The United States is becoming more diverse, with 4 of every 10 Americans identifying as non-white. But grocery stores have been a poor reflection of that mix of cultures. Now, a group of BIPOC food entrepreneurs are encouraging buyers and retailers to expand the range of products featured on store shelves.
“It has to start with leadership at the top saying, ‘We have to champion emerging brands because it’s good business,’” says Clara Paye, founder of UNiTE Foods, a maker of protein bars with international flavors. “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.”
Paye was part of a panel at Natural Products Expo West discussing the challenges and opportunities for founders of color. The U.S. food system, the panelists lamented, is far from equitable. For example, though foods like kimchi and miso are staples in Asian countries, shoppers are hard-pressed to find a broad and deep array of multicultural food products at a typical American grocery.
“There wasn’t an avenue if you weren’t born and raised in America,” Paye explains.
Reclaiming Food Culture
The panel stressed that they could never find the traditional foods they ate growing up when they went to American grocery stores. First- and second-generation immigrants have never been the focus of major retail food brands. Underserved in this way, these BIPOC founders say they started their companies to reconnect with the flavors of their cultures.
“We felt it was a travesty that the second largest continent in the world [Africa] didn’t have any reflection in mainstream grocery,” says Perteet Spencer, founder of Ayo Foods, which sells West African frozen dishes and jarred sauces. (Spencer — a former employee of SPINS, a retail sales data provider for natural products — spoke at a TFA webinar in 2021).
But she notes the food system is changing: “It’s clear that the market has shifted over the last several years and is embracing global flavors.”
Expanding the flavor of Mexican cuisine is the goal of Miguel Leal, co-founder and CEO of Somos, maker of Mexican meal kits.
“There’s stereotypically this (belief) that ethnic food has to be cheap,” he says. “It can be beautiful or clean or premium.”
Vanessa Pham agrees, adding there’s a narrative that authentic ethnic food should only be served in hole-in-the-wall restaurants. Pham is co-founder of Omsom, which makes chef-created Asian dishes. “Authentic” is a complicated term, she says.
“Authenticity sometimes pegs and limits food founders and chefs to a nostalgic idea, ‘How my grandma made it’ or ‘The traditional way,’” she explains. “We believe BIPOC chefs should be able to innovate. Cultural integrity is much more about doing your research, involving the right people and compensating ethically.”
Ethnic Aisle: Integrate or Celebrate?
The ethnic aisle in groceries is a debated topic among BIPOC food leaders. Some say it’s an easy way for shoppers to find international products; others argue it’s an antiquated and offensive placement.
“I like the ethnic aisle, I just don’t like the way it’s showing us today,” Leal says. “It’s a little bit of a caricature.”
A recent survey by Adobe found 66% of African Americans and 53% of Latinos feel their ethnicity is portrayed stereotypically in food advertisements.
Pham views a future where the hodgepodge of products in the ethnic aisle disappears, and rice noodles are sold next to spaghetti. Paye agrees. “I think it will be a thing of the past, a funny thing where we put candles and beans and matzo balls.”.