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Dismantling cultural stereotypes in the supermarket

ANAHEIM, CALIF. — The nation’s population is diversifying more quickly than predicted.  America’s grocery stores have not kept pace, according to a panel of food entrepreneurs speaking at Natural Products Expo West, held March 8-12 in Anaheim.

The founders of Omsom, Somos Foods, Ayo Foods and Unite Foods discussed the challenges and opportunities of expanding representation on retail shelves and building a more equitable food system. Miguel Leal, co-founder and chief executive officer of Somos Amigos, Inc., maker of Mexican food brand Somos Foods, said his brand exists to “replace the narrow view of Mexican food” in the United States “with one that is as diverse as the food I ate growing up.”

Developed by former executives of Kind Snacks, Somos offers shelf-stable, slow-cooked Mexican foods including rice, beans, tortilla chips, salsa and plant-based entrees, inspired by family recipes that have been passed down through generations. Products are produced in Mexico, and the company sources the majority of its ingredients from Mexican family farms.

“We decided to start the company when we saw some of the division and some of the misconceptions regarding Mexican culture and Mexican food,” Mr. Leal said.

Omsom, the “proud, loud Asian home cooking” brand created “to reclaim Asian flavors that have been diluted in grocery stores for far too long,” offers a line of meal starters, combining the sauces, aromatics, seasonings and oils needed to cook a specific dish, such as Thai larb, Korean spicy bulgogi or Vietnamese lemongrass barbecue. The products are developed in collaboration with tastemakers (who are equitably compensated) specializing in cuisines spanning Southeast and East Asia.

“From day one as the daughters of Vietnamese refugees, we were dead set on centering an Asian American audience in everything we do,” said Vanessa Pham, who co-founded the company with her sister, Kim. “We felt like that in and of itself was something we had never seen. We had seen lots of brands angling around traveling the world through food, but what about the Asian consumer for whom it’s what we grew up on?

“For that very reason, everything that we do is really centered on the Asian American community, but that does not mean that other folks don’t love it and that we don’t welcome them into our community. It’s just how we choose to speak and how we choose to show up.”

The daughter of a Liberian immigrant, Perteet Spencer launched Ayo Foods with her husband, Frederick, two years ago. The brand offers frozen meals featuring West African recipes ranging from jollof rice to cassava leaf stew to egusi soup. More recently, the company added jarred pepper sauces.

“We wanted to create a grocery aisle where our girls can see themselves,” Ms. Spencer said. “Our core is really first-generation West Africans who are like me, time strapped and don’t have the time during the week to spend four or five hours making a meal that’s reminiscent of home. But we found that there’s a much broader audience that we talk about, cultural explorers, who are looking to explore West Africa with the flavors we bring with Ayo, and that’s been a really exciting community to see build. … We also partner with leading West African chefs to bring their thoughtful approach and farm-to-table flavors to more consumers. That group was notably underserved in the past, and so we are also providing a solution for them as well.”

Four out of 10 Americans identify with a race or ethnic group other than white, according to census data, signaling an unprecedented decline in the nation’s white population. A one-size-fits-all approach to marketing consumer products and services is no longer acceptable, said Noramay Cadena, managing partner at Supply Change Capital and moderator of the panel discussion.

“Sixty-six percent of African Americans and 53% of Latinos feel their ethnicity is portrayed stereotypically in advertisements in food,” Ms. Cadena said. “By-and-for-the-community solutions are a key driver to reaching these populations.”

Clara Paye founded Unite Foods as an entry point to wellness for multicultural shoppers who often are underrepresented or misrepresented in the marketplace. Her brand offers a line of protein bars inspired by comfort foods and nostalgic flavors around the world. The recipes include almond butter or peanut butter, whey protein, organic hemp hearts and chicory root fiber, with flavors ranging from churro to Mexican hot chocolate to peanut butter and jelly.

“We want to co-create with our community to make the flavors people feel are missing in their cultural heritage and representation on the shelves today, and we want to crowdsource our future flavors and our future product launches,” Ms. Paye said. “That’s integral to our mission of the brand.”

Landing shelf space in grocery stores can be financially “crippling” for emerging brands, Ms. Spencer said. The panelists expressed hope more retailers will support minority-owned businesses by waiving slotting fees, dedicating endcaps and creating marketing programs and opportunities for storytelling.

“It has to start with leadership at the top, saying, ‘Hey, we want to champion emerging brands because it’s good business,’” Ms. Paye said. “Let’s face it. Your customers are diverse. They’re looking for diverse products. Create the incentive structures for buyers out there to have those placements and do it confidently.”

After gaining traction online, Omsom is debuting on retail shelves this year.

“What I’ve been learning is in-store marketing is so important to drive awareness and trial for emerging brands like ours,” Ms. Pham said. “It’s really hard for us to compete with the budgets of conglomerates, so we would love to see more programs supporting brands like ours, getting the word out, and giving us the opportunity to tell our story in a meaningful way, ideally off the shelf.”

Much of the conversation centered on the ethnic aisle in supermarkets, which the panelists described as a nonintuitive “hodgepodge” of products that some shoppers perceive as lower quality or unhealthy.

“Eventually I think the ethnic aisle will be a thing of the past,” Ms. Paye said. “It will be like, ‘Wasn’t that a funny thing that… we put candles and beans and matzah balls on this one aisle? ‘I think it will be something seen as archaic as this beautiful country evolves.”