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Oriental food marketers are testing the limits of U.S. consumers' interest in ethnic foods.

Betting that Americans are ready to go beyond soy sauce and inspired by the success of time-saving cooking sauces like Ragu Foods' Chicken Tonight, several major marketers are experimenting with Oriental products.

The jar cooking sauces feature vegetables and various flavors that, when combined with meat, create a quick one-dish meal.

Hunt-Wesson's La Choy unit, the No. 2 Oriental sauce marketer, is the first to go national, with the introduction of its four-item Stir-Fry Vegetables 'N Sauce line, including Sweet & Sour, Teriyaki, Mandarin Soy and Spicy Szechuan. The suggested retail price, $1.99 a jar, is meant to cost less than a comparable takeout meal.

"American tastes are more diversified and adventurous today," said Kay Carpenter, manager of corporate communications for Hunt-Wesson. "That's now true all across the country, whereas it used to be so only in major metropolitan areas."

A print campaign from Ketchum Advertising, Chicago, in women's magazines and a coupon drop supported the introduction in October. La Choy is currently focusing on in-store taste demonstrations.

Hunt-Wesson could soon face stiff competition. The leading Oriental sauce marketer, Kikkoman International, is testing its first cooking sauce. Uncle Ben's Foods and Hormel Foods Corp.'s House of Tsang are also testing Oriental vegetable and sauce products.

The House of Tsang line is being tested in four areas: Buffalo/Albany, N.Y.; Washington/Baltimore; Denver; and Phoenix. Fla-vors include Szechuan Hot & Spicy, Tokyo Terikyaki, Hong Kong Sweet & Sour and Cantonese Classic.

Michael Takagawa, director of marketing and advertising for Kikkoman, said the products reflect major trends in American tastes: an interest in diverse ethnic foods, a need for convenience of preparation and the use of spices in place of fats or sugars.

He warned, however, that the market and grocery store shelf space are limited.

"Grocery retailing is really tight, and there isn't going to be room for everyone,"Mr. Takagawa said.

Indeed, some in the $308 million Oriental foods category, like Chun King and Lawry's Foods, have chosen not to in troduce cooking sauces de spite research showing Amer icans are looking for more elaborate ethnic food choices.

"Yes, everybody else is get ting into this, but maybe that's a good reason not to do it," said Dee Kaminsky, VP- marketing at Chun King. In stead, the company has intro duced a new, spicier line of soy sauces and seasoned chow mein noodles.

"Chinese restaurants are second only to Italian restau rants in popularity" among ethnic restaurants, Ms. Ka minsky said. "Eighty percent of Americans eat Chinese food regularly. But no one has really capitalized on the market in-home-yet."M


La Choy's Stir-Fry Vegetables 'N Sauce line touts itself as a "10-minute meal."

Top five in Oriental


Ranked by sales in food stores for the 52 weeks ended Dec. 5, 1993.

Brand Dollar sales Change

Kikkoman $63.8 million +1.3%

La Choy $29.6 million +1.8%

Lawry's $6.9 million +3.0%

Chun King $6.2 million -14.3%

House of Tsang $3.9 million +19.8%

Change compares the same period in 1992.

Source: Information Resources Inc.


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