Baltimore is not so hot about Mexican foods

HAPPY EATER

April 18, 1993|By ROB KASPER

It pains me to deliver this news, but we are sub-standard salsa eaters. Baltimore eaters are also below-par in picante performance, and generally rate as below average fans of Mexican-style food.

Bad as this news is, it gets worse when you hear some of the cities that are "hotter" eaters than we are.

Omaha, Neb., Des Moines, and Minneapolis all scored higher on a index that measures an area's fondness for Mexican-style food products and sauces. According to the tally known as the Category Development Index, a set of sales statistics kept by the national line of Old El Paso foods, if a town shows "average" enthusiasm for Mexican style food products sold at the grocery stores, the burg scores 100.

The index for a 52-week period ending last February showed the Baltimore-Washington area scored a below-average 78 in the Mexican-food category, a classification that includes everything from sales of south-of-the border style sauces to chips, tacos and TV dinners. Baltimore's rating in the category that measured only sales of "canned and bottled sauces" was not much better, an 86.

Meanwhile, Omaha rang up a 97 in Mexican food and a 106 in sauces. Comparable scores for Des Moines were 124 and 138, and 100 and 112 for Minneapolis-St. Paul. It is one thing to be beaten by places like Denver, Phoenix, Tucson, Ariz., Los Angeles, Dallas, and San Antonio, Texas. All these cities , which have a long tradition of fiery eating, scored in the 200s, or hotter than a jalapeno, on the Mexican food index.

But it is another thing to be "out-sauced" by a bunch of Corn Huskers! Scorched by Iowans! Outscored in adventuresome *T eating by the Norwegian bachelor farmers of Minnesota!

People, we have work to do.

Painful as it may be, I think it is best to accept the statistics as valid. They were sent to me by Glenn Mahnken of Old El Paso's LTC marketing department. This company has been selling Mexican-style foods in this country for 75 years, and is considered the big enchilada of the field.

In a telephone conversation from his St. Louis office, Mahnken was upbeat in his analysis of Baltimore area's appetite for Mexican-style foods. He called it a "developing" market and noted "growth" shown in the sales of salsa and picante sauces. He was even willing to cut us some slack, saying any score from 80 to 120 could be considered "average."

I would have none of it. A score is a score. I was heartened by the 97 Baltimore racked up in another category, a segment measuring sales only of salsas and the chunkier picante sauces. But then I saw the numbers of our Midwest competitors. We still got smoked by Omaha (117), Des Moines (146), and Minneapolis (127).

On the whole, the nation's taste buds seem to be heating up. By one estimate there was a 54 percent increase in Mexican-food sales between 1986 and 1991. And between 1990 and 1992, salsa sales increased 26 percent. Salsa supposedly is now more popular than ketchup, a claim that is disputed by most parents of small children. Moreover, America wants its sauce more exotic. Plain old taco sauce, once the sauce with market share to to be reckoned with, has been passed by salsa and picante sauce.

I learned this by talking to Mahnken and other marketers of Mexican food. As I listened to them, I also searched for clues on how to fire up Baltimore's lukewarm image.

There is, for instance, the fresh-tortilla factor. One of the reasons places like Tucson and Los Angeles are able to rack up the big numbers is that they have factories that turn out mountains of fresh tortillas. Once a person has a fresh tortilla in hand, eating massive amounts of Mexican food becomes the natural course of action. Baltimore needs some of these fresh tortilla factories. Mayor Schmoke, Governor Schaefer are you listening?

Then there is the teen-age boy factor. According to Mahnken the amount of salsa and chips teen-age males eat makes them a "critically important " element in Mexican food statistics. A teen-age boy can wipe out a bag of chips and bowl of salsa in no time, he said. Teen-age girls also eat chips and salsa, but do not seem to have the bottomless-pit appetites of their male counterparts.

And that brings me to this plea. If you care about the reputation of Baltimore as a hot town, buy some salsa and chips.

Baltimore now has a good, locally made salsa -- Toto's Gourmet Salsa -- sold, among other places, at Graul's, Eddie's and Sutton Place Gourmet.

Then get a bag of corn chips, eat like a teen-ager and stick it to Omaha.

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