Friday, October 24, 2008

Food & Culture Memo: America's Up-and-Coming Food Capitals and the Growing Food Culture in the United States

Salt Lake City, Utah (above) is one of America's Up-and-Coming food capitals.

Americans no longer have to live in cosmopolitan cities like New York, Boston, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Miami or Chicago in order to have a wide range of top-quality food shopping and eating choices available to them, including natural, organic, specialty, gourmet and ethnic food products.

The explosion of upscale independent grocers and regional food retailing chains, specialty stores and national chains such as Whole Foods Market, along with farmers markets and culinary-focused restaurants, throughout America has changed the food culture and availability of premium-quality foods in what used to be referred to as "second-tier" food cities in the United States.

Not too many years ago, if a consumer wanted a decent selection of say fresh organic produce, Asian grocery products or gourmet delights in cities like Phoenix, Arizona, Salt Lake City, Utah or Baton Rouge, Louisiana, it was slim pickings in terms of retail food stores and other shopping venues that carried products in these and other natural, organic, specialty and premium foods categories. The same was true in the case of quality ethnic or healthy foods-oriented restaurants.

For the most part though, those days are gone. American cities like these and many others, including even smaller cities of under 100,000 residents, today have in most cases numerous food shopping choices, from the organic to the super premium, available to residents. There's supermarkets that stock an abundance of natural and specialty products, natural foods stores, specialty markets, farmers markets, combination grocery stores featuring premium, prepared foods and much more. And even more so, this food culture is growing rapidly.

Today's focuses on this fact in an article it calls "America's Up-and Coming Food Capitals."

In today's piece, Forbes looks at those "second cities" like Salt Lake, Phoenix, Baton Rouge, Chapel Hill, North Carolina and a few others, which the publication calls America's emerging food capitals.

Along with food stores such as Whole Foods and others, Forbes takes a look at farmers markets, restaurants, specialty shops and market halls on the retail side, and writes about the specialty ans artisan food purveyors in these cities who are making the emerging food culture possible with their respective creations and innovations.

For example, here is what the Forbes feature says about the emerging food culture of Salt Lake City, Utah:

"That's right. In Salt Lake City, a group of local farmers, cheese makers, bakers and chefs are remaking the city's culinary image. Rockhill Creamery, Beehive Cheese and Drake Family Farms utilize area grazing pastures to produce a variety of cheeses, including goat's milk, Gouda, feta and Gruyère. Crumb Brothers Artisan Breads hand-crafts olive, sourdough and ciabatta loaves, as well as other breads and pastries. And establishments like Bambara, a Kimpton Hotel restaurant that uses ingredients from local growers and ranchers, prove that Salt Lake can compete with the standard-bearers."

In terms of food retailing, Whole Foods not too long ago opened one of its bigger natural and gourmet food emporiums in Salt Lake.

Additionally, local multi-store independent supermarket chains Harmon's and Dan's Foods are major sellers of natural, organic, specialty and gourmet food and grocery products. There also are farmers markets in Salt Lake and numerous gourmet food and wine stores helping to establish the city's culinary reputation, in addition to fine restaurants and other premium food venues.

A major engine behind these emerging American food capitals is the "local foods" phenomenon. Artisan food producers have and continue to spring up all over America, focusing on producing products made from locally-grown fruits, vegetables and grains, along with locally-raised and produced animals, eggs and dairy products.

Local retailers (and branches of national retailers like Whole Foods and many others) and local restaurants are supporting these purveyors by buying and selling their local crops (in the case of growers) and products. Farmers markets also serve as a showcase for these locally-produced and created bounties.

An example of this is the Durham-Chapel Hill Metropolitan region in North Carolina, which Bon Appetite magazine recently named "America's Foodiest Small Town." There are 120 small farms within a 50-mile radius of Chapel Hill, according to the magazine, and close relationships between chefs and farmers are helping the town gain credibility as a culinary destination.

You can read Forbes take on these emerging culinary cities here. Forbes also offers a more in-depth look of the topic at this link: In Depth: America's Up-And-Coming Food Capitals.

The growth of an American food culture beyond these cosmopolitan cities is good for the food industry as a whole, especially the natural, specialty, gourmet and related segments.

The growing local foods movement also is good for communities. It allows for the building of an agricultural and entrepreneurial food industry in these cities and regions which in many cases disappeared decades ago when mass-market distribution meant the cheapest food, regardless of how far away it came from, was King. It gives local growers a local market. This means they can sell their crops for more more than they would get by selling it to outside manufacturing companies or national food chains.

A stronger food culture also offers more opportunities for retailers, particularly local independents, to create a niche in which they can compete in against the mega chains.

Lastly, this emerging food culture in the U.S. is just plain good for communities and residents. More choices means fresh, better quality foods, be it at supermarkets, natural foods stores, restaurants or farmers markets. More consumers of quality food also means the prices will come down, since such a food culture creates more demand for more natural, premium and locally-produced foods.

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