If ever you want proof that the world is getting smaller, a quick scan of your local high street eating establishments will confirm it. Once considered cosmopolitan, Italian is now everyday, as is Indian and Chinese, along with Greek, Caribbean, Thai, Vietnamese, Polish, Moroccan, Japanese, Nepalese and Korean, to name just a few.
In Time Out's restaurant guide to London 35 different ethnic food choices are listed. According to Mintel, the most popular food to eat outside of home after pub grub is Chinese, with Indian in fourth place. The traditional fish and chips only makes it to third place.
Between 2001 and 2006 the ethnic take-away market grew by 17%, with a similar growth in the number of restaurants. But while Chinese and Indian is the staple, Mintel shows that customers are becoming much more sophisticated in their choices and reports that Thai and Japanese are doing particularly well.
Also within ethnic food categories customers are becoming more sophisticated and knowledgeable, appreciating regional choices within a particular country. It's a trend that's being replicated in the home, not just with ready meals and sauces, but also with raw ingredients, and consumers are demanding authenticity and provenance. And as the demographic profile of the UK changes and borders fly open, then new foods are being demanded by new customers.
For the convenience store owner, simply keeping up with demands of new customers can be difficult. But whether catering for the pop-in customer on their way home from work looking for an Indian meal to throw in the microwave, or someone planning to cook a traditional dish for the family, c-stores have an opportunity to reflect local needs which the supermarkets can only dream of.
For Tates Spar Aberystwyth, stocking an extensive range of Chinese food has proved extremely profitable. The range was originally aimed at the 8,000-strong student population, of which about 400 are Chinese, and now it has been proved to have a much wider appeal among the permanent local population.
The shop originally started with a small selection of about 30 lines and now has 50-plus, giving it a one-metre section of six shelves plus a two-metre chilled section. The store focuses on noodle food but also stocks Chinese snacks, biscuits, corn sticks and all the ingredients to create meals. Says supervisor Darren Rees: "It works well. The customers seem to be really excited by it and now it's 50/50 locals buying it."
He says the range particularly appeals to students, who seem to enjoy the ease of noodles - and prices that start at 35p also make it appealing. The chilled section, which consists of soft drinks and teas, does well, and makes as much money as the other sections put together. Rees says that the policy of placing the range in one area pays off: "You've got to have impact and tell people it's there."
The shop sources through Spar in London and decreased some of its household goods to fit in the ethnic lines, as well as increasing shelf space through a refit. As many of the packets are in Cantonese or Mandarin, the store uses signs with a picture of the product and an explanation of use to encourage non-Chinese speaking customers to buy. Staff have also been briefed on how to use the products so they can answer any questions.
As well as Chinese products the store also has a good range of Indian food, and Rees says that the area managers are looking at sourcing Polish food. There are about 500 Poles in the town and 12 working
at the store: "They keep asking for Polish food, but we've got to find a source."
Rees says that while the Tates customers love the store's offering, it wouldn't work in all stores: "Over the years people stay on after University, so now we have quite a cosmopolitan community here. I'm not sure it would work in all shops."
Another store with a good ethnic offering is Budgens in Virginia Quay, London. When owners Hitesh and Andy Patel (no relation) first looked to open the store they spent days standing outside to see exactly who the local population were and where they were going. Recognising that there was strong potential Indian and Oriental customer base the two set about growing these two areas. The store now includes about 200 lines from these ethnicities, including an island chiller for ready meals, chilled complete meal packs and an ambient section for home cooking products.
Hitesh says: "We've only been open three-and-a-half months, so we're still experimenting a bit."
The shop also offers a 'Bombay Brasserie' in the food-to-go section, which is popular with customers.
He says that packaged Indian food is, on the whole, easy to source: "So much of it is done by Budgens, you know you're getting the same packaging and the same product." In fact, so popular is the Indian offering among the store's customers that they are now demanding fresh food as well as packaged: "Unfortunately, Budgens doesn't do this yet so we are looking into it. In the meantime we are searching for a local supplier."
Customers have now expressed an interest in frozen food and the store is answering this need with a range of 20 products.
There are difficulties, however, as food packaging is in Chinese and needs extra labelling at the store. Hitesh says there are plans to put up signs explaining what the produce is and what it's used for. "We're still finding out what customers want, though," says Hitesh. "We're on a learning curve."
According to Tom Fender, director at marketing analyst HIM, Japanese food is one to watch. "Japanese cuisine links very nicely with increased concerns about health. You can't really get much more healthy than raw fish."
Fender says ethnic choices often appeal to snob values: "It is seen as being slightly different - it's often for people who want to stand out. But as more and more people travel and experience things, it will spread."
He recommends retailers display foods from particular countries together and cross-reference with other lines such as alcohol and even DVDs for particular days in the calendar.
Stores with big local ethnic communities such as Polish could think about going that extra mile: "If they leaflet the area then it would make sense to publish in Polish and maybe think about having a Polish-speaking member of staff so that they can communicate with customers and answer any questions. You have to embrace it for it to work."