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Rice rises up

Thanks to significant innovation by manufacturers, the category has evolved well beyond boring bags of plain white grains

There are thousands upon thousands of varieties of rice in the world, says Todd Kluger, vice-president of Lundberg Family Farms, a rice grower in the northern California town of Richvale. Alas, he adds, “the average person has only tried two of them.”

That may be about to change, however. With more shoppers influenced by Asian cuisine and more of them willing to experiment with different types of cooking, room is suddenly opening up in the rice market.

How should grocers respond? Kluger has a suggestion. Arrange your rice section the same way you do the coffee aisle– by showcasing the array of unique varieties available, instead of hiding them amid bags of plain, white, short grain. In other words, think of rice as an “artisan” category. “We don’t view rice as a commodity. If it’s a commodity the consumer says I’m just going to buy the cheapest. Merchandise it in a way that raises it above a commodity,” says Kluger.

Kluger might be onto something. Consumers are already responding well to rice’s obvious attributes: health and the convenience of whipping up a dish in five minutes or less. There appears room to grow the category even further. A recent Canada Agribusiness Report projects rice consumption will surge by 30 per cent up to 2014.

“Sales have grown in value and volume, driven by demand for ethnic cuisine and respective ingredients,” says Svetlana Uduslivaia, senior research analyst at Euromonitor. “This is underpinned by the growth of [the] immigrant population as well as increased interest in ethnic cuisine by Canadians, in general, due to more travel and job mobility.”

Even mainstream brands such as Minute Rice are getting in on the action. Its basmati is the best-selling SKU of its Ready to Serve Cups, reports Virginia Johnson, senior brand manager of rice for Ronzoni Foods Canada.

Exotic rice such as basmati and jasmine are definitely selling more at Kudrinko’s grocery store in Westport, Ont., as shoppers look for rice with different flavour profiles. Owner Neil Kudrinko estimates that white rice still outsells brown by two to one. But five years ago it was 10 to one.

However, as much as consumers enjoy variety and experimenting with new flavours, they are not willing to sacrifice convenience. So manufacturers are offering faster solutions. “A rice that takes 55 minutes to cook becomes a barrier to folks with an on-the-go lifestyle,” says Kluger. That’s why Lundberg has introduced a line of precooked Heat & Eat rice bowls to satisfy consumers who want high quality in a hurry.

Even quick-cooking products are becoming, well, even quicker. Minute Rice’s Ready to Serve Cups appease consumers who want their rice even faster than the flagship product’s five-minute prep time. “We have had tremendous response from consumers, both in trial and repeat purchases,” says Johnson, adding that the company plans to roll out more SKUs soon. Rice Sides, from Knorr, have also been relaunched and they now cook in half the time, or seven minutes.

Naturally, consumers also want healthy options. “With ongoing education of the benefits of whole grains, these products will continue in their popularity,” says Johnson, adding that the Minute Rice Whole Grain Brown Rice product is seeing steady growth. “We are in an era when health will continue to be a strong trend, whether the focus changes from elimination of trans fat, to reduction of sodium, to inclusion of beneficial nutrients such as fibre.”

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