The Other Comida

Restaurants looking to court the growing Latino dining demographic are quickly learning that it's all about family

One universal truth prevails among Latino diners, a diverse demographic some 50 million strong with an estimated $1 trillion in spending power. Eating out will always pale in comparison to sharing a home-cooked meal at abuela’s house. 

But a lesson can be learned from this fact. Based on research, the recurring thread is the interconnection between family and food in Latino culture—specifically the need to take time out of each day to commune with family and friends over a meal.  

These core values of food and family translate into diners’ expectations of fresh ingredients, authentic recipes, value-driven pricing and accommodating service. 

Diversity is the Spice of Life

Trying a single formula for attracting Latino diners of all ages and nationalities is futile, says Elizabeth Johnson-Kossick, a Latin cuisine specialist at the Culinary Institute of America in San Antonio. Operators need to think of Latino Americans less as one homogeneous population and more as pockets of unique consumers, each with different backgrounds and expectations. 

“Nationality matters in Latino culture,” Johnson-Kossick says. “The importance of family ties might be universal, but a person’s cultural identity often stems from where they are from. Food is simply the outward manifestation of that particular culture.”  

When the CIA in San Antonio launched its ambitious NAO restaurant in 2012, it crafted a menu that spanned Latin America. But offering a little bit of everything failed to excite its diverse clientele. 

By using a rotating model that honors one particular country or region at a time, NAO not only attracted more customers from different regions but also younger, more adventurous diners. 

"Don’t do a dish that most people are familiar with like cochinita pibil and then not follow the original recipe or [not] use the right ingredients."

––Oscar del Rivero of Jaguar Ceviche Spoon Bar and Latam Grill

The Jaguar Ceviche Spoon Bar and Latam Grill in Coconut Grove, Fla., took a similar route, offering a modern Latin American menu. Mexican and South American dishes pepper the menu, from mango salads and Brazilian churrasco on the grill to bowls of Peruvian chupe de camaron (shrimp soup)  served on Wednesdays. 

“Whatever you do, make sure you do it right,” Chef Oscar del Rivero says. “Don’t do a dish that most people are familiar with like cochinita pibil and then not follow the original recipe or [not] use the right ingredients. That’s a real turnoff.”

To the Authentic Go the Spoils

No matter their heritage, Latino diners overwhelmingly prefer authentic Latin creations to American riffs on traditional dishes, according to Datassential, a market-research firm. Offering a bland Tex-Mex burrito versus a time-honored torta or arepa (grilled corn flatbread filled with meat) recipe can be the difference between a one-time visitor and a regular customer. 

Victor’s Café in New York has prospered for more than 50 years by bridging the gap between tradition and changing tastes. “Those two things—tradition and family—keep our Latino diners loyal,” owner Sonia Zaldivar says.

Peter Gianopulos is a Chicago-based food writer and adjunct professor of journalism at Loyola University. 

¿Cómo Se Dice "Get Specific"?

Three menu styles to attract a new generation of Latin-American diners:

Regional Menus
Younger Latino diners are showing interest in hyper-regionalized cuisine, from Oaxaca in Mexico to specific islands in the Caribbean.

South American Fare
As Mexican cuisine becomes more ubiquitous, operators should consider focusing on grilled meat dishes, chimichurri sauces and ceviches found in South America, which appeal to health-conscious young diners. 

Reinvented Tacos
Swap out the usual mix of ground beef, cheese and sour cream for gourmet taco ingredients, such as bison, to attract more adventurous Latino diners.

Tips For Attracting Latino Diners 

Find Your Accent
Instead of revamping your entire menu, accent signature items with Latin flavors, such as adding chipotle sauce to a burger, or spices, such as adobo seasonings, to an omelet. 

Work on Your Spanish
Menus in Spanish are a must for restaurants that serve first- and second-generation Hispanic diners, but hiring Spanish-speaking servers can benefit almost any restaurant targeting Latinos. 

Start Juicing 
Something as simple as fresh fruit smoothies or aguas frescas (fruit juice mixed with water) is an easy way to gain traction with Hispanic customers. 

Tell a Great Story
In Latino culture, food and storytelling are inextricable. Offer a short background story or name the dish after its creator. This can spur dialogue and project authenticity. 

Get Leaner
In many Latin countries, meat is a luxury. Instead of packing extra ground beef or steak into a dish, focus on creating intriguing sides, such as fried plantains or substituting quinoa and brown rice for rice and beans.