Fonio, a grain imported from West Africa, was once relegated to the shelves of tiny grocery stores frequented primarily by immigrants from Senegal and Mali. But it has gradually made its way to Whole Foods, where pouches adorned with a painted map of Africa are nestled amid rice and lentil packets aimed at a wider range of American consumers.
This journey was driven in part by a Brooklyn company, Yolélé, which in Fula, a West African language, roughly means “let the good times roll”. Yolélé also offers spiced fonio pilafs, a range of fonio chips and, shortly, fonio flour.
The company was founded in 2017 by Philip Teverow, a food industry veteran, and Pierre Thiam, a Senegalese chef who grew up with Fonio. Mr Thiam is confident that Americans would eat fonio too if they had better access to it.
The nutritious cereal is gluten-free and has a slightly nutty taste. It’s also easy to prepare: “Fonio never embarrasses the cook,” said Thiam.
However, packaging was critical to their efforts to appeal to the average American consumer. Innovative packaging design and brand identity are critical when selling unfamiliar foods to mainstream markets, industry experts say.
“People really shop with their eyes,” said Chris Manca, a shopper at Whole Foods Market who focuses on local produce for the company’s New York, New Jersey and Connecticut stores. “If your product doesn’t really jump off the shelf and grab your attention, it’s going to be overlooked.”
In 2019, the U.S. operated 182,535 immigrant-owned food businesses, from manufacturing to restaurants. This was the result of an analysis by the American Community Survey of the New American Economy, a research organization. Chinese and Mexican immigrants owned and sold most of the cuisines familiar to American palates. However, entrepreneurs from countries like Guinea, Kazakhstan and Senegal have gained a foothold in lesser-known cuisines.
The marketing of these foods in the US has its challenges, such as cultural identity and consumer perception. The most accomplished entrepreneurs work with designers and brand strategists to make their products more accessible.
One of the biggest hurdles is choosing visual cues – fonts, colors, illustrations, and photos – that channel a product’s physical or conceptual provenance. A brand identity that is too sleek and polished can appear fake and lose credibility. But folk designs or reliance on regional symbols can look clichéd and out of date.
Creating the right images is a “subtle balance,” said Paola Antonelli, senior curator of the Architecture and Design Department at the Museum of Modern Art. The packaging of a new foreign food needs to arouse curiosity and exude authenticity. “You feel like there is a kind of familiarity you may not have discovered in yourself,” she said.
Cultural heritage is critical to a new product, said Phil Lempert, a food industry analyst known as the Supermarket Guru. “You have to stand out,” he said, adding that there is a strong appetite for foreign cuisines and products, especially among younger generations: “They love to experiment with food.”
The global food industry has changed significantly in the past few decades, Lempert said. New foreign food brands are more likely to celebrate their origins today, while 10 years ago companies may have pushed for Americanization of their products.
“There was a stigma there,” he said.
The distribution of supermarkets has also changed. “Many of these smaller ethnic brands were previously sold by ethnic grocers,” Lempert said. “Now these companies are going straight to the supermarket.”
Other strategies include posting on social media, particularly Instagram, which is seen as an effective and inexpensive way to market products, and selling directly to consumers through websites and e-commerce marketplaces like Amazon.
But packaging is often the key. A designer’s skill is usually a mixture of creative thinking, diverse work experience and long journeys. This often outweighs a common nationality, ethnicity, or culture; In fact, many entrepreneurs prefer working with designers from different backgrounds to see their story better through a new lens.
Mr. Thiam wanted to use Yolélé to assert Fonio’s West African identity while avoiding labels like “exotic” and “ethnic”. He and Mr. Teverow turned to Paula Scher, a partner in the design company Pentagram, to which Mr. Thiam already had connections due to his cookbooks. He said that he would have liked to use a designer of African descent, but when he saw Ms. Scher’s map of Africa it was “love at first sight”.
After Ms. Scher’s design hit shelves last spring, sales rose 250 percent, Teverow said.
The use of product names in foreign languages is a common hurdle for food business operators. Leetal Arazi, co-founder of New York Shuk, worked with graphic designer Ayal Zakin to expand the appeal of their classic Middle Eastern spice blends such as Hawaii, Baharat and Ras el Hanout.
The labels feature elegant illustrations of the contents in each jar, like turmeric or chili peppers, balanced with a modern gold logo and a tiny stylized camel in silhouette.
“Suddenly you’re less afraid and intimidated to pick it up,” said Ms. Arazi, whose products are sold in supermarkets such as whole foods and specialty stores.
Mohammed and Rahim Diallo, brothers from Guinea, faced the same challenge for their intensely flavored ginger drink Ginjan. Designer Ruen Ellis eliminated every mystery surrounding the drink by listing the ingredients – ginger, pineapple, lemon, vanilla, and anise – on the label under a circular logo that focuses on a silhouette of Africa.
A simple or solemn story that can strengthen a brand’s identity is not always possible. Some immigrant founders have close ties with their home countries, or history has their story entangled.
At the end of 2018, Daniyar Chukin and the design company Little Fury renamed Mr. Chukin’s vaguely Russian-sounding company Misha to the vaguely German-sounding Wünder Creamery.
Mr Chukin had problems marketing Quark, a creamy yogurt-like product popular in Germany. He grew up in Kazakhstan, where the Soviets brought it. “Here I am, a Kazakh, marketing a product that I knew as a Russian, a German product, to American consumers,” he said with a laugh. “It’s starting to work now.”
His curd is packaged in a yogurt pot with a clean Nordic look, and Wünder Creamery’s annual earnings are around $ 1 million after growing 50 percent annually, he said.
Some entrepreneurs with a migrant background choose not to have any visual references to the country of origin of their food.
“What if we just basically remove the whole idea of being an ethnic food?” said Nigel Sielegar, an Indonesian designer and owner of Moon Man, a minimalist dessert stall in Southeast Asia in the cavernous basement below Essex Market on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.
After pandemic restrictions closed his restaurant, Mr Sielegar turned to making sweet kaya jams with purple eube, golden palm sugar and green pandan in July. The coconut milk-based jams are packaged in jars, with “Moon Man” running diagonally in large white letters over a black label.
The company has sold more than 1,000 Kaya jam jars directly to consumers nationwide, Sielegar said, and recently expanded wholesale sales of half-gallon containers to restaurants.
Package design and brand identity may seem redundant or even superficial, but they are often the necessary inducement for customers to buy, said Dan Formosa, a design consultant.
“There’s an expectation of what it’s about and a feeling that it’s worth trying,” he said.