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Hot stuff: spices are an easy and economical way to magically transform a meal.

Variety is the spice of life, so it's only natural for retailers stocking a vast array of spices to see sales heat up, not only in the spice aisle, but in meat, produce, seafood and everywhere else a little dash of this or that can be used to turn an ordinary meal into an extraordinary one.

"Due to the current economic condition, people are eating out less and cooking at home more often," says John Lazowski, director of marketing at ACH Food Companies, the Ankeny, Iowa-based manufacturer of the Tone's, Durkee, Spice Islands, French's and Weber spice brands. He says while the spices and extracts category has remained relatively flat over the past few years, in the latest 52 weeks ended Dec. 27, the category has grown 4.2%.

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ACH officials expect the upward trend to continue through 2010. "The spice category has seen 4% growth as budget-conscious consumers continue to cook more meals at home. This is a big improvement in what has historically been a flat category," Lazowski says, adding that ACH is also seeing growth in the gourmet side of the business. Sales of its high-end Spice Islands line are up 7.3%. "Shoppers who, in more prosperous times, might have gone out for an expensive meal are cooking more special meals at home and they are looking to premium spices for a richer culinary experience," he says.

Big flavors and new definitions of "dinner party" are bringing the best of restaurant meals into the home, says Laurie Harrsen, director of public relations and consumer affairs at Hunt Valley, Md.-based McCormick & Co. "People are looking for new at-home options--staying in is the new going out," she says. "It can be casual, economical, and a great way to have a variety of tastes at one gathering. A whole new generation of potluck concepts is helping bring the best of restaurant meals home."

Spices are extremely economical, Harrsen says, noting that a 1/2 teaspoon of cinnamon costs only 6-cents, while a 1/2 teaspoon of oregano adds 12-cents to the cost of a meal.

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RECIPE INSPIRATIONS

With its new McCormick Recipe Inspirations line, McCormick is taking that idea one step further. The line consists of a cardboard packet containing six blister packs of pre-measured spices designed to be used to make one dish. "McCormick Recipe Inspirations are our biggest innovation for 2010 bar none," Harrsen says.

Priced at a budget-friendly $1.99, the line consists of Apple & Sage Pork Chops, Rosemary Roasted Chicken with Potatoes, Quesadilla Casserole, Spanish Chicken Skillet, Shrimp & Pasta Primavera and Garlic Lime Chicken Fajitas.

"They are getting dual placement in a lot of stores. Some are putting them in the meat department as well as the spice set," Harrsen says.

McCormick has also introduced roasted spices (Roasted Ground Ginger, Roasted Ground Cumin, Roasted Saigon Cinnamon, Roasted Ground Coriander) under its McCormick Gourmet Collection label.

"Some of our most successful new product launches in the gourmet line have been new twists off of familiar ones, like smoked paprika and toasted sesame," Harrsen says. "Now we are looking at roasted spices. I think consumers pine for some familiarity and trying a new flavor off of it really seems to be hitting a chord. These are flavors that are very popular in the different ethnic cuisines that are going on right now."

Lazowski says shoppers want greater selection and variety. "That means more than just adding a fenugreek SKU," he says. "You have to offer a wide range of brands, products and quality levels. Adding variety in a gourmet spice line is a choice that can spur sales," Lazowski adds.

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BULKING UP

Customers are seeking out the bulk bins more often when they shop for spices in the supermarket, according to industry experts.

"Bulk is really coming back," says Clint Landis, chief marketing officer at Frontier Natural Products Co-Op, a Norway, Iowa-based spice firm that started out in the bulk business, but now also produces the Simply Organic and Frontier packaged brands. "It's like a new wave. We're experiencing double-digit [bulk] growth, which we haven't seen in a long, long, time."

Frontier is promoting its bulk spices with the tag line: "Buy a pinch or a pound." "The nice thing about bulk is the ability to do that," Landis says. "Natural food stores are where the majority of the bulk business is, but we're starting to see it in grocery stores."

Another good thing about spices is that the possibilities they offer are virtually endless.

"We have approximately 6,000 formulas that are both proprietary as well as confidential," says Bob Blefko, senior vice president of sales and marketing at Old World Spices, a private label and bulk blend manufacturer based in Overland Park, Kan.

Manufacturers say today's consumers are looking for quality. The C.F. Sauer Co., based in Maple Valley, Wash., offers some 130 different items under its Bama, Sauer's, The Spice Hunter and Duke's brands that company officials bill as being a step above some of the mainstream competition.

"What sets us apart is quality," says Lon Kollath, natural and specialty account manager. "Spices in glass jars are generally considered a gourmet spice, but beyond that is where the spices are sourced from. There are different growing areas in the world where you can get the best cinnamon, for example."

To further liven up the category, new spices are always coming on the scene. Baltimore-based Vanns Spices has just introduced Dill pollen, packaged in small round tins.

"Dill pollen is new to the market and new to us," says sales manager Nick Ciotti. "It has really bright dill notes to it, almost like fresh dill, but more complex, almost reminiscent of honey and hay. It goes really nice on fish, maybe basting it on at the end of the cooking process. It's also great as a garnish for potato salad, chicken salad, or even something simple like tomatoes and mozzarella."

