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Ethnic Foods on the Rise – The Evolution of the Global Food Industry

A mom and kid shopping for some delicious groceries

Changes in the global food industry have been profound in the last year. Many restaurants were forced to close due to the pandemic and concurrent restrictions. Delivery food services boomed as more people utilized mobile apps and home convenience options. Similarly, grocery delivery apps also increased substantially over the last year. (Read more about the explosion of grocery delivery apps in this Bold Business story.) But these weren’t the only notable shifts related to global food industry shifts. One of the more interesting ones has been that involving ethnic foods. More than ever, consumers enjoy tremendous access to a variety of cultural cuisines. And it seems like these trends will only continue in the future.

For many years, Americans have enjoyed select ethnic foods that have come to be rather familiar to them. Chinese, Italian, and Mexican dishes and spices are commonplace in the U.S. But other types of ethnic foods are not. In fact, it has been challenging to access some international foods because of obstacles related to distribution. Likewise, more exotic cuisines often intimidate consumers. But these are the areas where the global food industry is changing the most. And it’s a big reason such interesting offerings are now more routinely available.

“A lot of these smaller ethnic brands used to be distributed by ethnic food distributors. Now, these companies are going direct to the supermarket.” – “Supermarket Guru” Phil Lempert, a food industry analyst

Direct-to-Consumer Shifts in the Global Food Industry

In many ways, COVID served as a catalyst to many technology shifts over the last year. (How did the pandemic serve as a boost to certain industries? Read this Bold story.) In a similar way, technology has also caused major changes in the global food industry. This has been particularly evident for ethnic foods, which previously used small food distributors. Today, however, many international food suppliers are shipping their items directly to the supermarkets. In some cases, online purchases are going directly to consumers themselves. This has made it much easier to gain visibility off a variety of international foods among potential customers.

Direct distribution is not the only thing that has changed from ethic foods. New marketing strategies are also evolving for the global food industry. Social media marketing like Instagram offers inexpensive ways to familiarize foreign market customers with new foods. Likewise, e-commerce expansion and greater acceptance among consumers to purchase ethnic foods online has also helped. Additionally, branding and packaging design expertise is more readily available as well, especially in the U.S. This, in particular, has enabled the global food industry to grow its international foods offerings substantially.

“Ethnic communities have been overlooked in the online and retail space. We believe the opportunity to provide these fast-growing communities access to exciting and affordable groceries is tremendous.” – Larry Liu, Founder and CEO of Weee!

Catering to Existing Ethnic Communities

When Larry Liu came to the U.S. in 2003, he had difficulty finding the types of ethnic foods to which he was accustomed. As a result, he decided to create his own company called Weee! in an effort to meet this need. After piloting his platform through WhatsApp, he launched a social media-like sight where ethnic foods could be sold to individuals. He then was able to combine individual orders into group purchases, enjoying discounts in the process. Recently, Weee! earned another $315 million in Series D funding and is now valuated at $2.8 billion.

Someone ordering some ethnic foods via their phone
Tech has enabled the growth of the global food industry, bringing ethnic foods to anyone with an Internet connection.

Initially, Weee! focused on expanding the global food industry by making it easier to access Asian and Hispanic foods. But today, Liu is expanding offerings to include Korean, Japanese, Taiwanese, and other ethnic foods. His company offers free delivery for orders over $35, and he boasts over 3,500 products. By all accounts, his online ethnic foods’ platform has been a tremendous success. With this global food industry segment expected to be $464 billion by 2030, Weee! looks to be in good shape.

“The ‘K-wave’ that started from Korean dramas and K-pop is now spreading to Korean cuisine and overall Korean lifestyle.” – Park Ga-hyun, Senior Researcher, Korea International Trade Association

Expanding Cultural Awareness and Diversity

Certainly, technology and the chance to cater to existing ethnic communities account for significant growth of the global food industry.  However, increasing global awareness and cultural diversity is also playing a role. Overall, younger generations are more willing to try new ethnic foods today than generations past. Social media and the Internet have helped fuel this cultural spread. This has been particular evident for Korean foods. With a growing presence of Korean influences in pop culture, it was inevitable that Korean foods would soon be on the scene. As K-pop has grown, so has the awareness of an array of Korean cuisines previously unrecognized.

In the last year, Korea has seen a net 7.7 percent increase in its agri-foods exports to other countries. Likewise, the export of Korean condiments, like gochujang, has increased by more than 25 percent. Kimchi seasoning mix by Seoul Sisters has become one of the top sellers on Amazon. Likewise, the social media challenge to try Buldak spicy chicken noodles is all the rage. All of this shows how cultural expansion is impacting the global food industry in a major way. And the increasing demand for ethnic foods from Korea and other remote areas is inevitable. No longer is the demand for these types of cuisines only coming from ethnic communities.

Variety Is the Spice of Life

Previously, watching Anthony Bourdain try some exotic foods from around the world seemed exciting. But in all likelihood, we weren’t likely to sample such ethnic foods ourselves without traveling abroad. That seems to be rapidly changing today as the global food industry expands, offering an ever-increasing number of international foods. While the pandemic explains some of these changes, it doesn’t account for them all. Demand for such foods is advancing as is the global community overall. And the potential for new culinary creativity with this diversity will undoubtedly advance as well.


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