Processors of Ethnic Foods Find a ‘Bridge’ to Meeting Skyrocketing Demand

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Affordable cooking equipment such as continuous spiral ovens and mini flame grills provide a cost effective bridge for producers of ethnic ready-meals to meet skyrocketing demands.

Population migration around the globe, the interest in diverse “foodie” TV and Internet programs, and the trend toward higher quality, healthy packaged foods have all contributed to amazing growth in ready-to-eat ethnic foods today.

Whether it is fresh salsa, hummus, gyro meat, Chinese stir fry, or tofu, many ready-to-eat ethnic foods that were once considered specialty items found in the ethnic food isle of a grocery store are now mainstream offerings.  The growth and interest in these types of foods, in fact, has been so phenomenal in the last decade that many of these products no longer seem “ethnic” at all.

Furthermore, this trend shows no signs of slowing any time soon.  According to consumer market research firm Mintel, the sales of ethnic foods will grow by another 20 percent in the next couple of years, with diversity increasing substantially from earlier in the decade when Mexican/Hispanic were dominant with over 60 percent share of the ethnic food sales.

More recently, Asian and Indian foods grew by 11 and 35 percent, respectively. Other foods of ethnic origin, such as hummus and tofu, have grown by hundreds of percent in popularity around the globe.

To meet the dramatically increasing demand, many smaller, specialty food processors are increasing the variety and type of ready-made ethnic and global fare offerings.  Hummus, for example, is now offered in organic and non-organic varieties such as artichoke, eggplant, garlic, roasted red pepper and even Chocolate.  

Yet, the challenge to smaller food processors is how to expand production to meet the explosive demand for these products. Where modest food processing equipment was adequate even 5 years ago, many now must find cost effective equipment that can serve as a bridge to meet higher volume requirements while also retaining the authenticity and quality of the dishes they produce.

Handling warp-speed growth

The food processing equipment issue was familiar to Jack Aronson, CEO of Garden Fresh Gourmet brand foods (Ferndale, MI), the producer of a broad line of handcrafted, all-natural salsa, guacamole, tortilla chips, hummus and other ethnic foods.

Starting out as a husband-and-wife team that began making a fresh blend of artichoke salsa on a small table in the back of their restaurant, Aronson’s company has grown from $4 million in sales in 2004 to over $100 million this year.

“We’re experiencing a lot of growth in ethnic foods.” Aronson explains. “So there is an inherent need for those products to be fresh and natural, and to use authentic ingredients. That’s one of the reasons why ethnic foods like salsa, guacamole and hummus are healthy.”

His passion for creating authentic traditional foods led Aronson to questions about what kind of food processing equipment would enable Garden Fresh to meet skyrocketing demands while still retaining the traditional appearance, taste and texture of the foods that were previously handcrafted in a small kitchen.

In addition to increases in the varieties and volumes of salsas, the company wanted to keep up with the booming popularity of hummus throughout much of the world, because much of Garden Fresh’ growth was due to the rapid growth of that product.

At the same time, Garden Fresh was looking to expand its product line to include Lebanese kofta (an Indian dish of seasoned minced meat), cubano peppers, and possibly other ethnic dishes, so flexibility of equipment was also important.

“With an eye to the present and future, we looked at a lot of different types of equipment,” Aronson says. “Then a business associate mentioned that Unitherm Food Systems (Bristow, OK) makes cutting-edge line of cooking and chilling equipment that might be ideal for our company.”

The line includes equipment that is compact yet surprisingly productive and affordable, such as mini flame grills and continuous mini spiral ovens and chillers.

Another important thing was Unitherm had Garden Fresh ship its original product to the factory kitchen where they tested the products using different types of cooking and chilling equipment, Aronson says.

“They recommended specific systems as well as parameters such as cook times and temperatures,” he says.

Aronson says the equipment he bought brought him up to speed in product volume while also enabling him to retain the quality that is essential to Garden Fresh foods. It also allows him the flexibility to handle his growing assortment of products.

“When I do things on a large scale, for example, such as eggplant for my hummus, it goes through the fire-roaster in about 45 seconds,” explains Aronson. “If it is a thick product, like carrots, it also has to be cooked on the inside. So, we put the carrots through our fire roaster to get the caramelization that enhances appearance, and then we bake them in the spiral oven, which finishes the cooking process.”

Garden Fresh also uses the new fire roaster to cook peppers that are used in several dishes, including salsas.

“We used to roast peppers on a gas grill, which was a very painstaking method,” Aronson says. “But when we got a large account, it was obvious that we needed a new approach. Now, using a spiral oven, I can now do 1,000 lbs of vegetables on the spiral oven in the time it took me to do 20 lbs. on a gas oven.”

Unitherm’s flame griller and mini flame griller systems function as standalone cookers or as searing ovens that may be used directly in-line with a continuous oven. Adjustable flame burners allow for the enhancement of flavor, color, and yield.

The spiral ovens, available in full-size, mini and micro sizes, are recommended for steaming, roasting, broiling and baking, as well as and post pasteurization, and can be coupled with a chiller and loading systems to suit processing needs.

Aronson adds that one of the other benefits of the spiral oven is its compact size, which translates to high volume output in a relatively small space. Because the oven spirals in a vertical direction, the footprint can be as small as 7 ft. x 7 ft. x 5.5 ft.

Economical expansion

The explosive growth of ethnic and global foods has also created a need for “Panache! Creative Cuisine” to meet high volume opportunities without requiring major capital outlays. 

“We are launching a new line of “Street Foodz” that will span our six core categories (sandwiches, salads, entrees, snacks & sides, breakfast and desserts) with ethnic flavor profiles,” explains Jonathan Stack, President of “Panache! Creative Cuisine” (Baltimore, MD). “We plan to incorporate Indian, Asian, Mediterranean, European, Cuban, Latin American and other styles of foods into that line, which will require considerably higher volumes.” 

Stack says that his company has been growing at a double-digit rate for the past five or six years, partly due to the success of Panache’s Kosher operation “Bubbie’s Gourmet”. The outlook for continued success with other ethnic-based fares is so bright that the company is planning to open additional operations in the South, Midwest and on the West Coast. 

“We’ve been studying this growth opportunity for several years,” Stack says. “Unitherm has given us valuable help in understanding our choices of affordable equipment that can allow us to produce ready foods in much higher volumes and still retain or even enhance our quality standards. Also, they have some very innovative designs and that allows us to incorporate more equipment in a limited space along with the ability to process different types of food using the same equipment.” 

The type of equipment Panache! is considering includes spiral ovens and chillers, as well as flame tunnels, mini flame grills and rice and pasta cookers. These types of cooking systems provide Panache! with the capability of producing ethnic and world foods that include traditional ingredients and global taste profiles while also featuring authentic textures, markings, color and highlights.

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