Taking An Ethnic Restaurant Mainstream

It's easy to open a local restaurant that serves ethnic food to a small niche following. Here's how to go mainstream.
November 08, 2011

Ethnic eats have always been popular in the U.S. As a country of immigrants, we’ve brought our foods with us, offering comfort and a way to stay connected to our pasts.

Small, ethnic restaurants span much of the country, often located in neighborhoods that have drawn immigrants from a common country.

But while it’s relatively easy to open a local enterprise to serve ethnic food to a homesick population of recent arrivals, making the leap to a mainstream market requires an extra dash of savvy.

It's easy to stay small and niche

The recipe for niche success is fairly straightforward: Make something authentic that’s not widely available. For example, if you give a local population a whiff of their homeland and a comfortable place to hang out, you have a good chance of winning loyalty from folks familiar with the cuisine and customs.

However, businesses that cater solely to the populations their cuisines represent leave easy money (and food) on the table. “I see all these small restaurants out there serving their niches that could do so much better,” says Houston-based Michael Cordúa, proprietor of seven award-winning South American restaurants in Houston.

“If they just moved out of the niche and into the mainstream, they’d see so much more volume,” advises Cordúa.

The allure of ethnic food

It’s an amazing tribute to globalization that consumers in most major cities can reach out and connect with the rest of the world through food.

What’s behind all this popular growth in ethnic eateries?

Cultural geographer Wilbur Zelinsky in 1985 authored probably the most exhaustive study of the history of ethnic restaurants in America. “In its ultimate, essential sense, culture is an image of the world, of oneself and one’s community,” he wrote.

Zelinsky studied the evolution of ethnic eating and theorized why some restaurants were successful crossing over while others were not: Ethnic restaurants succeed best in locations where the larger local populations are receptive to them.

According to Zelinksy, mainstream acceptance of a novel ethnic cuisine requires restaurateurs to meet customers halfway with food and experiences that are easy for them to assimilate.

The blueprint for ethnic-food crossover

Ethnic restaurants have achieved mainstream success by following many common practices.

Creating a transcultural menu

Houston’s Cordúa came from Nicaragua to Texas and recognized early the potential for getting big by going mainstream. Instead of focusing solely on a Nicaraguan menu, he went for more generalized South American food. “We want to make it safe for our customers to be adventurous,”  Cordúa explains. ”When ingredients push the envelope of being exotic or just too extreme, I choose what my customers feel most comfortable with. I pay tribute to the ingredients the Americas have given to the world.”

Jeff Ecker, general manager of Paymon's Mediterranean Cafe in Las Vegas, agrees with Americanizing the menu.  Founded in 1988, Paymon’s underwent a format change in 2000 by adding more accessible American options while maintaining its original Middle Eastern cuisine.

Ecker cautions restaurants with an ethnic flavor to pay more attention to items like the beverage service when moving mainstream. “Walk into a Japanese restaurant, and you’ll see a lot of sake and not a lot of what mainstream customers are familiar with,” he said.

“To cross over, we changed the culture, from playing American music on the radio to adding Italian and vegetarian offerings on the menu.”

Iterating incessantly

Testing plays a big role in finding foods and ingredients that resonate with a larger audience.  Don’t assume anything—test what works and eliminate what doesn’t.

For example, Cordúa tested native ingredients with his new clientele and found that grass-fed beef (typically used in South American kitchens) tasted inferior to the American palette. “We quickly swapped it out, opting for a more familiar experience for our new customers, unaccustomed  to the South American diet,” he says.

Making exploration comfortable

Early on, Paymon’s found that its ethnic format proved too dissonant to lure in small groups of customers. “We got feedback that said in a party of four or five, there was always one or two holdouts who didn’t want ethnic,” says Ecker.

Restaurants need to balance the desire to be authentic with the practicality of providing something already familiar to a general audience.  This includes translating menu items into English and choosing locations in central areas to attract the masses. Cordúa advises, “Have enough in your restaurant design and format to be mysterious but make the rest of the experience comfortable.”

Educating the customer

Not everyone is familiar with an ethnic meal. It’s a language and experience that requires some education. Post-launch, Cordúa spent a lot of time coaxing friends and family into his facility to introduce them gently to the new menu. (Ask him about hustling plantains at church events.)  “From there, word of mouth brought in the next leg of customers,” he says, reflecting on the early marketing efforts of his first restaurant.

Paymon’s did something similar when it opened the Hookah Lounge, its pioneering store-within-a-store-concept. Paymon Raouf, founder of the restaurant, is seen as almost a cult hero, bringing the Hookah experience to America (he even owns the trademark).  But to get a Las Vegas mainstream frequenting the Hookah Lounge, Ecker made sure to guide the experience for his customers foreign to the Moroccan format. “We don’t do any bellydancing or anything like that,” he says.

“It’s almost like a concierge service: We have an employee explain the experience, how to choose from over 20 different flavors of Egyptian tobacco, and then we just set the hookah up for them.”

Bringing in the media early and big

In a wired world, it’s easy to see if Internet advertising works or not. Everything is measurable. Not so with traditional PR: It’s expensive and hard to judge its value. But early on, Cordúa hired a publicist to approach local media organizations with his message.

From there, larger, national publications (like the New York Times and Esquire) got word of what was going on in Eastern Texas. “To be successful in the culinary world, you really need to be good at food and business,” said Cordúa, who holds an M.B.A. “Running a restaurant really is the commerce of art. As the owner, I’m not an artist with a supporting patron. I need to be liked and demanded.”

“And I’m willing to invest in that.”

(Read more on running a restaurant.)

Zack Miller is the author of the book Tradestream Your Way to Profits: Building a Killer Portfolio in the Age of Social Media and runs Tradestreaming.com.