WASHINGTON — When Salvadoran immigrant Vilma Norberta needs a pound of ground beef, she drops by her local Giant supermarket in northern Virginia. But when she wants some tamarind fruit to make a refreshing beverage on a summer evening, Ms. Norberta heads to a local bodega, one of the hundreds of small Latino markets that dot the suburbs of Washington.
"This Giant doesn't have it," says Norberta, waving a hand at the large grocery store. "I buy my tamarindo in La Tienda Ramos. It has all of the produce I want from my country, and at a better price, " she says of the small market in a Hispanic neighborhood of Alexandria, Va.
But Norberta's shopping options for her favorite native products could soon expand. Increasingly, large supermarket chains are pushing aside the apples and bananas to make room for exotic products such as tomatillos (compact green tomatolike vegetables in papery husks) and jicama (large brownish tubers covered with spiky hair) as they aim to attract the growing Hispanic middle class.
Hispanic purchasing power jumped 160 percent over the past decade, to $542 billion in 2002, according to the latest data from the Food Marketing Institute (FMI) in Washington. Already the nation's largest minority group, the US Hispanic population surged 13 percent between April 2000 and July 2003, to nearly 40 million individuals, the Census Bureau reported recently.
Supermarket chains have recognized this trend and have responded, especially by adding new ethnic foods to the product mix, says Todd Hultquist, spokesman for FMI. They have a big financial incentive for doing so: Hispanic shoppers spend more on groceries per week than typical shoppers, he notes.
"Part of this is due to the fact that mealtime is a cultural facet of Hispanic households," he explains. "They cook from scratch, they cook at home more often, they eat out a lot less, and that means they're shopping in stores more often."
Hispanic shoppers make between 16.1 and 18.3 visits to a grocery store per month, about twice the 8.8 times per month for non-Hispanic shoppers, according to FMI.
In the late 1990s, the Shoppers Food and Pharmacy chain, which operates 60 stores in the Washington and Baltimore area, started targeting shoppers who had moved to the US from Latin America. "Until about five years ago, Hispanic customers were being underserved and doing most of [their] shopping in the bodegas," says Kurt Schertle, vice president of grocery merchandising for Shoppers.
Today, a Shoppers store may devote up to 200 feet of aisle space to products aimed at Hispanics or other ethnic groups, depending on its location.
At one northern Virginia store, the aisle is marked "International World of Foods." Among the hundreds of products found here are the popular Jumex and Goya brand nectars in flavors such as guava, malta, and mango. Another top seller is the 4.4-pound bag of Maseca brand corn flour.
"Ten years ago, I didn't know what Maseca flour was," Mr. Schertle says. "Now we sell more Maseca flour in our stores than Gold Medal, Pillsbury, and private-label flour put together."
In addition to stocking foods from a number of Spanish-speaking countries, Shoppers has also made an effort to better serve Hispanic customers by employing Spanish-speaking workers and adding signs in Spanish, Schertle adds.
Hispanic consumers welcome such efforts, says Santiago Ogradon, executive vice president of Castells and Asociados, a Los Angeles marketing and advertising firm that focuses on the Hispanic market. But he also suggests that supermarkets stock Hispanic foods with similar items throughout the store, rather than relegating them to a section with signs such as "Hispanic Foods" or "Ethnic Foods."
"It helps [people] find the food OK, but it's not very inclusive," Mr. Ogradon says of separate sections. "They'd rather shop the store like anyone else." He notes that Hispanics want to find their spices in the spice section and their beans in the bean section.
Hispanic consumers also don't care about fruit or vegetables lined up on "fake grass with the sprinklers on it," he adds. Instead, they prefer produce in crates. "That is a visual clue that it is fresh off the farm or fresh [from] the harvest."
Despite some progress, the grocery-store industry has reached out too slowly to the Hispanic community, Ogradon contends, and Hispanic-owned stores are moving in to fill the need. For example, the large Mexican supermarket chain Gigante plans to open 71 stores in the US by the end of the year.
The small bodegas, meanwhile, are confident of their ability to compete. They offer something that the large chains don't: a taste of the home country, says Marvin Moreno, manager of the Chirilagua Supermarket in northern Virginia.
"What I see is that Hispanic people would rather go to a Spanish-speaking place so they can be more comfortable when shopping," says the 34-year-old immigrant from El Salvador. "They are looking for their beloved items from home."
Entering the Chirilagua store in a small strip mall is like stepping into a Latin country.
As Spanish music pulses out of the store's sound system, consumers survey aisles piled with sweet breads, dried beans, spices, and rows of tall glass candles decorated with Catholic saints.
The produce section is filled with open bins of yucca, plantains, papayas, calabazas squash, and fresh sugar cane.
A butcher cuts meat to order while he chats with customers from behind a counter surrounded by low shelves of dried fish in plastic bags.
Meanwhile, young men scan the selection of Hispanic pop music CDs at the front of the store. "Almost all Latino markets have music because people miss their country and somehow they're connected through the music," Mr. Moreno explains.
But in the end, it's not the Latin music, Spanish signs, or bilingual staff that attracts Honduras native Elsa Rodriguez to a particular store. Ms. Rodriguez divides her shopping equally between the small bodegas and large chain stores.
"There is a good supply of Hispanic products in this area. I can find everything I need," she says of grocery shopping in the Washington suburbs.
What she values most in a supermarket are the same things a native-born American would. "The most important thing," she says, "is that the quality is good and that the products pass the requirements of the USDA."