Swedish Bakery added tres leches cakes to its pastry product line.
America has been a melting pot of cultures since Christopher Columbus first sailed the ocean blue. Defining anything as "American" can be tricky, including what classifies as traditional American bakery products. The definition is ever-evolving as the ethnic makeup of U.S. residents continues to change. In the last century, an Italian or Swedish bakery was considered "ethnic." Today, we often consider them "traditional" bakeries. The most popular ethnic products usually find their way into the mainstream.
Take tortillas, for example. Fifty years ago, you would have been hard pressed to find a tortilla outside of the states near the Mexican border. Today, tortillas are the second highest selling bread product in the United States after white bread. With most ethnic foods, 75 percent of those buying the products are not of the same ethnicity as the food’s origin, according to data from New American Dimensions (NAD), a Los-Angeles-based research company. Consumers from all demographics are becoming more adventurous and trying new flavors.
"You have to go with the flow," says Aaron Wasserman, owner of Teena’s Cake Fair in Brooklyn, N.Y. Teena’s customers’ tastes changed as its surrounding neighborhood changed from primarily Jewish to Caribbean. Wasserman knew the change was occurring, so "we just listened to what they [our customers] were asking for," he says.
They were asking for more color, especially with cakes, and different cake and filling flavors. Customers requested carrot cake, red velvet cake, Caribbean cake and more fruit flavors, such as strawberry, pineapple, mango and guava. The Caribbean cake is made with a lot of alcohol and fruit that is fermented for months. Much like a sour for bread, the fermented fruit needs to be continually refreshed. It took time to perfect the cake, Wasserman admits. The formula finally came together when his son asked his students in his adult education class to teach him how to prepare the cake.
To introduce the new products and to gain the trust of customers, Wasserman sold the cakes by the slice and in smaller sizes. Customers are more willing to try something when they don’t have to buy a large amount at first, Wasserman adds. The new cakes were so popular that he had to remodel his store to provide enough refrigeration.
He has remodeled the bakery twice in the past 20 years to keep up with customer preferences. When he added the new refrigerated case, he placed it so it is visible to customers. This allows him to "advertise" to all customers that he provides the cakes they are seeking.
Teena’s did not transform its entire product line. Instead, Wasserman added to his bakery offerings and cut back production on items with slower sales. "We do less bread," he says. "The cake business went up, but the bread business has gone down." Wasserman is not alone with his changing customer base.
Consumer media pundits have made much of the fact that Hispanics are the fastest-growing ethnic minority in the U.S. According to NAD, 39.9 million Hispanics live in the U.S., making up almost 14 percent of the population. According to the Food Marketing Institute, Hispanics are more likely to visit independent bakeries than other shoppers, and spend on average 25 percent more on groceries per week.
Hispanic bakery products are gaining momentum. In all major urban areas of the nation, Hispanic bakeries abound, and traditional Hispanic products, such as conchas, bolillos and tres leches cakes appeal to non-Hispanics as well.
In Chicago, Laura Cid-Perea opened BomBon Bakery about six years ago in a largely Mexican neighborhood. "Many people had an idea of a Mexican bakery, which was not the best in terms of quality," she says. "So, customers have been so happy with my bakery and the response has been great."
Diverse customer base
Her high quality products are drawing customers not only from the surrounding neighborhood, but from across the city and suburbs. "My customers come from all sorts of lives," Cid-Perea says. "We have Greek, Chinese, French and Italian." BomBon has expanded to include a cafe next door, another location in downtown Chicago and a fourth is in the planning stages.
Cid-Perea’s product line runs the gamut of Mexican pastries and cakes, including unique flavors for traditional products. For example, tres leches is commonly flavored with vanilla and cinnamon, but BomBon offers it in eight varieties. The bakery’s product line is 60 percent traditional Mexican products and 40 percent European pastries. No matter the product, she tries to use Mexican ingredients, such as chocolate and liqueur.
National supermarket chains also are opening stores for Hispanic customers, and their in-store bakeries are key components of the stores’ success. Winn-Dixie, Jacksonville, Fla., is one of the chains expanding Hispanic-geared stores. It recently converted 55 units to its Hispanic Neighborhood Merchandising program.
Traditional retail bakeries also are enhancing Hispanic bakery offerings. Even without a large Hispanic clientèle, bakeries can still profit from Hispanic influenced products. Dennis Stanton, owner of Swedish Bakery in Chicago, began offering tres leches cakes as a way to expand his product line.
The bakery started as an "ethnic" bakery in the 1920s, offering breads and sweets from Sweden. The bakery has since evolved to more of a pastry shop, serving an affluent, diverse neighborhood. The change of clientèle has allowed Stanton to expand his product line, such as adding the tres leches even though he does not serve a large Hispanic clientèle.
Some of the bakery’s products appeal to customers simply because they contain ingredients they are familiar with, Stanton says. For example, his Middle Eastern customers are drawn to his products spiced with cardamom, and his Hispanic customers often opt for his yellow cake topped with fruit.
Serving the Asian market
While Hispanic customers are fairly well served, other ethnic groups have yet to see their products become as popular. Asian Americans, which represent a culturally and linguistically diverse consumer segment, comprise five percent of the population, according to NAD. Of the 13.1 million Asian-Americans, 90 percent come from several nationalities, the largest being Chinese, Filipino, Asian Indian, Vietnamese and Korean.
Shilla Bakery opened in 1999 in Annandale, Va. The Korean bakery, offering mostly pastries and cakes, has since grown to four locations throughout the Washington, D.C.-metro area. The biggest hurdle for product crossover may be that traditional Korean sweets are not sweet enough for the typical American’s palate. "The products are a little different, not sweet like Americans think sweet," says Toni Sung, manager of the Annandale location.
The bakery sells a lot of mousse cakes, fruit-filled cakes and roll cakes, with the most popular being yellow and coffee varieties. Another popular item is "han-gwa," a Korean cookie. The light and crispy cookies are made with rice flour (a common Korean bakery ingredient) and mixed with honey. They were traditionally served at ancestor worship ceremonies and other special celebrations and are often artistically decorated and colorful.
While the majority of Shilla Bakery’s customers are Korean, the bakeries serve an international clientèle, Sung says. If other food trends are any indication, Asian bakery products may soon make it into the mainstream. Restaurants are offering more Asian entrees, and National Restaurant Association research shows a double digit increase in Chinese food on non-ethnic restaurant menus. In fact, according to NAD, Chinese restaurants in the U.S. outnumber McDonald’s, Burger King and Wendy’s units combined.
As bakeries add tres leches or even han-gwa to their product lines, they are serving consumers’ more adventurous eating habits. Most bakery foods have their origins beyond this country’s borders, but a bakery’s ability to adapt to consumers’ ever-changing tastes is truly "American."