks'," he says.
Natural or organic prepared Indian entr?es and packaged mixes offer other advantages as well. "Indian food can be pretty daunting to cook at home because many people aren't familiar with the ingredients or techniques," Warnert says. And Indian restaurant food can sometimes be too unhealthy for a natural foods shopper. "Our customers like that Amy's Indian entr?es don't have as much oil, fat or salt as a typical Indian restaurant meal," he says.
Aladdin Market carries everything from henna to Bollywood DVDs, but most of the 1,000-square-foot store is devoted to packaged food and ingredients. And although there are specialty products such as coconut chutney and masala peanuts, more than half of the shelf space is stocked with items frequently sold in natural foods stores. There are jars of ghee and almond oil, and bags of dried chickpeas and corn meal. The spice aisle features staples such as chili powder, mustard, coriander, cinnamon powder, dried red chilies and sesame seeds.
Owner Francis Pearl says top-sellers among non-Indian shoppers are packaged mixes such as mango dhal, paneer butter masala, mixed vegetable curry, chicken curry or chicken tikka masala. Although the mixes carry unfamiliar brand names like Shan, Swad, Priya and Parampara, the ingredients are all natural. In fact, if you overlook Aladdin Market's movie posters and bright orange walls, you might feel as if you were in a natural foods store.
So why don't more naturals retailers carry Indian foods, beyond a few entr?es in the freezer case? "It's a language and cultural barrier for the most part," says SPINS' Hernandez. Stocking authentic Indian food often means buying from smaller, ethnic distributors, and they can be hard to find. But there is a growing number of natural Indian food distributors, including Malabar Food Products in Torrance, Calif., Deep Foods in Union, N.J., and Kehe Food Distributors in Romeoville, Ill.
The lesson that Aladdin Market and other small Indian food stores offer is that it's easy to add more Indian cuisine to your product mix. In many cases, it's simply a different way of stocking—grouping spices into an Indian section, displaying flatbreads and rice next to the jarred sauces or chutneys, or including yogurt or chai-based drinks in your juice bar. And a willingness to go beyond the traditional paneers and masalas in your product mix can lure more customers. "I think you should probably not be afraid of offering Indian foods that are less familiar, because natural foods shoppers are usually adventurous," Packaged Facts' Montuori says.
With a little work, you can create an Indian food section that appeals to a broad range of shoppers, from vegetarians to people simply looking for a new taste. "Ethnic foods are a way for smaller stores to differentiate themselves," Hernandez says. And the numbers show that Indian foods are one of the best options within the ethnic category to increase your sales.
Vicky Uhland is a writer and crossover shopper in Lafayette, Colo.
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Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVIII/number 6/p.46,48