STAR POWER

Southeastern Mills, manufacturer of the Superior Touch Better Than Bouillon Food Bases line of products, found being featured on the TV talk show Ellen is also a great sales driver. In December, host Ellen DeGeneres' personal chef, Roberto Martin, made a Vegan Pot Pie using the Rome, Ga.-based company's Certified Vegan Vegetarian Better Than Bouillon No Chicken Base as a key ingredient.

"Appearing on that show gave us a big bump of interest," says George Manak, vice president, marketing, at Southeastern Mills. Perhaps best known for its instant gravy mix, Southeastern Mills acquired Superior Quality Foods and its Better Than Bouillon brand back in October. The brand consists of a couple dozen SKUs, including chicken, beef, vegetable, clam, chili, turkey, ham, organic, kosher and reduced-sodium bases that use protein as their key ingredient.

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Celebrities can indeed help spice sales sizzle. Quality Food Brands Inc., the Monroe, Mich.-based manufacturer of the Loretta and Gourmet Select brands of spices, as well as private label, has just launched the complete Paula Deen Brand of spice grinders and spice shakers.

"They are available for sale by case, in six-pack wooden racks, shaker/grinder combo displayers and coming for the fall, 12-pack display racks," says Aldon Reed, vice president, sales. "The Paula Deen line can retail for the same price as most grocery retailers' private label spices," she adds.

CREOLE MAGIC

Famed celebrity Chef Paul Prudhomme entered the spice business back in 1983 when he founded Chef Paul Prudhomme's Magic Seasoning Blends, a seven SKU (Blackened Redfish, Blackened Steak, Poultry, Seafood, Meat, Vegetable and Pork & Veal) line of Creole-style seasonings. Historically they were packaged in white boxes, designed to shield the glass jars from harmful UV light, but this year the line has jumped out of the box.

"We have redesigned labels to tout that we're all natural, gluten free and contain no MSG," says John McBride, vice president, sales & marketing, at the New Orleans-based company. We have color-coded caps that really jump out on the shelf," he says, adding that because glass manufacturers now add UV-blockers to the jars the boxes had become obsolete.

At the recent Winter Fancy Food Show in San Francisco attendees were swarming the Tony Chachere's Famous Creole Cuisine booth for a chance to sample a cube of prime rib roasted with Creole seasoning.

"Within the last year we have added a 'More Spice' version to our famous Original Creole seasoning. It has a little more kick, a little more Cayene pepper," says Robert Albaugh, the Western Regional sales manager for the Opelousas, La.-based family-owned company.

Secaucus, N.J.-based Goya Foods is targeting both the Hispanic and mainstream markets with its line of seasonings, including its newest offering, Sazonador Total. "Sazonador Total is a complete seasoning with a blend of spices that enhances the natural flavors and we feel really speaks gourmet," says Kenia Delgado, marketing manager. "The difference with this product is that it can be used before and after cooking, compared to Adobo, which we recommend be used prior to cooking as an ingredient."

RELATED ARTICLE: 10 to watch in 2010

THIS YEAR MARKS THE 10TH ANNIVERSARY OF THE MCCORMICK FLAVOR FORECAST, and this time around the Hunt Valley, Md.-based spice purveyor has teamed with top chefs, popular food bloggers and other culinary authorities in the U.S. and Europe to identify 10 emerging flavor combinations that are poised to take foodies by storm this year.

"The year in flavor will be heavily influenced by bitter, warm and earthy notes," says Kevan Vetter, executive chef at McCormick. "We see America's palates embracing stronger flavors--high-impact combinations that are anything but subtle. For example, bold bitter greens will be appreciated for their assertiveness, tamed with the licorice-like addition of caraway. The warm and earthy duo of roasted cumin and chickpeas is another expression of the year's big flavors."

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Here is McCormick's 2010 Top 10 List:

1. Roasted Ginger & Rhubarb, imparting exciting layers of spicy and sour, with warming notes and a powerful tang;

2. Thai Basil & Watermelon, a colorful study in contrasts that offers a sweet, refreshing balance;

3. Caraway & Bitter Greens, an unmistakable spice tames the bitter bite of bold greens;

4. Bay Leaves & Preserved Lemon, offer a slowly coaxed flavor worth the wait, an aromatic mix of bitter, salty-tart and bright;

5. Almond & Ale, the bittersweet character of both ingredients makes a congenial, cozy and hearty match;

6. Turmeric & Vine-Ripened Tomatoes, creates a pairing that is earthy and naturally sweet, plus, this colorful, healthy blend is always in season;

7. Pumpkin Pie Spice & Coconut Milk, this lush, warm pairing reconnects with its tropical roots;

8. Roasted Cumin & Chickpeas, a globetrotting Mediterranean duet that delivers warm, earthy flavor harmonies;

9. Creole Mustard & Shellfish, a vibrant pair that brings Gulf Coast gusto to any part of the country; and

10. Chives & Fish Sauce, creating a savory fusion of French and Asian cuisines.
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Title Annotation:CENTER STORE
Author:Turcsik, Richard
Publication:Grocery Headquarters
Date:Mar 1, 2010
Words:1816
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