International aisles in retail versus international cuisine at restaurants: the case for sharing

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Global flavors are a large market opportunity as the U.S. population becomes more diverse and consumers from a variety of backgrounds have bigger appetites for diverse flavors. However, companies must be sensitive when marketing international cuisines as we are experiencing a moment of reckoning around representation and identity in popular culture and public opinion.

In The Hartman Group’s Exploring the Diversity of American Foodways report, we explore food sourcing among diverse consumers, specifically those with Hispanic, African American, and Asian/Pacific Island heritage as well as first- and second-generation immigrants, to understand the opportunities and tensions at play for international cuisines. We found that for many consumers of color, especially Hispanic and Asian consumers, making one’s own cultural foods at home or eating them while dining out is equally important in maintaining a cultural connection to their background, highlighting the emotional resonance of cuisines as ripe for possibility and a note of caution.

So how can food retailers and restaurants appeal to these eating occasions in a sensitive way?

The key is to elicit sharing, not co-opting or stealing. The practice of sharing is portrayed through respect and reciprocity. It cues an authentic intent to help companies negotiate potential tensions as they bring forward global brands and flavors in a way that will resonate with all consumers.

“Authentic food” is itself a heavily debated topic in current identity politics. Some argue it potentially conveys the idea that cuisines are immutable and it unnecessarily exoticizes people of color’s cuisines. However, consumers often use the term “authentic” to describe a desirable cuisine or brand. In these cases, authentic can refer to ideas of shared representations and respectful portrayals. Authentic cuisine aligns with how members of the community would represent themselves, not necessarily what an audience expects.

Retail and restaurants must show deep knowledge and respect for cultural heritage and foodways to establish authenticity. However, the different roles of each channel in the lives of consumers mean retailers and restaurants may not be able to follow the same rubric when bringing diversity to their stores and their menus in a knowledgeable and respectful way.

International Aisles in Retail

Consumers primarily shop retailers based on convenience, selection, and price — especially on big, stock-up shopping trips. The international aisle’s popularity THG Diversity of American Foodways 2019 coverdepends on its convenience as an essential element for one-stop shopping that aligns with how consumers have been trained to shop. It is often a source of inspiration for consumers regardless of race, ethnicity, or cultural background. However, the aisle can feel like an afterthought, replete with insensitive signage and a selection that lacks curation or expertise present in other parts of the store. Such careless representation shows that the retailer is not knowledgeable about cuisine. Meanwhile, product siloing can contribute to the perception that the food in international aisles is not “American” enough.

Notably, the potential of the international aisle does not detract from the role of the international grocer, which consumers perceive to have lower prices, broader selection, higher quality, and more authenticity. These attributes in part also lead to a deeper emotional connection and lead many consumers of color, especially Hispanics, Asians, and recent immigrants, to shop at international grocers more often and can be further inspiration for a thoughtful and respectful international aisle.

Ultimately, conveying knowledge and respect in an international aisle of a mainstream food retailer is the responsibility of both retailers and manufacturers. The best retailers curate a careful collection of brands in their stores and present them in an inclusive, thoughtful way.

International Cuisines at Restaurants

On dining-out occasions, consumer needs escalate for discovery, fun, social connection, and even self-care (by taking away the mental and physical labor of planning a meal). While international aisles in mainstream grocers also elicit a sense of discovery for some consumers, the atmosphere of a restaurant can create a deeper emotional experience more akin to international markets. International markets and restaurants are important among consumers of color, and even more so for recent immigrants, to maintain a cultural connection to their background. Such emotional and social needs mean feeling good about what they’re eating is even more important on these occasions — and part of feeling good for consumers is to know that cuisine was shared, not stolen or co-opted.

When considering international cuisines at restaurants — either at restaurants that serve many cuisines or ones that specialize in one cuisine — there is one key agent in the search for knowledge and respect: the chef. Even fusion dishes can seem accurately representative under the guidance of a reputable chef who is knowledgeable and respectful.

In assessing “sharing versus co-opting,” consumers ask themselves: Who is the chef here? What is their intent? What cuisines are they borrowing from? What is their experience with the cuisine (travel, training, partnership, etc.)? Are they a member of that community, and if not, are they working with or learning from its members? Are they giving back?

Consumers also perceive restaurants differently depending on a brand’s size, prominence, and reputation. At larger, nationwide restaurant chains where the chef is not as prominent, consumers have lower expectations for authentic dishes. Consumers perceive many restaurants, such as Olive Garden and Panda Express, as inherently American despite their cuisine due to their associations with the food industry and the market economy. Small restaurants and local chains, as they are associated with higher-quality and more sustainable food, have more freedom to borrow from other cuisines, especially when led by a chef who identifies with the population or one who can offer a narrative around knowledge and respect.

The importance of “sharing, not co-opting or stealing” might be heightened in restaurants; the chef focus means potentially more freedom for culinary expression. Respect and reciprocity are still key, but a creative (and knowledgeable) chef also has room for playful fusion and culinary exploration.

In the end, regardless of the outlet, “sharing, not co-opting/stealing” matters as companies and brands learn to market to a changing American audience that is becoming increasingly diverse. Potential consumer critique may differ between channels (and brands), but a company that follows the ultimate rules of reciprocity and respect is more likely to find the sweet spot opportunity and tension in this dynamic space.

Click here to learn more about the Exploring the Diversity of American Foodways report.