Thursday, August 30, 2007

Salsa Mystery

If you want a bottle of Del Monte Thick & Chunky Salsa (Medium), you’ll find it on our table – and nowhere else. Del Monte stopped making its glass-jarred salsas “a few years ago,” according to the Del Monte Consumer Affairs people in Pittsburgh, PA.

Now don’t you go thinking that I’ve begun to specialize in condiments (even though I posted about pickles at end of July). No, salsas and hot sauces are now outselling ketchup in the US – and that makes writing about their sales and marketing quirks worthwhile. America’s growing Hispanic population is something we don’t tend to notice in Texas but it’s increasingly apparent to the rest of the nation.

Salsa is No. 2 behind tortillas in the “Top 10 Hispanic Food and Beverage Categories.” The research organization Packaged Facts projects that this segment of the US retail marketplace will reach $8.4 billion by 2011, up 48% from 2006.

These days, choose among “major’ US brands like Pace (Campbell Soup Company) and Old El Paso (General Mills); brand extensions like Doritos’ salsa, store brands; restaurant and private labels; Mexican competitors such as Victoria and Ortega; specialty brands like Frontera Foods’ Salpica. Some of these are obviously better than others. True confession: I’m not brand-loyal in this crowded category. I’m always willing to try a different brand or flavor variation. Heck, I even hang out at the Houston Hot Sauce Festival, suffering agonies in my search for the good, the bad and the ugly salsas.

If forced to select one brand, I’d go with Goldwater’s salsas out of Arizona…I mail-order them sometimes. Not a lot of heat but plenty of fruity taste.

Taste tests abound – and most of the marketing and advertising work is accomplished by [a] Valassis couponing and [b] store sampling – this is a kind of “trial by mouth.”

But I didn’t recall Del Monte’s branded salsa until Barbara pulled it out of the back of the cupboard. Reading the label was a little like stepping back in time, because there’s no nutrition information, no “best by” date. So I went to the Web to look it up. Surprise! No Del Monte Thick & Chunky Salsa. Del Monte has a lot of sites – food, corporate, even Fresh Del Monte. A little confusing but understandable in a company that’s been around so long.

Finally, I called the Del Monte Consumer Affairs hotline: 1-800-543-3090. This is answered, as I noted above, in Pittsburgh…not exactly the place I’d pick for salsa information. The TSR was very polite, became puzzled and then engaged. She’d never heard of Del Monte Thick & Chunky Salsa. After checking with her supervisor and discovering that Barbara had purchased our bottle at a dollar store some years back, she was finally able to explain that Del Monte had made salsas in the early ‘90s, but ceased production “five or six years ago.” (Thanks, Niki!)

Too bad in a way: It’s pretty good salsa, even long past its freshness date – Barbara insists it’s the preservatives. (And Niki was able to tell me it was made in America. My “customer experience” with Del Monte’s hotline was a good one.)

Del Monte is a great trademark. It’s the kind of company that could bring real muscle to the salsa category in terms of its experience with packing fresh fruits and vegetables.

I guess Del Monte’s management couldn’t wait for the salsa boom to arrive. Today, it would take a lot of horsepower to grab some market share out of the crowded salsa category and Del Monte’s got a lot of tomatoes to pick.

Still, I would have liked to try Del Monte Thick & Chunky Salsa (Hot).

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