People like to try new things — now more than ever, according to foodservice and retail industry reports.

Despite the shape of the economy, consumers aren’t just going back to basics. They’re looking for flavors from around the world, trying to find innovative tastes they’ve never experienced. Specialty produce companies are up on this trend, ready to supply ethnic restaurants with the tamarind or savoy cabbage they need, as well as consult the American restaurant on how to incorporate an item to set it apart from its competition.

Karen Caplan, president of Frieda’s Inc., Los Alamitos, Calif., said ethnic food has been on the rise for a long time, but that the trend has more traction lately.

Diners looking for new flavors, trying more ethnic cuisines

Courtesy Frieda's Inc.

Tamarindo is also known as the Indian date, according to Frieda's Inc.'s Web site. Its pulp is used in drinks, chutneys, curries and other tropical specialties, according to the site.

 Retail sales of ethnic foods, which have been climbing steadily since 2004, are set to hit a record high of more than $2 billion in 2009, according to a recent report from Mintel, a consumer, media and market research firm with U.S. headquarters in Chicago. Consumers are cooking different ethnic meals at home more often, and the foodservice industry generally sets the trend for eating at home.

“In regards to foodservice, they’ve always tried to differentiate themselves, being up with the next culinary trend, and it ends up trickling down to retail,” said Robert Schueller, director of public relations for Los Angeles-based World Variety Produce, marketer of Melissa’s brand specialty produce.

Schueller said the emergence of more varieties of specialty produce available on a year-round basis helps restaurants create different dishes with ethnic flavors on menus.

“Guavas, for example, are now available on a year-round basis instead of seasonally,” Schueller said. “And that’s a staple ingredient in Mexican cuisine.”

As much as chefs and restaurant operators tout seasonal menus, the truth is, when they find something that works, they want it to be a staple dish on their menus, and they want it to be available year-round, Schueller said.

Caplan said seasonal menus are picking up, though, even among chain restaurants, so whether a produce needs to be available year-round depends on the restaurant company.

Mexican and Hispanic foods make up the majority of the ethnic food market with 62% of sales at retail, according to the Mintel report, but the category isn’t the fastest growing. Indian food saw a 35% sales growth from 2006-08, and Asian food had 11% growth.

According to Technomic Inc.’s 2009 Flavor Consumer Trend Report, consumers want new options at restaurants, and they want those options to be inspired by flavors from around the world. Technomic’s consumer survey found 42% of foodservice consumers are more likely to visit restaurants with new or unique flavors on the menu.

“Now you go to the Cheesecake Factory, for example, and you’ll find a lot of Asian foods, curry, and Mexican options,” Caplan said.

Mexican, Asian and Italian flavors are mentioned on menus heavily, and both have strong ties to fresh ingredients, said Kelly Wiekel, senior research analyst for Technomic and author of the report.

Wiekel said garlic and pepper flavors are especially prevalent in these three ethnic food categories. Hot and smoky peppers, chilies, jalapenos, citrus and lime are top flavors in Mexican cuisine, she said.

“Fruits seem to be appearing often on the menu as ingredients in tropical-style Mexican sauces, such as in the tamarind-flavored sauces at the emerging chain El Torito,” Wiekel said.

Chilies and other peppers are also popular in Italian and Asian cuisines, as well as aromatic citrus, garlic, ginger, orange and lemon in Asian cuisines, according to the report. Consumers reported lime and chili flavors in the top 10 among the most appealing flavors for them.

Consumers may have an idea of what they like, but they also reported a desire to try something new. Two-thirds of consumers said discovering a new flavor at a restaurant can persuade them to return, while more than half said they would want to try new dishes at that same restaurant. Consumers also reported being more interested in trying new flavors than they were one year ago, and they said they are willing to spend more on a meal with new or innovative flavors.

Caplan said some of Frieda’s latest product introductions, black garlic and garlic delight, were two of the most well-received product introductions for the company.

In addition to Asian, Mexican and Italian cuisines, others on the rise are Spanish, Hawaiian, Tex-Mex, Greek and Caribbean and Mediterranean, according to the report.