Valu Food market goes global in flavor Diversity: Chain offers more international foods to reflect changing tastes of its clientele.

October 21, 1998|By Karol V. Menzie | Karol V. Menzie,SUN STAFF

When Gerson Spiller set out to make the Valu Food supermarket in Randallstown a big player in international foods, the first thing he did was acquire 35 pen pals.

He wrote to the U.S. ambassadors of 35 nations, explaining that he wanted to carry foods from their countries, and asking if they could put him in touch with exporters.

"It was a simple letter," he said. "Just a paragraph. And I got 35 replies. Every single one of them wrote back."

Most likely the economic development officers of those nearly three dozen embassies were merely reflecting a trend. Increasingly, as the American population diversifies and as consumer tastes become more sophisticated, more and more foods are following immigrant populations to new homes in U.S. communities.

The international component has been expanding in most supermarkets, especially over the last few years, said Gene Grabowski, of the Grocery Manufacturers of America trade association. It used to mean having a kosher section and a "gourmet" section, he said, but these days international food "is really playing an important part."

His colleague Lisa McCue said changing populations and changing tastes are driving the trend. "We're eating Thai food, and Mexican food, in restaurants - our taste buds are getting more adventurous."

However, what Valu Foods president Louis Demrich hired Spiller to do was some pretty adventurous marketing, and he was willing to turn over a fairly large chunk of floor space for it. Spiller estimates the amount of space devoted to international foods went from "zip" to 4,500 to 5,000 square feet, or about 10 percent of the store's 50,000 square-foot-area.

The space has a different look for a grocery store, with short side-to-side shelving units instead of the tall front-of-store-to-back units that are common. Spiller also took over a long space in the front of the store (reducing its height as well). Then he hung international flags from the ceiling near the foods from each country.

Shoppers can find staples such as flour and rice, as well as more unusual items such as snacks and sweets, and even utensils, such as rice bowls and tortilla presses.

There are items from Poland, Jamaica, Peru, Spain, Portugal, Korea, China, Israel, Ireland, Greece, Vietnam and Thailand, among other countries. You can find roasted plantain chips, basmati rice, quail eggs, lychee nuts, dried seaweed, broken straw mushrooms, chipotle peppers, nopalitos cactus, Horlick's powdered beverage, Devon custard, lotus root, red lentils and chapati flour - just to name a few.

One long shelving unit - 68 feet - is devoted to food from Goya, a large Spain-based manufacturer and exporter of foods from the Spanish-speaking world.

Otis Delgado, the Goya representative who works with Spiller, said it's unusual for any supermarket to make such a commitment to ethnic products. "He recognizes there is a demand for all ethnic products, not just Hispanic," Delgado said, The long counter in the front of the store houses kosher food; the other long side counter carries organic and all-natural products. Spiller plans to expand into the produce section in the next couple of weeks to offer some Asian specialties such as daikon radishes, napa cabbage, and bean sprouts. In the next month or so, he will also add some items in the meat department, including Hispanic-interest products as oxtails and chorizo.

Spiller, who has spent 34 years in the grocery-buying business, studied census documents to figure out what countries had contributed residents to his store's population area in Randallstown, and he visited ethnic specialty stores to see how their shelves were stocked. Valu Food has more than a dozen stores all over Maryland. Spiller will gradually introduce international sections in the other stores.

As he roams his multicultural territory in Randallstown, he notes attributes of many products. "That's a good seller," he says of Korean noodles, and "Everybody uses seaweed." He's tried a number of the products, he says, "but not all."

In an effort to get more people to try the unfamiliar foods, he asked his embassy friends for people to come and offer cooking demonstrations. He also plans to offer a selection of international cookbooks.

Shelves in his office are lined with potential new products, with other things he wants to try. He's looking into advertising in foreign-language newspapers - he's already having ads translated into Spanish for one publication - and he treasures his ever-expanding correspondence from around the globe. Clearly he relishes the new role he playfully describes as "a negotiator for innovative merchandising."

"I'm 73 years old," he says, "and I'm having more fun than I ever did before."

Pub Date: 10/21/98

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