Foods that were once considered exotic - and even a little bit intimidating - are now staples of diets across the U.S.
Foods that were once considered exotic – and even a little bit intimidating – are now staples of diets across the U.S.

Foods that were once considered exotic  – and even a little bit intimidating – are now staples of diets across the U.S. From sushi and sake to kefir and kombucha, product names that would have prompted many Americans to pull out their dictionaries just 15 years ago are now flying off the shelves.

According to Convenience Store Decisions, this embrace of foreign fare can largely be attributed to an explosion of internet-based “foodie culture” in the U.S. The rise in border-crossing digital platforms like blogs and social media channels have been influential in exposing people to culinary favorites from all over the world. Notably, the national move toward more global eating habits hasn’t been confined to gastronomes with refined palettes. Market research conducted by the Mintel Group and reported by Convenience Store Decisions revealed that 66 percent of parents who regularly incorporate international food into their families’ diets say their kids are big fans of ethnic cuisine.

This shift toward ethnic eating isn’t only relevant to restaurants and grocery stores, however. As people diversify their diets, they’re looking to convenience stores to diversify their inventories as well. If you’re a C-store management professional looking to embrace international culinary trends, read on to discover helpful tips.

Global-inspired items top list of 2017 culinary trends 
Convenience stores often serve as restaurants to people on the road, which means it’s vital that C-store management stay abreast of all food-related trends. When dealing with a more diet- and taste-conscious crowd, offering products that are en vogue is key. This year, many of those trendy treats have a decidedly international flair.

The National Restaurant Association’s 2017 “What’s Hot” survey, which consults with over 1,000 chefs who are members of the American Culinary Federation, revealed the food and beverage trends that will be shaping eatery and store offerings over the coming months. The report’s Top 20 Food Trends is stacked with products that wouldn’t have made the cut a few years ago.

International picks that topped the list include:

  • Meals and products inspired by international street food, like tempura, pupusas, kebobs and dumplings: Street foods are great choices for C-stores, since they tend to be simple to produce and convenient for eating on-the-go.
  • Globally inspired breakfast foods, including coconut milk pancakes and chorizo scrambled eggs: C-stores offering ready-to-eat American breakfast staples, like bacon, egg and cheese sandwiches, should consider kicking it up a notch with international ingredients.
  • African flavors: Africa is a massive continent filled with thousands of cultures, cuisines and traditions, but many of them have yet to break into mainstream American diets. Explore foods from different regions and nationalities to see what flavors may resonate with your customer base.
  • Custom condiments: With so many delicious sauces and spreads in the world, it’s no wonder that ketchup and mustard are taking a backseat in 2017. Enhance your C-store’s selection by including options like srirarcha, wasabi, salsa, peanut sauce and more.
  • International spices: Don’t be afraid to spice things up when it comes to choosing flavors for ready-to-eat meals and packaged snacks. Today’s consumers aren’t afraid of stepping outside the salt and pepper box. Spices like curry, harisa and peri peri are all projected to gain popularity this year.

Bringing international flair to familiar foods
Global choices like these may feel beyond your C-store’s comfort zone, but many are closer to home than you’d think, explained Convenience Store Decisions. Many cultures have basic staples that are similar in design, and may only differ in flavor.

“When we talk about ethnic foods we sometimes fail to realize that some of these things have already crossed borders into our culture. What’s different about all the foods comes down to the spices. The spices are the key.” Nancy Caldarola, education director for NACS CAFÉ, explained to Convenience Store Decisions.

For instance, almost every genre of cuisine offers a version of the handheld pie, noted Caldarola. These are excellent options for C-stores, since they’re visually familiar, can be sold hot or cold, and make the perfect on-the-go snack. She pointed to Welsh pies, pierogies, dumplings and empanadas as examples of international pies that have bridged the gap between American C-store consumers and international tastes.

Caldarola suggested that C-stores that are taking their first shot at offering international foods start with Mexican- and Asian-inspired products, since these flavors already resonate with many Americans. Nick Powell, corporate chef for QuikTrip Corp., recommended introducing new spices through sauces.

“Condiments, sauces or other add-ons are probably the easiest, most approachable way. They’re a pretty easy change for the kitchen to make, and a low-risk way for consumers to be able to branch out a little from what they might normally buy,” Powell told Convenience Store Decisions.

Keeping your customer base satisfied 
While international flavor trends are sweeping the entire country, not all regions and consumer demographics are interested in the same tastes. Before committing to a global culinary strategy, be sure you’ve done your research and fully understand the taste buds and eating habits of the people your C-store serves.

Millennial consumers, who are more likely to be tapped into digital foodie culture, are generally more susceptible to new and exciting flavors. Powell told Convenience Store Decisions that young adults are already on board with spice, as evidenced by their embrace of foods like hot sauce and jalapeno peppers. Millennials are also more likely to try out-of-the-box options if they’re customizable or easily “shareable” on social media, Powell explained.

C-stores located in diverse cities or states, like California, Baltimore, Boston, Chicago and New York, are also more likely to demand and purchase global products, while rural convenience stores may have a harder time straying from typical American foods, Caldarola told Convenience Store Decisions. C-stores in Southern or Midwestern areas that may want to expand their offerings should provide shoppers with free samples, suggested Caldarola, to gauge support and boost intrigue.

“To have the experimentation you have to be willing to have taste tests—and days where customers get to try things. If you’re going to have new product you have to sample,” she told the source.