A more diverse ethnic US population is moving world cuisines to center stage for nearly all consumers, and new and exotic foods are popping up on menus in all segments of foodservice. Global cuisine is influenced not only by ethnic groups but by consumer preference for a change of pace. Discovery of new and different foods and flavors and interest in a gourmet, adventurous culinary experience are significant drivers, according to data compiled by the International Dairy-Deli-Bakery Association (IDDBA).

Health and nutrition still reign supreme, and product freshness and authenticity are considered when choosing ethnic foods. While millennials remain a significant target market, other evolving demographics are at play as well.

Millennials vs. multiculturals

Millennials’ taste for variety remains strong. Some 45% of them described their preferences as focused on “anything new and different,” according to a study by The Hartman Group, Bellevue, WA, “Outlook on the Millennial Consumer 2014.” Only 35% of Gen X and 25% of baby boomers made this claim.

“As today’s youth age into an era with a truly global palate, the expectation for — and interest in — globalized flavors will simply be taken for granted as a part of everyday life,” said David Wright, senior manager/marketing, The Hartman Group.

A recent report from Nielsen, New York City, identified the multicultural “super consumer” group that wields $3.4 trillion dollars of buying power. Multiculturals maintain their native heritage while seeing themselves as equally American, and they choose brands and products that reinforce their cultural roots, according to the report “The Multicultural Edge: Rising Super Consumers.” Their preferences affect the behavior of non-multicultural consumers. Some ethnic foods became more mainstream as non-ethnic consumers adopted food choices such as churros or flatbread sandwiches.

“J&J Snack Foods started making churros in the 1980s, primarily targeting ethnic consumers in the West and Southwest, because no one knew what they were,” said Gerard Law, senior vice-president of the Pennsauken, NJ-based company. “Now we have churros in theme parks all over the country, but younger consumers, like millennials, do not see them as ethnic because they have always been around.”

Packaged Facts, Rockville, MD, recognized the “trendsetter foodie” segment, consisting of millennials, Gen-Xers and baby boomers. According to the report “Foodies in the US: Opportunities for Restaurants and Retail, 2nd Edition,” trendsetter foodies seek out not only new food experiences but also new products of all kinds. Millennials represent 36% of trendsetter foodies; however, baby boomers account for 32% of this segment. While marketing to millennials makes sense, it is important to recognize that they are not the only influential segment among foodies.

Creating a diversified palate

The allure of globalized food styles is a direct result of a growing immigrant population and a generally more adventurous American palate, according to an IBISWorld report “Serving Up Diversity: Major Trends in the Food Services Sector.” As people experience more of the world due to blending cultures, travel and media, they want a high-quality gourmet experience and unique dishes. Ethnic foods deliver on “new” and “different” flavors and textures.

“Ethnic influences definitely play a role in the growing popularity of‎ ethnic foods, but I believe that film and world travel also contribute to people's curiosity and willingness to seek out and explore the rich variety of ethnic foods available,” said Sabine Veit, CEO, Bäckerhaus Veit Ltd, Mississauga, ON.

Sales of ethnic foods, which have increased steadily since 2004, grew to $8.7 billion in 2012, and the category is expected to grow by 20.3% from 2012-17, according to the report “Ethnic Foods, January 2013” from market research firm Mintel, Chicago.

“New flavor ideas and innovative fruit, grain and seed combinations for our products are inspired mostly by travelling but also by the constantly evolving food scene within our own city,” said Guy Ozery, co-president, Ozery Bakery, Vaughan, ON.

To remain competitive, product innovation must meet consumer needs balancing authenticity and familiarity while offering unique flavor combinations, according to the Mintel report.

“Bäckerhaus Veit continues to strive to meet the demands of its customers and develop a few of its own unique products,” Ms. Veit said. “However, our mainstream artisan products definitely remain popular due to their authenticity and respect for time and temperature as well as their natural‎ goodness and wholesome taste.”

The promise of new and interesting flavors, served with the expectation of a food experience draw consumers to ethnic foods and away from expected eating patterns. “Consumers are disconnecting from the past, rebelling from traditional eating and cooking and discovering their own adventures through food,” Mr. Wright said.

