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World flavors: Latin heats up

Used to be that quesadillas, salsa and guacamole only showed up in Mexican and Latin-style restaurants.

These days, the menus of countless “American” concepts carry these dishes and others. And diners looking for more esoteric fare—from Oaxaca and Veracruz in Mexico or even Peru, Guatemala and the Dominican Republic—now have plenty of choices in every segment.

Whether you run a restaurant with a Latin theme or simply offer a few Mexican-type menu items, there is a greater quantity and variety of food products available from a growing number of broadline and specialty suppliers. According to Packaged Facts, a research company, the market for Latin on the menu was worth $18 billion in 2005. Manufacturers and producers are targeting foodservice by breaking down Hispanic into three categories:

Mainstream Mexican—Items such as tortillas, tacos, burritos, nachos and salsa

Authentic Hispanic—Foods that aren’t necessarily Hispanic but are imported from Latin countries. Included is tropical produce (plantains, guavas, tomatillos and certain chilies) and ingredients like masa, sofrito and epazote.

Nuevo Latino—Typical American foods with some Hispanic ingredients or flavors added. Examples are habanero Tabasco Sauce and dulce de leche ice cream.

Striving for authenticity 

With menus going way beyond nachos and burritos, suppliers and distributors are scrambling to find sources for authentic ingredients to meet demand. Beans, corn, chilies, seasoning mixes, sauces and other products are being imported in greater quantities and manufactured by more American companies. For the “fresh-Mex” and Nuevo Latino categories, canned and processed products are being replaced by uncooked salsas, handmade tortillas and preparations that call for fresh, tropical produce. And companies such as Simplot and Gilroy are using new technology to package labor-saving refrigerated products like fresh guacamole and avocado slices and fire-roasted chile peppers.

Packaged Facts’ Latin on the Menu report points out the product and ingredient trends that could impact your future R&D and purchasing decisions:

Latin-influenced sandwiches, like Mexican tortas made with refried beans, avocado and sour cream; Cuban pulled pork; arepas (soft corn cakes) with meat toppings

Fresh on-the-spot guacamole: some establishments allow consumers to customize ingredients and make the guacamole tableside

Braised pork dishes

Innovative uses of novelty meats in traditional Latin cooking, like suckling pig and kid goat

Any kind of vegetable or fruit salsa, especially fresh-made and hand-cut

Adobo, mojo, chimichuri and other Latin sauces and marinades

Chorizo, linguica and other Latin sausages and ham types

Fresh tropical produce of almost any kind: guavas, mangoes, papayas, chayote, tomatillos, nopalitos (cactus leaves), taro root, malanga and jicama, bitter oranges, limes, Meyer lemons, plantains, red onions, fresh coconut, pineapple, Peruvian and other specialty corn, exotic capsicum and piper peppers.

Three Fresh Takes on Latin

1. Rooted in Mexico
Mercadito translates as “little market,” so it goes without saying that sourcing authentic ingredients is key to the concept. The concept operates as a full-service restaurant at two New York City locations and a modern taqueria at a third; here, fresh salsas, sides, guacamoles and make-your-own tacos with house-made corn tortillas are the draw. Fillings, sold by the pound, include grass-fed skirt steak, jumbo shrimp, organic chicken and pork belly. “Although new to the U.S., the street food concept is a very traditional way to purchase meals in Mexico,” says chef-owner Patricio Sandoval.

To get the right product mix for his three menus, Sandoval buys from four to five vendors. “I can find 95 percent of the ingredients I need in the U.S.” For produce essentials such as tomatillos, exotic squashes, key limes and fresh chilies, Sandoval relies on Sid Wainer, a Massachusetts-based purveyor. “They can even get epazote and hoja santa—two leafy herbs that characterize certain Mexican dishes,” he notes. But Mercadito imports unusual dried chilies and items like masaca (dried corn meal) and blue and white dried corn for tortillas from Mexico, using a shipping company located there.

Since the three Mercadito locations go through cases upon cases of avocados, Sandoval is justifiably fussy about quality. “I use the Hass variety from either Mexico or California, depending on the season, but you have to be careful when the seasons are about to change.” Mexican avocados are best from October through March, while those from California peak between January and August.

2. Fast-casual fresh-Mex
With its emphasis on “fresh,” the biggest challenge for the Miami-based Lime Fresh Mexican Grill is sourcing produce. “We purchase from a small family-owned supplier [Darien Produce] who sends buyers to the local farmers’ markets to find the best quality,” says John Kunkel, founder and CEO. “We want to find vendors like that in every market as we expand.” All three Lime Fresh locations (soon to be five) get fresh fruits and vegetables delivered daily—many of which go into six homemade salsas for the concept’s signature salsa bar.

