Published on: August 8, 2019
Yesterday MNB took note of a Financial Post
story about how American restaurateur/chef David Chang “wants the ethnic food aisle to die.” Chang argued that the notion of an ethnic food aisle is ”out of date and doomed … because it puts ‘all the places in the world that are not White America’ in one aisle.”
wrote that Chang “urged supermarkets to mix it all up instead, putting sauces with sauces and spices with spices, regardless of where they came from. That format would fit better in the ‘hodgepodge’ of modern cuisine, he said, where diners and home cooks know enough about food not to think of it in terms of ethnic or mainstream.”
Chang said, “I’m not saying it’s straight racist, that’s not what I’m trying to say. But it is pretty close to it — because it’s values of how we ate years ago.”
I commented:It is, I think, a provocative notion, not to mention a timely one. We all have different ethnic makeups, and yet Chang’s position is well-taken - “ethnic food” is a description generally - though not always - reserved for foods that emanate from cultures that are non-white.
I’m honestly not sure how I feel about this. It is nice to know where to find stuff that is seen as exotic. But we are in different territory now, and companies have to be sensitive about issues that never seemed to be controversial.
MNB reader Louis A. Scudere responded:As a general rule I like to think that I am a person who is pretty opened minded and, at 65, I continue to be willing to accept that times they are a changing and we must change with them. However, I am unaware of a "sauce" section in a traditional supermarket unless one is speaking of condiments. Is a pasta section with spaghetti sauce denigrating Italians? (my ancestry) Is the salad dressing section disparaging of vegetarians? The fact of the matter is that the traditional North American supermarket has always been merchandised/organized for optimal operational efficiency and has rarely been organized in a way that facilitates truly solving the consumer's meal solution problems.
Consumers for the most part think in meal segments: typically breakfast, lunch, dinner, snacks and beverages. So, if we are going to truly reorganize a supermarket why not have a breakfast boutique or a dinner division or a snack segment (and, for that matter in this day and time how does one define a snack or breakfast versus dinner?)? Simple, because it would be confusing and inefficient. For example I have a deconstructed lasagna that I make, the original recipe calls for sambal oleck, an Indonesian chili paste...way too hot in my opinion so I use a sweet Thai chili sauce....under the chef's recommendation where would I find either of these items? Would there be a "paste" section as well as a "sauce" section? My guess is that the chef makes his own sauces therefore rarely has the conundrum of the typical supermarket consumer of "ok, where the hell do they (the supermarket) keep (name your unique item here)?”
Having lived my adult life as an Italian Catholic in the South I have from time to time been referred to in pejorative terms by people who had no clue that they were doing so. That is not in any way equivalent to the discrimination suffered by others, it is just to say that I am not oblivious to the bigotry which is endemic in our society at a personal level. I am all for giving those who have been marginalized over the decades the freedom to express themselves in a manner which they feel allows them their proper voice within society. And when one contemplates this concept a little further, in some ways doing what the chef says could achieve a certain level of equality given that no one, regardless of ethnicity, could find anything. But honestly, in my opinion, a well intended, but misguided, solution to a problem that does not exist within the four walls of the supermarket.
Another reader chimed in:I've been in Food Retail my entire working career and this question has been tossed around for tens of years. "Why not put the Ethnic, Specialty, and Natural products with their respective mainline category groups?" The most common argument for it is to give the normally segregated products more exposure/more traffic. But the reasons against are worth considering. When the products are segregated they are more protected. They are allowed to live in the space they are given and are not immediately in jeopardy when a major mainline manufacturer comes out with a hot new product. If a category manager needs to cull his/her assortment to make way for new items, the first metric to look at is almost always unit movement, and in that view, Ethnic, Specialty, and Natural don't usually rank in top 80%.
At retailers, Ethnic, Specialty, and Natural are usually managed by someone other than the mainline commodity category managers. That operating model allows for increased expertise in those niche areas, which I believe is a valuable qualification.
If retailers were to integrate all those niche products and maintain the aforementioned operating model, multiple category managers would be fighting for the same shelf space.
MNB reader Joy E. Williams wrote:“Ethnic food” is a description generally - though not always - reserved for foods that emanate from cultures that are non-white.
So what? Why is that bad? (and how is that racist?) It helps direct the shopper on how to find what they are looking for – which I view as a good thing.
From another reader:I have mixed feelings on this as well. For convenience, I'd like a store layout that puts all sauces in one area. But I still think in terms of Mexican, Chinese, or Italian food when I go to a restaurant. Maybe the issue is with labeling? If it's "ethnic", it does sound a bit provincial - after all, we're all of one ethnicity or another. Perhaps calling a section "foods from around the world" would be better?
For the retailer it probably comes down to what works best for their shoppers. Of the 2 large chains near me, one serves a very ethnically diverse community and the other is more homogenous (primarily Western European). The store in the ethnically mixed area has their food stocked by category, as Chang suggests, while the store in the homogenous area has aisles dedicated to food around the world. Both stores are well-run, all the aisles are busy, and there are a variety of SKUs I can't find elsewhere.
Trader Joe's has an interesting approach. They vary their brand labels based on the item (e.g. Trader José brand for traditionally Mexican staples, Trader Giotto for Italian). It gives a nod (and a wink) to a food's heritage, while also recognizing that when we're looking for sauce, most of us would like them all in the same aisle.