Fifty-three percent of consumers do this once a week, and when eating something different, 23% say they seek distinctive new flavors, according to the report “Culture of Food 2015: New Appetites, New Routines” from The Hartman Group.

Ethnic cuisines provide a break from the usual fare allowing consumers to experience a new excursion on their food journeys. At Ozery Bakery, product innovation is inspired by the bakery staff’s ethnic origins and real world experiences. “Inspiration comes in the most unexpected places,” Mr. Ozery noted. “Rye, which we use in one of our OneBun products, is extremely popular in Finland, where we spent some time purchasing a piece of equipment for the bakery.”

Technology influences millennials. They are the generation most likely to learn about ethnic foods via social media, according to the Mintel report “Defining Ethnic Food, August 2015.”

“This is a culture where consumers have everything at their fingertips using social media and technology, and they want to share their food finds and culinary adventures right away for immediate reaction,” Mr. Law observed. “Consumers are constantly looking for the next new combination, and food companies must keep up with changing tastes and preferences.”

Developing a global palate

Ethnic breads are a component in the broader spectrum of ethnic foods, and they are a part of many prepared foods. Baked goods with an ethnic flair create expectations with consumers, making them more interesting, especially to younger generations.

“The dates used in our Date & Chia Morning Rounds are a very popular fruit in the Middle East, and we thought they would be a perfect fit for the sweeter Morning Rounds flavor profile,” Said  Ozery said.

Consumers of all demographics embrace a variety of flatbreads and other world breads, like Middle Eastern pita, Indian naan, Armenian lavash, Italian ciabatta and Greek pita or gyro bread. And the foodservice industry is serving up paninis, wraps, crepes, pizza and gyros enveloped in fresh, ethnic-inspired, premium bread products.

Handi Foods, North York, ON, is creating new specialty flatbreads that satisfy the public’s taste for wrapped sandwich programs. “Handi Foods pita and flatbreads cater to both domestic and authentic taste,” said Jerry Chizick, vice-president and general manager. “Balady is our key brand for true Middle Eastern pita, while the Mr. Pita Brand is well known to traditional North American consumers.”

Multicultural growth has influenced demand for unleavened flat breads, according to data compiled by IDDBA. Flatbread sales grew at a 7% annual rate from 2012-14, outpacing the total bread category, and pita bread was the top selling flat bread in 2014. Naan and lavash flatbreads showed growth since 2012.

Artisanal manufacturers are introducing a wider swath of flavor combinations. “At Bäckerhaus Veit, our quest to develop new and on-trend products has proven successful,” Ms. Veit pointed out. “Blending popular products like sriracha‎ into our most sought out hand-twisted pretzels makes an instant winning combination.”

Make ethnic authentic

Health and nutrition are still compelling factors driving consumer choice. What goes into baked goods often appeals to both adventurous and health-conscious consumers, and ethnic breads are no exception.

“We have never compromised that delicate balance between taste and health. It’s the principle that guides us as we create new products,” Mr. Ozery stressed. “For example, we have been trying for years to make a berry-flavored Morning Round but could not reach that magical balance while using only natural or organic ingredients. We are still searching for that balance and will not compromise until we find it.”

Global foods are synonymous with health for many consumers. As long as products are considered authentic, they are perceived to be fresher, made with cleaner ingredients and of higher quality, according to Mr. Wright.

More than half of consumers polled perceived ethnic/international food to be generally healthier than other food options, and 66% felt it offered better options for vegetarians, according to the Mintel report “Defining Ethnic Food, August 2015.”

“Bäckerhaus Veit uses many grains in its products and soaks them to ensure maximum bioavailability,” Ms. Veit noted. “Our baking processes are time-honored generational traditions that differentiate us from others. It is the key component that produces bread with no preservatives and full flavor.”

Handi Foods makes its flatbreads with ancient and other whole grains. The company also has developed a process for freezing and thawing pita breads that delivers a softer, fresher product to the customer, making the breads both fresh and nutritious.

“For healthy breads and double-baked snacks, it’s about nutrition, and there are a variety of options,” Mr. Chizick said. “We have met growing consumer demand for health by developing products that include sprouted grains, ancient grains and super seeds, like quinoa and chia, and vitamins.”