When Kunkel launched Lime Fresh in 2004, the small kitchen space forced him to get daily deliveries. “We still order the same way and use up all of our fresh food within a day,” he explains. “This results in almost zero waste and spoilage.” Kunkel is also fanatic about jockeying his orders among many South Florida suppliers to get the best prices and most consistency. A local vendor supplies fresh corn tortillas and chips, a specialty Latin company imports products from Mexico and a supplier of hot sauces sources about 50 varieties.

“In the beginning, I tracked down all the products I wanted and found vendors who sold them,” he says. As the chain’s purchasing volume grew, Sysco came on board as a partner, but Kunkel is still vigilant about checking the broadliner’s prices every week to make sure he’s getting a good deal and the best quality—benefits he passes on to franchisees. 

3. A Cuban accent
Guillermo Pernot, concept chef at Cuba Libre Restaurant & Rum Bar in Philadelphia, Atlantic City and Orlando (opening this fall), describes his menu as “how Cuban cuisine would be today if it was allowed to flourish.” His cooking features both old world and Nuevo Latino influences; a dish like Ropa Viejo (braised shredded beef) represents the former, while Camarones con Cana (sugarcane-skewered jumbo shrimp with mango BBQ glaze accompanied by a crispy Anaheim pepper stuffed with creamy quinoa, sweet potato and queso fresca) sports updated fusion elements.

Pernot infuses dishes with authenticity through various techniques. He transforms pork shoulder, for example, by marinating it in a mojo of sour orange juice, Mexican oregano and spices, then cooks it four to five hours for a characteristic Latin flavor and texture.

Cuba Libre buys from local producers and suppliers whenever possible, sourcing from New Jersey and Pennsylvania farmers in the warmer months. Although menu staples such as sugarcane, yuca, calabaza and boniato are tropical crops, Pernot’s local purveyor delivers them to his locations six days a week. For the Orlando location he plans to be able to source more easily from Central and South America and the Gulf of Mexico. “The further an ingredient has to travel, the more expensive it becomes,” he says.

Even though Latin dishes typically stretch meat, poultry and seafood with vegetables, fruits and grains, controlling food costs is a huge challenge right now. “The price of rice has increased 800 percent since the beginning of the year,” Pernot claims, “and fuel costs are pushing up the prices of seafood and produce.” 

Q & A with Marla Karvonides

Sales manager, Expo Comida Latina

What began as a small trade show for vendors and buyers of Hispanic foods and beverages six years ago is now a pan-Latin bazaar of products for foodservice and retail. Expo Comida Latina has grown along with the popularity of Latin cuisine.

How has Expo Comida Latina changed since its inception in 2002?
We branched out from a regional Los Angeles show to become national in 2004, holding events in New York City and Texas. We also co-located with All-Asia Food and Kosherfest, which attracted almost 10,000 attendees and 700 exhibiting companies to New York in 2007. This year, we’re returning to doing one national event in Los Angeles.

What are some of the “hot” Hispanic product categories?
Energy drinks are one of the fastest growing segments. This trend started in 2005 and keeps accelerating. Baked goods are also going strong.

Have you noticed a greater number of Latin food suppliers?
Along with the industry leaders, small and medium-sized companies are now exhibiting to create a larger Latin base. Our 2008 exhibitors will represent such countries as Mexico, Peru, Colombia, El Salvador, Brazil, Nicaragua and Honduras, offering a greater diversity of food and beverage sources for restaurant operators.

How else can restaurants find sources for Latin products?
There are several Web sites, including MexGrocer.com and NovaMex.com (a foodservice distributor). I also suggest Comida News, a free e-newsletter available at expo-comida-latina.com.

Menus speak Latin

Restaurants tend to feature Latin cuisine through specific flavors and ingredients rather than entire items, claims Menu Trends DIRECT, a menu analysis service from Datassential. While 24 percent of U.S. menus offer a Mexican entrée like tacos or burritos, 44 percent feature a Mexican-inspired item (one with jalapeño, chipotle or another Latin flavor.) Influences from other Latin American countries are expected to follow a similar course.

Leading Latin American foods and flavors from MenuTrends DIRECT

Mango 19%
Relleno 8%
Flan 8%
Papaya 4%
Ceviche 3%
Yuca 3%
Plantain 3%

Pick a pepper

It wasn’t too long ago that chefs had to settle for hot pepper sauce or pickled jalapeños to give dishes a Latin kick. Today, a wide variety of fresh and dried chilies are available for restaurant kitchens, each imparting
a distinctive flavor and heat. Gilroy Foods, a major supplier of peppers in various formats, offers this guide to some of its distinctive chile varietals. The higher the Scoville Units, the hotter the chile.

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