What is the Status of the Caribbean-American Foods Market?
Over the past thirty (30) years, there has been a significant interest in and demand for Caribbean foods in the United States, as reflected by the increase in the number of Caribbean food establishments. This has been fueled by the increased migration to the United States of persons of Caribbean heritage and persons from other tropical areas, and the increased familiarity of Americans with Caribbean foods through vacation travel to the Caribbean and through the proliferation of food shows on American cable television channels. In addition, over this period, Americans have become more food sophisticated and interested in new and diverse foods.
For example, a profile of the Washington Metropolitan Area (WMA) geographic market, which has a significant Caribbean-American population, reveals the following:
- According to data maintained by the Caribbean-American Chamber of Commerce & Industry – Greater Washington Area Network (CACCI-GWAN), there are approximately 300 Caribbean food businesses (restaurants/carry-outs, markets and caterers) which primarily market Caribbean foods in the Baltimore-Washington Area.
- This growth in access to Caribbean foods is also reflected in food store aisle marketing of Caribbean foods by one WMA major chain, Giant Foods, the increase in the number of Caribbean products carried by major chains, which often overlap with and are often marketed as Hispanic foods and the explosive growth in Caribbean and Latin grocery stores in the area.
- There has also been a significant growth in the use of “Caribbean” as a brand or the name of specific Caribbean islands in food label branding and the adoption of “jerk” by American households and restaurants as a food preparation technique and food product.
- On a less visible level, there has also been an increase in the number of small producers of Caribbean products targeting small niche markets as well as an increase in the number of restaurateurs, who are not necessarily of Caribbean heritage, who also market Caribbean foods.
- There has also been a noticeable expansion of the market for and access to major national Caribbean food products, as well as small farm production of Caribbean foods adaptable to short growing periods in northern climates, such as scotch bonnet peppers and calalloo, which are showing up “fresh” at farmers markets and at Caribbean markets.
- In addition, with the growth in demand, Caribbean food retailers are also proliferating as chains (redefining the fast food model) and through franchising.
This profile is likely similar in other metropolitan areas with significant Caribbean immigration patterns such as New York City, (historically the heartland for early Caribbean immigration to the United States), Hartford, Atlanta, Chicago and Miami.
What issues do Caribbean-American Food Service Businesses Face?
The food business is often viewed as a relatively risky business but with low entry and exit costs relative to some other businesses. Recent statistics from Bloomberg Business Week April 16, 2007, indicate that 1 out of 4 restaurants close or change ownership within the first year of business, and over three years, that number rises to 3 out of five or 60%. Business Week, however, also indicates that this is comparable to other small businesses and that failure is often due to lack of sufficient start-up capital. According to the Restaurant Association of Maryland, restaurant businesses also operate on tight margins “approximately 3 percent before taxes on average, which is lower than many other industries.”
Nevertheless, as the nation’s love of eating out has grown, the options as to where to spend food dollars have expanded to meet this demand. According to the National Restaurant Association, 1 in 10 Americans works in restaurants, and restaurant industry sales have gone from $379.0 billion in 2000 to an expected $580.1 billion, or half a billion in 2010.
Where do Caribbean food businesses stand in these times? Established and potential Caribbean food businesses have faced numerous hurdles, which can be summarized in the following challenges:
- Maintaining growth in specific geographical areas in the WMA, by successfully responding to changes in the Area’s socio-economics and demographics. While the number of Caribbean restaurants have grown overall, the rate and level of growth has slowed or stagnated in some areas with one business replacing another which has tanked, resulting in a displacement/replacement stream.
- Expanding beyond the “carry-out” model. Most Caribbean restaurants are small owner-operated establishments and fall into what would be considered “mom and pop operations” with one to two employees.
- Expanding to meet new markets such as interest in lighter foods and healthier eating and to in turn positively impact the Caribbean community’s health.
- Capitalizing on the Caribbean culinary familiarity with spices and approaches to seasoning foods, and a wider availability of ingredients to create new dishes or fusion foods.
- Expanding as wholesalers and producers to meet demand for specialty foods and institutional needs.
- Expanding the market for food-related products with a Caribbean influences and sensibility.
- Increasing the demand for and promoting the breadth of traditional Caribbean foods beyond persons of Caribbean heritage.
- Maximizing Caribbean food businesses collective strength and leveraging this strength to access government services.