Making the familiar unique

Ethnic fusion tops the list of hot cuisines/flavors for 2015, followed by authentic ethnic, regional ethnic, Peruvian and Southeast Asian cuisines, according to the National Restaurant Association (NRA) survey “What’s Hot in 2015.”

Ozery Bakery was on the cutting edge, developing Morning Rounds and Ciabatta Thins. The company understands the importance of staying ahead of the ever fickle tastes of consumers who want innovative combinations of flavor and texture while also remaining authentic. The bakery adapted an old family recipe for pita breads, tailoring it to the North American market.

“Both of these product lines are deeply rooted in our family’s history and food culture but look nothing like the original,” Mr. Ozery observed. “I don’t think our grandmother would ever have imagined adding dates and chia to any of her flatbreads. However, the fruits and grains in our Morning Rounds are what make the product unique.”

Once consumers have repeatedly eaten ethnic foods such churros, those foods are no longer considered ethnic but mainstream. Last November, J&J Snack Foods created an Oreo-flavored churro.

“Millennials crave the food experience, and they will mash up all combinations of flavors just to say they’ve tried it,” Mr. Law said. “What better way to reinvent the churro than to fuse it with America’s favorite cookie, the Oreo.”

The company markets Oreo churros as a specialty treat. They are available in traditional churro sticks, double-twisted churros and bite-size churros. “While the health kick is in full force, people still want indulgences, but they want them to be unique,” Mr. Law observed. “They want fun and a great food experience fused with new and different flavors. The Oreo churro merges the ethnic and the familiar.”

An over-the-top example of fusion is the “Churro Dog” created at the Arizona Diamondbacks’ Chase Field. It is a churro topped with ice cream and served in a split doughnut instead of a bun.

Foodservice leads the charge

Handi Foods provides fresh and frozen pitas, flatbreads, pizzas and snacks to supermarkets, retail bakeries and foodservice outlets. “We do a number of private label products across North America as well as products for inclusion in other retail packaged foods,” Mr. Chizick noted.

Schwan’s Food Service, Marshall, MN, sees a heightened interest in ethnic foods and flavors across all segments. For K-12 schools, the company offers its Minh Stir Fry kits in student favorites like Orange Chicken and Teriyaki Chicken.

“Millennials, who have grown up with a more sophisticated food experience and are now in the workforce, expect to see their favorite items in their employee cafes as well as in a variety of the restaurants they frequent,” said Carol Willenbring, senior marketing director, integrated marketing, Schwan's Food Service.

Colleges, however, tend to be among the first to adopt new ethnic flavors, offering them alongside long-standing favorites. As they move away from home, college students become more open to sampling new flavors. Colleges are actually educating students about food and flavor.

"College foodservice operators are anxious to celebrate the diverse backgrounds of their student populations with a broader array of ethnic flavors, and they also want to meaningfully compete with independent ethnic restaurants that are often located nearby campuses,” Ms. Willenbring said.

Bakers work with foodservice operators to meet demand for fresh, authentic, innovative products that keep customers wanting more. Bäckerhaus Veit reviews customers’ operational preferences to determine whether par-baked or fully baked proves more beneficial. “We determine any gaps foodservice or retailers may have in their bakery line up to decide which product is best suited to their specific needs,” Ms. Veit explained. “To assist deli and foodservice recipe building, we pair ingredients that they already carry, as well as introduce innovative or healthier alternatives to create excitement and tempting options.”

Ozery Bakery is finding success using its flatbreads and crackers as components in different ready-to-go snack and meal solutions. “There is increasing demand as foodservice market segments are expanding their prepared food categories and seeking components that pair well while also providing unique and healthy options,” Mr. Ozery said. “We are seeing this trend growing in cafes and convenience stores and spilling into grocery chains and cafeterias, and we expect tremendous growth in this segment.”

Ethnic cuisines are expected to remain popular over the next five years due to persistent growth in immigration, the influence of millennials and other evolving demographics, and the blending of world cultures. The food industry will capitalize on these trends if it continues to create ethnic foods that fuse the new and unique with the healthy and nutritious, while providing consumers with the gourmet food experience they seek.