Ponce de León would be shocked. When the Spanish explorer landed on the shores of what is now Florida in 1513, he couldn't possibly have known he was helping lay the foundation for an Hispanic culture that is influencing American dining trends even 500 years later.
Next to Native Americans, Hispanics have maintained a continuous presence in the United States territory longer than any other group and now make up 16% of the population or about 50.5 million people, based on the 2010 U.S. Census.
Hispanics are an increasingly important customer base for the foodservice industry, accounting for about 25% of all restaurant traffic or 9.8 billion visits a year, according to research firm NPD Group. And that number is growing. Packaged Facts said the Hispanic share of consumer-driven restaurant sales grew 4.7% in 2011, almost double that of the U.S. consumers generally.
"I've seen this trend accelerate over the 30 years I've been in the restaurant business," said Ahmed Mobdy, owner of Dad's Café in Antioch, California. "More Hispanics are dining out than ever before."
In addition to traditional dishes such as omelets, pasta, sandwiches and salads, Dad's Café offers an "Authentic Mexican Food" menu with chili verde, fresh tamales and a carne asada plate among other items. The restaurant also serves complimentary refried beans, salsa and homemade tortilla chip every day after 11 a.m.
"It's not about just having Mexican food on the menu. You have to prepare and present everything in an authentic way," Mobdy said. "Today about 60% to 70% of our guests are Hispanic, and our sales were up 20% in 2011. We're the third restaurant in four years at this location and the only one that is successful. I believe in giving customers what they want at a good value, and I'm seeing new faces come through the door every day."
According to the Pew Research Center, 40% of Hispanics are most comfortable speaking Spanish, so restaurants like Dad's Café make sure their entire staff is fluent.
Hispanics are also more family oriented when dining out. NPD found that more than half of restaurant visits from Spanish-dominant Hispanics and a third of visits from English-speaking Hispanics include parties with children. In contrast, just 29% of visits by non-Hispanics include parties with children. To appeal to families, kids under 10 eat free at Dad's Cafe.
"It rare to see just one or two Hispanics at a table, but I see big groups of two and three generations of family dining together all the time," said Maria Rivera, owner of Casa Garcia in Seven Lakes, N.C. "Family is a big part of Hispanic culture, and most view dining out as a luxury to be shared with everyone."
Like Mobdy, Rivera strives for absolute authenticity in the Mexican dishes she serves.
"It has to be high quality, cooked right and spicy," she said. "And many of our customers like to go off the menu. When they come in, they ask, 'What do you have in back? What did you eat today?' So we offer a kind of home-cooked, customized experience for our Hispanic customers, too."
Hispanics have different consumption patterns than non-Hispanics according to NPD's National Eating Trends Hispanic, a year-long study of Hispanics' eating habits. For example, 12% of Hispanics include untoasted bread in their breakfast compared with only 2% of non-Hispanics. And Hispanics eat hot cereal at only 6% of breakfast meals compared with 10% for non-Hispanics.
A growing number of Hispanics are also eating healthier, according to Technomic, Inc. research. About two-thirds of Hispanic consumers say the availability of healthy options is important at both limited- and full-service restaurants. Thirty-two percent of Hispanics say they order healthy items at restaurants, compared to just 23% of the general population.
"About 30 to 40% of our customers are interested in healthy menu choices, which is a big change from just a few years ago" Mobdy said. "More customers want fruit instead of potatoes, for example, so we're offering a wider range of options."
Rivera said the bottom line is that Hispanics want the "entire cultural experience" when dining out.
"Authenticity, quality and service are most important," she said. "Everything has to be prepared correctly, you have to be family friendly and you have to speak their language."
Looking to the future, the fastest growing segment of the Hispanic population in the next 15 years will be age 45 or over, according to Packaged Facts. Those under 25 will make up 43% of all Hispanics, underscoring the importance of younger Hispanics to the restaurant industry over the long term.