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Why it matters:
- 49% of U.S. consumers say they are interested in global street foods—ready-to-eat foods prepared and/or sold by vendors in public places such as streets, markets, and parks—according to research firm Datassential.
- The prevalence of the term “street” on U.S. restaurant menus has doubled in the past 10 years, the research firm found.
- Consumers are increasingly able to taste these foods at home, thanks to products from CPG giants such as Kraft Heinz, Kellogg’s, and PepsiCo, as well as founder-led startups like MìLà, an Asian-owned food business led by married entrepreneurs, and SOMOS Foods, launched by three friends from Mexico.
Consumer interest in authentic experiences has been driving the growth of “street foods” (ready-to-eat food prepared and/or sold by vendors in public places such as streets, markets, and parks) from around the world on restaurant menus, and more recently on supermarket shelves in the form of consumer-packaged goods.
“When you go to another country, the most authentic thing you can do is act like a local and just go get street food,” said Caleb Wang, CEO at MìLà, which makes frozen Chinese foods for sale online and at several retail locations in the Pacific Northwest.
Wang and his wife Jen Liao, both second-generation Chinese American entrepreneurs, co-founded the Asian-owned and led business in 2018.
American consumers have become widely familiar with Chinese ingredients and flavors over the last several decades, which has primed them for new experiences within the realm of Chinese cuisine, he said.
“The demand side is really moving towards authenticity, and that’s what we’re bringing to the table,” said Wang.
Likewise, Miguel Leal, Co-founder and CEO of SOMOS Foods, which was founded by three friends who grew up in Mexico, agreed that consumer interest in authentic street foods has grown significantly in recent years. These types of foods not only provide interesting flavors and experiences, he explained, but they also offer the advantage of being easy for consumers to eat on the go.
“Across the board, there has been rising consumer interest in ethnic foods as the world becomes more global, and with street food, one of the main draws is convenience,” said Leal. “It’s food that you can pick up and eat on the go that is never lacking in flavor.”
Maybe 20 or 30 years ago, we would have had to adapt and consider whether this dish is actually accessible for a wide audience,” he said. “But our thesis is that everyone in America now wants this, and we want to be as authentic as possible.
Caleb Wang, CEO, MìLà
Courting consumer cravings for authentic, global street food experiences
Kraft Heinz last year relaunched its Delimex line of frozen foods, which it described as “fresh and authentic” Mexican street food. The line, founded by Mexican-born entrepreneur Oscar Ancira Sr., includes several different types of taquitos and tacos. Delimex, a name formed from the combination of “delicious” and “Mexican,” brings “Mexican street food to Main Street,” Kraft Heinz said in a statement.
And when Kellogg’s introduced its Vanilla Bean Grab & Go Waffle in April, the company touted it as a “Belgian-inspired street food staple” based on Liège-style waffles popular in that country.
A recent report on street foods from research firm Datassential found that 49% of consumers say they are interested in global street foods. The prevalence of the term “street” has more than doubled in the last 10 years, and now appears on 9.3% of restaurant menus. Datassential predicts that street foods will continue to grow on restaurant menus, reaching 11.2% menu penetration by 2026.
“Street food has gained incredible popularity over the past five to seven years, and there’s no sign it’s slowing down,” the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT) said in a recent edition of its Food Technology Magazine. “From arepas and banh mi to pierogis and poutine, street food showcases the authentic flavors of a culture and appeals to consumers looking for new experiences.”
MìLà, formerly known as Xiao Chi Jie, seeks to offer restaurant-quality, modern Chinese dishes made with premium, all-natural ingredients, both direct to consumers and through select retail outlets. The company launched in 2018 as a brick-and-mortar store in Bellevue, Washington, and added frozen direct-to-consumer products in 2020. MìLà now offers a range of soup dumplings, noodles, sauces, and ice creams.
