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RETAIL VIEW: Distributor tries hand at new product invention

The ending to this story hasn't been written yet, so it's impossible to classify it. Is it a story with a happy ending showing how a small firm with a good idea can make it in the marketplace? Is it a sad story showing how big the retail industry has gotten so that new product introductions are the sole domain of the multi-national companies? Or will it end up being the tale of an item that seemed to be a good idea but just didn't find enough of a marketing niche to make it?

Bill Vogel, president of Tavilla Sales in Los Angeles, isn't quite sure how this story is going to end, but he's betting more than a few chilis that it will have a happy ending.

Tavilla Sales and its multi-ethnic staff have become the inventors, guinea pigs, test kitchen, manufacturers and distributors of a brand-new item that attempts to trade on the Mexican food trend that is evident throughout the United States.

The company is currently test marketing a couple of fresh salsa kits that promise to to turn the average gringo into a fairly authentic Hispanic cuisine chef - at least for this one item.

"This has given us a lesson in marketing management," quipped Mr. Vogel.

The story dates back a couple of years when a number of the key people at Tavilla began talking about creating a salsa kit that would help those not proficient at preparing Hispanic cuisine make a great salsa. Mr. Vogel said that the recipes being used are a combination of the combined wisdom of a number of mothers of his employees.

"It is salsa, Michoacan style," he said.

With the motivation being to come up with a way to move more chilis and tomatillos, in which Tavilla Sales has been specializing for a number of years, Mr. Vogel said that the firm decided to create a value-added package, complete with the fresh Mexican products and a recipe so that a cook not familiar with Hispanic cuisine could create a great-tasting salsa.

"The recipes have been tried and redone and tried again. We tried to make a salsa that is used in Mexican cusines," Mr. Vogel said. "Of course it can be used for dips and chips, but we made it to be used for cooking. We are targeting Caucasians and other [non- Hispanic] ethnic consumers who want to further explore Mexican cusines."

The packaging, including the recipe and other information, is written in English, not Spanish. The Green Salsa Kit contains two jalape?o and two serrano chilis, one yellow chili (caribe) and five to six tomatillos (five large or six small). Additionally, the package tells the customer that he or she needs half a medium white onion, two to three tablespoons or 10 sprigs of fresh cilantro, one garlic clove, and a quarter teaspoon salt. The cooking directions are quite detailed and give the consumer some very worthwhile information such as: "Wash hands with warm water and soap immediately after handling chilis, and avoid contact with sensitive parts of your body such as your eyes."

The Red Salsa Kit contains two jalape?o chilis, two serrano chilis, one red fresno chili and one yellow (caribe) chili, and calls for the additional use of tomatoes, onions, cilantro and garlic among other ingredients.

Because of the use of additional produce items, the salsa kit can be an impetus for a substantial produce ring, but it also needs to be marketed properly, according to Mr. Vogel.

At the time of this interview at the end of May, the kits were being marketed as a pilot program at Basha's stores in the Phoenix area, which is the culmination of at least two to three years of work. "We first came up with a test product two years ago at the Produce Marketing Association convention," Mr. Vogel said.

The item was placed in the new product showcase, and the Tavilla executive said that the PMA staff told him that it was the most asked about new product at the convention. But at that point, it was still in its early development stage. Many kinks still had to be worked out, according to Mr. Vogel.

One of the early problems, and still an issue, was the packaging itself. Mr. Vogel relayed that in its naivete, Tavilla manufacturerd the first kit without breathable packaging.

"It was kind of a flop," he quipped.

The condensation from the produce created a foggy situation and it was tough to see into the packages.

Today, the company is using the right kind of material, and that is no longer a problem. But Mr. Vogel said that some people have indicated that the packaging covers too much of the produce, and they would like to be able to see it better.

Jack Armstrong, senior produce buyer at Basha's, thinks the product has a fighting chance. "Anything that will sell more produce, we will give it a try," he said.

At this writing, Basha's had been carrying the item for a couple of weeks and Mr. Armstrong said he would give it at least a couple of more weeks before deciding its long-term viability.

"My sense is that it is a good item but it may need to be worked pretty hard," he said. "Down the line, it might need some sampling or demos."

He said that a former employee married to a Hispanic man looked at the packaging and thought it was a great idea as it gave her an idea for making salsa that she hadn't thought about.

"She can cook Hispanic meals with the best of them, so when she thought it was great, I figured it was definitely worth a try."

Mr. Armstrong said that one might think that he is inundated with new produce items all the time, but that's not the case. "What really happens is that the grocery people understand that the produce customers are unique buyers who make a lot of purchases on impulse so they are always trying to get their grocery items in here."

While the number of SKUs in the produce department has increased tremendously over the last few years, Mr. Armstrong said that most of the increases represent the addition of ethnic items to satisfy the changing demogtraphics of his customers.

In Phoenix, there are many more Asians and South American Hispanics than there once were, and these groups have needs that he tries to serve. "These are items that we have carried before but not in such a big way. It seems like what is old is new and what's new is old."

The salsa kit, however, is truly a unique idea that Mr. Armstrong is happy to be carrying. "I don't think it will ever be a big seller, but it doesn't have to be. It can be a good item for us and a good item for [Tavilla]."