And from another:I understand the thought behind redefining the category. It will take a huge amount of education to retrain the consumer to look for picante sauce next to BBQ Sauce. On the other hand it could help when you are looking for something out of the ordinary and aren’t sure where you should look. Interesting perspective that will require a rethinking of food categories.
MNB reader Susan Kemp wrote:This issue never crossed my mind, but he makes a valid point. As a consumer, I would welcome having like ingredients placed together. Seeing all would pique my curiosity and I might try something new. Currently, unless I specifically need something from the global aisle, I bypass it completely, so I may be missing out on many options.
MNB reader Kelly Dean Wiseman wrote:It’s not difficult to make the transition away from using the term “ethnic”.
Just use identifiers like “Asian”, “Mexican”, and so on.
This actually serves the shoppers better as folks looking for Asian foods are often not the same people looking for the entirely different Mexican cuisine.
We’ll all know we’ve gone a bit too far, maybe, when we start seeing “Canadian” signage in the aisles.
MNB reader Mary Schroeder wrote:I agree. Drives me crazy when my grocer decides something is a ‘specialty’ item and I don’t. C’mon, when you mix it with ketchup, mayo, potato chips, aioli and popcorn (as they have with sriracha) it’s no longer a specialty food.
And, still another MNB reader wrote:I am all for mixing in products In regardless of their “ethnicity.” But “not saying it’s straight racist” “but it is pretty close” is not true.
Hey it was not too long ago Italian products were in the so called ethnic aisle by cuisine not by racial makeup.
I have had customers who had entire aisles devoted to Goya products It made it easier for their very diverse customer base to find what they needed.
Many retailers have labeled those aisles food from around the world.
Before Chang pressures retailers to change perhaps what is not broken they need to survey the shoppers and ask if that is how they want those products merchandised. It may surprise him.
Let’s keep political views out of the aisle and embrace that people are more open to a wide range of cuisine.
I fear it may be too late to take politics out of the supermarket aisle. I get criticism occasionally about even running these kinds of stories on MNB; the argument is that I should not let a site about business get into politics, though my response is that I only do it because the world of politics keeps invading my world.
(Also, considering the biggest retailer in the world is right at the center of one highly charged political issue, it would be irresponsible of me not
to write about it … though that clearly is the decision made by other sites in this space.)
As for the ethnic food question, I guess I think that if that kind of segregation of product is communicating something negative to some customers, then it is up to retailers to think about it in different terms than in the past.
On a related subject, I got the following note from MNB reader Amy Longsworth:I’m not sure why you titled the recent piece “Walmart CEO clarifies position on guns”. McMillon actually didn’t clarify anything, and you had to refer to a Walmart spokesperson several graphs down to get the fact across that they plan to do nothing. McMillon calls Walmart “a learning organization.” I would call them slow learners. If he were to read — or even just look at the pictures (infographics) — of any of the dozens of national and international studies correlating gun availability to deaths by shooting, he would instantly learn what the problem is.
MNB reader Rich Heiland wrote:Let’s cut to the chase. We do not have to wait on government to stop assault-type weapon sales. Walmart, Academy, Bass Pro et al could announce tomorrow that they will be pulling those from the shelf. They do not have to stop ALL gun sales. I could still buy my deer rifle, my bird shotgun. Will they? Dunno. And I concede that unless all major gun retailers take the action it would be tough for one to do it.
Then again, does anyone really think solving this epidemic is going to come without sacrifice, pain and a certain amount of inconvenience?
And, MNB reader Karen M. Alley wrote:I just wanted to say I appreciate all you said on Monday morning, your editorial on the El Paso shootings. What happened in El Paso is not the fault of Walmart, by any means. People are looking for someone or something to blame, other than themselves, but maybe it's time we all start taking action and doing something. It's hard to know what to do, but maybe just not blaming others is the first step.
On another subject, MNB reader Howard Schneider wrote:Thanks for the brief but important item recognizing the obvious: Amazon is indeed a player in logistics. The Motley Fool quote validates my anecdotal observation: at some U.S. airports, I have counted more cargo planes in Prime livery than FedEx or UPS.
My pleasure … who knew that we’d have another Amazon-FedEx story less than 24 hours later?
And another note from MNB reader Monte Stowell:Kudos to Publix supermarkets for outstanding financial results. Maybe Kroger, Albertsons/Safeway, and other large supermarket chains should spend sometime in Florida and other markets where Publix has stores analyzing what makes Publix results so outstanding. Walmart still has better retail pricing throughout the aisles versus these traditional chains, so it is not a pricing issue. It is about the people working in the stores and the overall shopping experience that gives Publix such favorable high ratings with their customers.
And finally, from another reader:Just wanted to share that while looking forward to MNB everyday, I now really enjoy reading the "Your Views" section the most.
It's heartening to see people exchanging a diverse range of ideas in a civil fashion, especially in light of current society. Healthy discourse is important, but not while trying to shout someone down just because they have a different opinion.
I for one am pleased to be part of your readership that seems to be filled with amazing people who have a lot of street cred and you had better not be planning to retire anytime soon.
I’ll take that last part under advisement.