MìLà’s former name translates literally as “street food avenue,” while the new name is a mash-up of the words for “sweet” and “spicy.” This better reflects the range of high-quality foods that the company now offers, said Wang.
While the company’s soup dumplings and some of its noodle dishes are considered street foods, some of its other products are not. Some products are dishes available only in a handful of restaurants in places like New York and San Francisco but have not before been available on a wider scale. It also has a couple of noodle dishes in the pipeline that have not been available at all in the U.S.
Consumers are ready for these new taste experiences, however, Wang said.
“Maybe 20 or 30 years ago, we would have had to adapt and consider whether this dish is actually accessible for a wide audience,” he said. “But our thesis is that everyone in America now wants this, and we want to be as authentic as possible.”
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Food-truck culture informs street food innovation in the grocery aisle
Many global street foods have become familiar to consumers through restaurants and food trucks before moving into retail. Restaurants, food trucks, and other prepared-food venues have the unique ability to garner immediate customer feedback and quickly test and tweak recipes, while retail product development tends to happen over longer time periods, and often only after products have proven themselves in foodservice.
Wang said that offering products directly to consumers via e-commerce, however, has helped provide MìLà with consumer data to support the product innovations it has rolled out to retailers.
“Our approach is to do a lot of tests and learn new products and new flavors in our direct-to-consumer channel, where you have limited-edition products, and you don’t have to commit to having it full-time,” he said. “Then we take those learnings, and we take the best and most popular flavors, and then that is what we send through retail.
“If you don’t have that test-and-learn capability, you’re not going to find the next kind of ‘hero’ product as well,” said Wang.
More widespread acceptance of global street foods also eases some restrictions on pricing, he said. “Now with the maturing of the ecosystem, I think people appreciate quality authentic, ethnic foods, and that gives a lot more latitude to grow,” said MìLà’s Wang.
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Bringing Mexican street food to life: ‘The biggest opportunity I see is to move from delivering street food inspired dishes to street food inspired experiences’
The product is based on Mexican esquites — an off-the-cob version of elotes (grilled corn on the cob generally topped with mayonnaise, cotija cheese, chili, lime, and cilantro), which is widely available in both versions from pushcarts in Mexico.
Esquites- and elotes-inspired flavors and ingredients have also appeared in several other consumer products, including Mexican Street Corn Cheetos from PepsiCo, Pringles Mexican Street Corn Crisps from Kellogg’s, and Mexican Street Corn Inspired Guacamole from Sabra, according to the IFT.
At SOMOS Foods, some of its other products have also been inspired by Mexican street food ingredients, Leal said. For example, SOMOS uses mango and pineapple in one of its Salsa Macha Mexican Chili Crisp products.
“While not traditional salsa macha ingredients, they are common fruits used in many types of Mexican cuisine and are often used in Mexican street foods, which is an experience and flavor profile we wanted to bring into this product,” he said.
SOMOS Foods also uses “walking tacos” — a street food common in food carts at small-town plazas across Mexico — to promote its products. Walking tacos are made using a small bag of crushed tortilla chips, with the bag cut open and the crushed chips topped with seasoned meat, cheese, and other toppings, meant to be eaten on the go.
“At in-person experiences and on our owned channels, we’ve featured a SOMOS walking tacos recipe to introduce people to our portfolio of products and show them how to eat our products as a complete meal,” said Leal. “Introducing this recipe in the U.S. market has led to great trial and engagement for our brand.”
Leal said he enjoys taking friends, partners, suppliers, and customers to Mexico to explore the culinary scene and look for inspiration.
“One of my favorite things to do is take them to various street food vendors – anything from churros and street corn rice to ice cream and beverages,” he said. “There is a clear opportunity to bring some of these flavors to the U.S. market, however the opportunity is even larger to bring the experience of street food to life through recipe creations, social media content and even through leveraging technology. The biggest opportunity I see is to move from delivering street food inspired dishes to street food inspired experiences.”
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