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In today’s global village, supermarkets are not just food retail spaces; they’re cultural crossroads where diverse culinary traditions converge. The recent opening of Northgate Markets’ Mercado Gonzalez in Costa Mesa, California, underscores the importance and opportunities for retail dietitians; and highlights the growing trend of supermarkets focusing on ethnic populations with store formats that are designed specifically for those targeted groups. At the heart of this confluence, retail dietitians can play a crucial role in educating and guiding shoppers of all backgrounds through the rich world of ethnic foods. Their expertise and initiatives present significant opportunities for both supermarkets and consumers, fostering a more inclusive and health-conscious shopping experience and can help their stores attract and keep shoppers. 

On the surface, we see an authentic Hispanic food experience as one targeted to Hispanic shoppers, but according to Tom Herman, senior vice president of Northgate Markets, we would be wrong. I spoke with Herman in advance of the opening of Mercado Gonzalez who shared with me an in-depth look at their new retail experience as well as the consumer and marketing strategies behind it. Northgate Markets stores, he told me, go well beyond serving the Hispanic customer. Asian and Indian shoppers, along with Gen Z and Alpha Anglos, are on a quest to satisfy their palates with more exciting flavors — and often healthier options than they can find in traditional chain supermarkets. 

Understanding your location matters — and Mercado Gonzalez hit the bullseye

In today’s business environment, it is critical to understand your shopper. Supermarket retailers are confronted with huge costs to open a new supermarket with the median cost of building a new store between $165 and $220 per square foot nationally. In Southern California, the costs to build are on the high end of the spectrum and in the case of the Mercado Gonzalez’s unique format, and with the addition of authentic Mexican artifacts (including a relocated town fountain and artworks), we can certainly project that this format far exceeds those estimates. Costa Mesa, nestled in Orange County, is a vibrant tapestry of demographics and psychographics — a unique blend of suburban charm and urban sophistication. The city, with a population hovering around 110,000, showcases a significant Hispanic community, alongside White, Asian and smaller percentages of African American and other ethnic groups. This ethnic diversity has contributed to a rich cultural milieu, influencing everything from local cuisine to community events; and for Northgate, community is a key focus for all of its locations. 

Costa Mesa has a substantial portion of its population falling in the under-35 bracket; partly due to the presence of several higher education institutions in and around the area, including Vanguard University and Orange Coast College. The city also attracted young professionals, drawn by the strong and growing job market in tech, retail, healthcare, education and other sectors. Economically, Costa Mesa is characterized by a mix of white-collar and blue-collar professions. South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa is a major shopping center which draws shoppers from as far north as Los Angeles and supports a strong retail sector. The city’s median household income of $96,391 is above the national average, with the average household income just over $125,000 a year, according to the 2021 U.S. Census Bureau Data. There is also a strong sense of community engagement and environmental consciousness among the residents with farmers’ markets, community gardens and eco-friendly initiatives, a population that is increasingly environmentally aware and committed to sustainable living. Mercado Gonzalez reflects these values. 

The opportunity for retail dietitians 

Retail dietitians are uniquely positioned to demystify ethnic foods, which can sometimes be intimidating to those unfamiliar with them, which helps attract consumers of all ethnic groups — not just those targeted by the format. They organize store tours, cooking demos and workshops and create videos on social media: all of which focus on the nutritional value, preparation methods and cultural significance of various ethnic cuisines. By breaking down barriers of unfamiliarity and apprehension, retail dietitians not only educate, but also inspire shoppers of all ethnicities to expand their culinary horizons. This educational role is especially vital in a society where diets are becoming increasingly homogenized. Retail RDs can reintroduce the diversity of tastes and nutritional benefits found in ethnic foods, many of which are rich in whole grains, lean proteins and fresh produce. 

One of the key responsibilities of retail dietitians is to provide personalized nutrition advice. This becomes particularly important in the context of ethnic foods, as dietary needs and health implications vary across different populations — and that these ethnic foods often offer unique nutritional benefits that the Anglo shopper may not be aware. Retail dietitians offer tailored advice that respects cultural dietary and preparation practices while promoting healthier choices — healthier cooking methods or alternatives to traditional ingredients that might be high in salt, sugar or unhealthy fats. 

For supermarkets of all kinds, having their retail dietitian focus on ethnic foods is a strategic asset. It sets the stores apart as inclusive and health-conscious establishments, potentially attracting a broader customer base, and leverages the expertise and credibility of their retail dietitians to promote ethnic food sections, special ethnic themed events and cooking classes. Supermarkets stand to benefit from the growing consumer interest in healthy eating and exotic cuisines.   

The opportunity and challenge for retail dietitians is to understand and appreciate the ethnic culinary traditions and foods. When they do, shoppers recognize, appreciate and acknowledge their culture in the mainstream food landscape, promoting a sense of inclusion and respect, and supermarket loyalty. The role of retail dietitians in teaching and selling ethnic foods is multifaceted and profoundly impactful. You are educators, cultural ambassadors and nutrition experts all rolled into one. For supermarkets, leveraging their expertise not only drives sales but also elevates their role in the community as centers of cultural diversity and health awareness. For consumers, retail dietitians serve as guides in their journey towards a more diverse, nutritious and inclusive diet. As our world grows smaller and our palates more adventurous, the role of retail dietitians in bridging cultures through food will only become more vital — and more important in their retail organizations.

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