The ethnic foods market in the UK is big business, but exporting ethnic products abroad is no mean feat. Delegates at a recent Food From Britain conference in Birmingham, The Evolving World of Ethnic Foods, heard about the opportunities in the foreign markets for UK-manufactured ethnic foods, leaving Clare Harman to ask, how can producers make the most of the appetite for ethnic?

Ethnic food is a booming market in the UK. As long-haul travel increases, the home delivery sector flourishes, restaurants offer more exotic experiences and busy lives dictate a growing reliance on chilled ready meals; the global palate is becoming increasingly varied. Exporting the various cuisines on offer in the UK has the potential to be big business.

At a recent conference hosted by the UK’s leading export marketing agency Food From Britain, The Evolving World of Ethnic Foods, delegates were presented with an overview of research conducted by FFB’s international offices across 11 countries, and completed in September 2001. The retail market for ethnic food is worth £962m (US$1.39bn) per year, an increase of 16% on 1999. The annual expenditure in the foodservice sector meanwhile accounts for £2.7bn, and furthermore that figure is growing, against an otherwise static market, by 1-2% per year.

Admittedly, the ethnic growth phenomenon in the UK is currently unique when compared to the appetites of other European countries, but FFB has found that similar trends exist on the continent to those that precipitated the marked growth of the ethnic food market in the UK. Such countries, according to FFB’s director of marketing and international management, Simon Waring, offer “a niche market very close to exploding”.

This gives UK manufacturers the advantage of time over their European counterparts in the race to corner the ethnic market, argues Waring: “Ethnic food is an area where [UK manufacturers] already enjoy an international reputation for innovation, high quality products and authenticity.

“British manufacturers [have] refined their production techniques, and invested in extensive new product development programmes. Ranges now include blends of different ethnic cuisines, regional dishes from known ethnic categories and even curries for kids,” he adds. But just how do UK manufacturers translate these strengths into a foreign market? And how can British producers create the foreign markets in the first place on which to sell their non-indigenous tucker?

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Educate the masses

British consumers enjoy one of the more mature markets in terms of ethnic offering. Long gone are the days when the concept of egg fried rice was alien; supermarket shoppers now enjoy an array of diversified tastes, with meals not just from different countries but from specific regions within these countries. Manufacturers also have a large portfolio of dishes, some organic, catering for particular dietary requirements, for example vegetarian.

Ethnic means something utterly different in every market. Italian food, for example, so ubiquitous in countries such as the UK, France and Spain as to be considered practically indigenous, is quite alien to the Chinese palate. The differentiation is largely driven by proximity to foreign neighbours and the scope of the imperial powers. While Britons were cultivating a love affair with the curry, the Dutch were experimenting with Indonesian dishes, and the French adopted the North African dishes of their colonies. It is also dictated by waves of immigrants setting up communities. An understanding of countries’ culinary history is a basic, and essential need.

Another side to the coin is the lack of depth of understanding on consumers’ parts. Suppliers of Indian food often bemoan the consumer perception that Indian cuisine is curry cuisine. Getting around this is a challenge for exporters, for whom education is a key tool in export marketing. As export sales manager for an agency dealing with the export of UK-manufactured ethnic foods, and the import of foreign brands to the UK, Peter Webster explained how G. Costa & Co realised the need to fully introduce the foreign consumer to the foreign product. The entrance into the French market was too positive, said Webster, with too many assumptions that the market would be similar to the UK.

The company now touts its ability to adapt its approach accordingly, in terms of marketing and even linguistics, and its focus on PR, with various educational promotions and demonstrations.

Selling ice to Eskimos

An interesting twist comes in with the notion of exporting ethnic with a glance at those companies selling their products to the region they ought to have derived from; selling ethic is not always about creating a new market from scratch. Costa notably sells its Blue Dragon range of Chinese foods, which is produced in Wales, to Japan and Thailand. The stir-fry sachets, designed in 1986 for British consumers fond of Chinese restaurants but lacking the confidence to create the dishes at home, have proved immensely popular in East Asian markets.

Getting a slice of the pie

Such countries, it may be assumed, enjoy sufficiently strong trade and cultural links with neighbouring China to be able to source such products a little more locally, but the story of Costa is telling in its ability to capitalise on the global trend towards convenience in cooking. It also highlights an important point; it’s all about marketing. UK manufacturers benefit from knowledge, experience and a branded history that prove a formidable force in the global food market.

But how do companies such as Costa develop overseas markets where sales depend on convincing consumers to try something new? Webster explains that Costa has developed “operation kick-start” – a seven step plan for introducing the company’s products in new markets. The keystone is finding a suitable supplier and gaining distribution before pushing to create the market. It involves visiting trade shows, presenting to the trade, educating consumers and supporting the brand at all stages.

Spice up your life?

As far as the major brands go, product adaptations are largely anathema, but the advice given by S&A Foods export manager Roland Scott flies in the face of this. The EU comprises 15 countries and 300 million people, he says, how can we cross that many frontiers with no modification? On a basic level, adaptation for a continental market could involve creating long life versions of ready-to-eat meal products, or even making it easier to get home for consumers using bikes in Holland.

Despite seeking to supply authentic, quality curry products to the upper class French supermarket chain Picard, S&A eventually found itself removing 40% of the spice from their Saag offering before the retailer thought the notoriously sensitive French palate would be convinced to buy it [interestingly, they also increased the meat content significantly].

Scott sees no reason why compromising on the spice levels should go hand in hand with a lack of authenticity. It was a similar story for S&A in Germany when they de-spiced their curry. For the future however, Scott revealed that S&A will be turning the rule book upside down by introducing a chilled offering and serve-over meal solutions in stores that specialise in frozen food products.

Curries are difficult, however, as adaptations lend themselves as canon fodder to those who argue that a curry without the spice can no longer be called a curry. A jalfrezi, as Nighat Awan, CEO of Shere Khan restaurant group pointed out, is simply no longer a jalfrezi once you have removed the green peppers. So the need for quality and authenticity that drives Picard’s customers in their shopping decisions, conversely actually delivers anything but an authentic curry experience. A curry by any other name meanwhile … is perfectly entitled to ditch the spice.

Whether exporting ethnic fare is a matter of employing innovative product development, apposite marketing skills or simply manufacturing experience, maintaining authenticity and quality of ingredients is important. So too is a true understanding of your market and its clear differences in taste and eating habits. Maintaining a balance meanwhile is essential and at the end of the day, it will be those companies addressing all the issues who will see plenty of eastern promise for their export businesses.