Arab Cuisine: A Marketing Challenge in the United States
By: Noah Robertson/Arab America Contributing Writer
In recent years, there has been a massive growth of Arab cuisine in the United States with more restaurants opening every day. Initially, many people doubted that Arab food could become popular in the U.S. in any form. Now, looking around the food landscape of the U.S., more and more Arab or Arab inspired food can be found. But much of it still must be uniquely marketed to gain popularity with Americans. The growth of Arab food can be contributed largely to how the food has been adapted along with the way it is presented, marketed, and described as the general American trend would label it: healthy. The following is an exploration of these trends and the steps Arab American restaurateurs have taken to make it appealing to the typical American.
Immigration from the Arab world began in the late 1800s and has ebbed and flowed over time. As more immigrants came some decided to introduce their native food to Americans. Initially, the idea of Arab food being accepted in the U.S. was considered unlikely. Arab food was an unknown and many Americans had no desire for it.
In order to open up American palates, Arab chefs realized they needed to provide food that fit the American style of eating, fast and on the go. Food trucks and carts began to open up in areas with high numbers of Arab Americans. Many Americans began to take notice of what they called, and some still call, “street meat.” This “street meat” was shawarma, which is meat deliciously seasoned and slow-roasted over a spit until it is ready to be sliced off, and in this context served in pita (Arab) bread with varying toppings, which is the most common way to serve it. This was the perfect quick meal for the fast-paced American lifestyle. It brought new and unique flavors Americans quickly fell in love with.
This is an important beginning to note because traditional Arab dishes are not quickly scarfed down during a 15-minute lunch break. Instead, they usually form a big spread with everyone sharing and taking time to enjoy their meal. Unfortunately, this important aspect of Arab cuisine was only the start of the adaptations needed to woo the average American.
Marketing Arab Restaurants
Leila Hudson, an associate professor of modern Middle East culture and political economy at the University of Arizona, told QSR Magazine when selling Middle Eastern food versus the Mediterranean, “The Mediterranean is a much more popular selling point.” Both foods have some general overlaps, such as tahini, chickpeas, skewered meat, etc.; however, they are NOT the same. Despite their difference, in business, what sells always wins out, so Arab restaurants have had to change how they describe their food to interest Americans.
One example is a local restaurant in Chapel Hill, NC, called Mediterranean Deli. This restaurant is extraordinarily popular, but when looking closer at their menu, they have many Lebanese and other Arab dishes even though they call themselves Mediterranean. Another example is that Semsom, a Lebanese-based restaurant company, defines themselves as the Mediterranean because the food is similar enough that the marketing boost is worth it. If both companies did not use the “Mediterranean” in their marketing, they might have struggled to grow.
Arab Foods Re-Named
In order to sell Arab cuisine, there has also been an adaptation in the names of popular foods and dishes to make them “accessible” to Americans. One example is the swiftly growing restaurant chain in the U.S. Halal Guys, which began as a food cart in New York. An Egyptian immigrant started the company, but in order to get American customers, they use marketing tactics such as calling their beef shawarma a gyro. Another example is pita bread, what is often served is actually Arab bread though the name “pita” is used because it is Greek and well-known to Americans. Pita bread has been popularized so much so that now even some Arabs use the term. Another example of renaming Arab foods is baklava, a Greek word which is actually baklawa in Arabic. Despite this, because Americans know and love “baklava” even the restaurants making Arab baklawa call it baklava.
Marketing Arab Cuisine
Not only have Arab restaurants re-named their dishes, but they have also adapted recipes to meet the American consumer’s desires. Some restaurants have used less complex spices. Some have added variations to traditional dishes (often described as a “modern” take, but more of a necessity to interest Americans). Others have Americanized dishes by adding things like fries to shawarma, along with many other adaptations. At Just Falafel, they have adapted their recipe to create Italian, Mexican, Indian, and other variations of falafels to provide familiar tastes. The more familiar and less complex the dish, the more easily it is accepted.
Recently, another major selling point for Arab food has been its healthfulness and its many delicious vegetarian dishes. Arab food has always been healthier with heavy use of olive oil, vegetables, low fat, and ingredients like lentils and couscous. Now healthy food is trendy in the U.S., so there is a major marketing point for Arab cuisine. Arab restaurants can market their vegetarian falafels, tabbouleh, grape leaves, etc. and the healthy Arab diet (though often referred to as the exclusively Mediterranean diet).
The Growing Popularity
Looking back on Arab food in the 1990s, we can see a major change in Arab restaurants’ popularity and staples of Arab cuisine. Hummus is now served in restaurants even not serving Arab cuisine. Couscous is sold in every grocery store, pita (Arab) bread can be found anywhere, and even grape leaves are becoming quite popular. Sit-down Arab restaurants with traditional hospitality and big platters of different dishes are also becoming popular.
The Future of Arab Cuisine and Restaurants
Looking to the future, the popularity of Arab food will keep increasing. Hopefully, more people transition through Americanized Arab cuisine to loving traditional Arab dishes. Arab business owners are beginning to describe their food without marketing ploys. And people love the flavors and healthfulness of Arab cuisine. As more people are introduced to how delicious and healthy Arab foods are, It is expected nothing but growth for the Arab restaurant community.
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