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Produce a key part of Chinese New Year celebrations

The beginning of the annual Chinese calendar is based on the cycles of the moon, and so the specific day is different each year. In 2005, it falls on Feb. 9.

The Chinese named each of the 12 years after an animal, based on a Buddha legend. This year is proclaimed the year of the rooster.

The celebration may not be as widespread across North America as Jan. 1, but the Chinese consider it one of the more important days of the year. As the Asian population grows across the United States, produce suppliers are keeping pace with the equally growing demand for food products these groups use during the holiday as well as throughout the year.

?Asian spices are more popular than ever," said Patsy Ross, vice president of marketing for Christopher Ranch in Gilroy, CA. "Cuisines from other cultures have taught food marketers that any food item is delicious when the right herbs and spices are added. Garlic is known as a traditionally Mediterranean ingredient, but it is also an imperative part of Asian cooking. Ginger is also important to this category."

Christopher Ranch recently added a nine-ounce jar of ginger paste to its line because consumers wanted more than its four-and-a-quarter-ounce jar.

Ms. Ross said that the company ships fresh ginger year round today, most of it from Hawaii. "We shipped about 2.5 million pounds of fresh ginger in 2004, mostly in 30-pound cartons," she said. "But we also sell a lot in both five- and 10-pound cartons and in one-pound netted retail packs."

Ms. Ross said that restaurants deserve credit for moving the Asian trend forward. Panda Express, a mall food-court chain, has put a dent into traditional burger-and-fries chains.

?Kids are quickly becoming acclimated to Asian flavors, and frequently request the food as a meal alternative," she said. "The category will continue to grow until items like ginger are staple ingredients in American kitchens."

Christopher Ranch began shipping garlic/ginger stir fry in spring 2004. It is available in 4.25-ounce jars. Paul Auerbach, president of Maurice A. Auerbach Inc. in South Hackensack, NJ, said that the company also offers ginger year-round today, and that he has seen the growth of sno peas and some non-traditional items as well.

?Asparagus, garlic and shallots all continue to sell strong to the Asian population," he said. "But we also sell a lot of organic ginger, garlic and shallots."

The company also handles regular bok choy, napa and daikon. Mr. Auerbach said that daikon sales continue to increase from year to year, both in Asian and conventional markets.

?At retail, there is no way for us to know if Asians or others are buying the products," he said. "I agree that cooking shows and cookbooks help the Asian category to grow, but I also think it has to do with the growing Asian population in the United States. People are also looking for different accompaniments to meals, and they are using more vegetables as the main dish."

Mr. Auerbach said that diversification has a lot to do with the growth aspect of the overall Asian category. He predicted that it would continue to grow strongly in the future.

Robert Schueller, director of public relations for Melissa?s/World Variety Produce in Los Angeles, said that Asian vegetables are the most diverse of any ethnic category. And he noted that green vegetables make up the bulk of the category.

?The Asian trend is spread far beyond the country?s major cities," said Mr. Schueller. "Areas along both the East and West coasts may have the most pull in terms of sales, but inland cities are showing the strongest growth."

He said that one of the stronger spurts of Asian food activity falls right after Jan. 1 because so many Americans make losing weight a resolution, and these products are synonymous with healthy, low-fat menus. Chinese New Year falls on the heels of the annual weight-loss promises. This gives retailers the opportunity to promote Asian products from the beginning of the year.

Mr. Schueller said that it also gives retailers a good opportunity to test the market with Asian products or to expand Asian sections. Melissa?s recommends that retailers stock the 10 core Asian vegetables: sno peas, fresh ginger, daikon, sugar snap peas, regular and baby bok choy, Chinese long beans, Napa cabbage, Japanese eggplant and Chinese eggplant.

He added that some fruits are also typical of those used in Asian cultures, including pummelos and Oro Blanco grapefruit, Korean pears, Asian pears, tangerines, starfruit, sweet young coconuts and even some unique fruits such as Buddha?s Hand.

?Buddha?s Hand is traditionally given as a gift because it is a symbol of good luck and good fortune for the coming year," said Mr. Schueller.

To help retailers effectively promote the Chinese New Year, Melissa?s offers a promotional package that includes recipe pads, shelf danglers and shelf strips to help call attention to the holiday.

Shelly Fong, marketing manager for Frieda?s Inc. in Los Alamitos, CA, agreed that educating and helping retailers to effectively promote Asian foods is important to their success. She said that the Asian category is more segmented today than in the past, noting 29 different Asian groups in the United States today.

?Each has a cuisine that is unique and traditional, even though we put them all under the "Asian? category," she said. "For example, Cambodians use lemongrass, tamarind and galangal. The Vietnamese add fish sauce, mint and coriander to their native dishes. Chefs who want signature flavors are creating cross-ethnic dishes that combine French techniques and ingredients with an overlay of Asian ingredients for totally unique flavors and looks."

Ms. Fong also agreed that the new home gourmet trend has growing numbers of people experimenting with new flavors inspired by celebrity chefs and the plethora of interesting cookbooks. This adds to the demand on foodservice operators and retailers to merchandise to several segments at once.

?It presents a great opportunity for us to assist retailers and foodservice operators in merchandising, usage, branding, labeling and other issues that help them market Asian foods," she said. "Frieda?s marketing programs include materials that provide suggestions on effective displays, promotional materials and other merchandising suggestions, such as how to market Asian products to non-ethnic groups."

Besides traditional Asian vegetables, Frieda?s top-selling Asian items include Asian pears, pummelos and Sharon persimmons.

?It doesn?t matter if it is a full-service Asian produce department, if the category is small but growing or if it is brand new to a retailer," Ms. Fong said. "With the right merchandising program, it holds enormous potential."

Ms. Fong commented that Asian cuisine is also simple and fast to prepare, and it offers incredible flavor profiles " aspects that typical Americans look for when thinking about meals.

Susan Bucher, director of sales and marketing at Morinaga Nutritional Foods Inc. in Torrance, CA, makers of Mori-Nu silken tofu, silken lite tofu and silken tofu made with organic soybeans and other soy-based products, said that soy is as traditional to the Asian community as any product. She is encouraged that produce departments in grocery stores are dedicating more space to soy products today.

?The public awareness of the health benefits of soy continues to grow tremendously," said Ms. Bucher. "We have seen double-digit increases every year for the past several years. It might lead to other departments in grocery stores being downsized to allow produce departments to expand to meet the growing demand for soy products. Given the media attention to health, fitness and obesity these days, that would be a good thing for the public."

Mori-Nu tofu is aseptically packaged, so does not compete with products requiring refrigerated shelf space. It is frequently sold in non-refrigerated displays.

Oranges and tangerines meet the etiquette protocol dictated by Chinese New Year. It is traditional to bring a bag of oranges or tangerines when visiting someone?s home during the 15-day-long celebration. Leaves must be left attached to the tangerines to ensure that the giver?s relationship with the receiver remains secure throughout the coming year.

The Chinese also believe that decorating with flowers is an imperative part of the New Year?s celebration because they are symbols of nature and connected with happiness in the coming year.

Gloria Shofstall, floral director for Charlie?s Produce in Seattle, said that the company will sell flower arrangements to supermarkets specifically designed for Chinese New Year. The company deals with retailers including QFC, a division of the Kroger Co.; Thriftway; and Red Apple Markets.

?We will put together bouquets of yellow football mums wrapped in red Mylar," said Ms. Shofstall. "It is a tradition to give money as a gift during the holiday, so we tuck an envelope with cute Chinese motifs printed on it into the arrangements. Gift-givers need only to put their money in the envelope, and they?re all set for gift-giving."

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