Photo: add1sun, Flickr
Ketchup may still be king of the condiments, but these days, hot sauce is what's really hot. According to a report by market-research firm Mintel International, sales of ethnic condiments in the U.S. had been chugging along since 2005, but beginning in 2008, when the recession hit and folks started eating at home more, they've been hot as a habanero, increasing 4.8 percent in 2009, with $1.3 billion in sales. Mexican condiments are leading the way in this salsa-powered surge.
That's no surprise to Gloria Cabada-Leman, owner with her husband of the Carolina Sauce Company, in Durham, N.C. Started in 2003, Carolina Sauce is an Internet food retailer specializing in condiments and sauces. She said hot and spicy is a predominant theme these days even in places like New England and the Midwest -- normally bastions of hot-pepper wimipiness.
The most recent trend, Cabada-Leman said, is adding jalapeños (the gateway pepper, she called them) or even habaneros to items that normally don't have them – like ketchup. "In just the past 12 months or so, it has had the greatest increase in sales," she said. "Customers trying it and then coming back as repeat customers." Cabada-Leman sees two reasons for the trend. One -- let's call it food-TV syndrome. "I think people have become exposed to different cuisines and ways of cooking that they want to try at home," she said.
The other is a function of the general increase in the Latino population in the U.S. "Regardless how one may feel politically," said Cabada-Leman, who is of Cuban descent, "one benefit is that previously hard-to-find ingredients are now more available."
And you can thank Goya, the granddaddy of Latino food companies, for much of that. Goya has 1,600 products rooted in Hispanic food cultures, about 120 of them are condiments and seasonings. Sales are up, said Olga Luz, a representative for Goya. Same reasons: the economy combined with food TV.
"We are seeing a lot of non-Latinos who have a curiosity for the flavors," Luz said. "People are willing to experiment. 'What would happen if I put a little adobo on this chicken?'"
It all works for Jesus Puerto. Of Cuban descent, he and his brother Robert started two Soul de Cuba restaurants -- the first in New Haven, Connecticut, in 2005, and the second a year and a half later in Honolulu. Both specialize in the authentic Cuban dishes their grandmother and other family members made when the brothers were growing up in Florida.
Three years ago, Puerto added a Soul de Cuba product line that now includes the classic mojo his grandmother made -- a honey-sweetened version, a habanero-spiked version and there's a chipotle on the way. The Soul de Cuba line also includes his grandmother's vinaigrette, a mojito variation and a couple of mango salsas -- all available in a variety of stores nationwide, including Whole Foods, Wegman's and Winn-Dixie.
"It wasn't me; it was customers who were demanding it," Puerto said. "Americans want the authenticity we offer."