The customer’s stomach is always right

Betsy Ward

By Betsy Ward
President and CEO
USA Rice

As far as adages go, “The customer is always right” is one of the most famous; another is that “an army marches on its stomach.” I’ve created a combined version — a hybrid if you will — “The customer’s stomach is always right.”

In addition to tracking rice import statistics and domestic acreage that give us a sense of the marketplace, we spend a good deal of time interacting with chefs, retail officials and consumers to analyze what their stomachs are telling them they want.

What they are interested in is aromatics.This doesn’t mean these varieties will replace traditional long, medium or short grain. Far from it, and I actually see a way these “exotic” varieties might help boost traditional varieties. It just means these specialty varieties are appealing to consumers right now, and we need to address this.

Releases offer domestically grown options

Market research we conducted a few years ago revealed that while consumers were often surprised to learn they could “buy American” when purchasing rice, at least 75 percent reported that once they were aware of the option, they would look for U.S.-grown rice. Good news, right? But wait, there’s another shoe dropping.

Roughly half of those respondents said they would NOT look for U.S.-grown rice if they were making an exotic dish like biryani or Thai fried rice. They said that in the interest of “authenticity,” they would look for imported basmati or jasmine rice.

You and I both know that isn’t necessary; we have plenty of good domestically grown options. But remember my hybrid adage — if the customer wants it, they must be right.

So we need to explain to them that what they actually want is an authentic tasting, cooking and smelling rice that’s grown locally in the United States. I am happy to see that research is catching up with consumer interest, and producers are getting new tools for their tool kit.

different rice varieties

U.S. rice producers grow a wide variety of rice domestically — photo courtesy USA Rice

This year, the University of Arkansas released a new jasmine variety, ARoma 17, specifically suited to Arkansas’ climate — something that traditional jasmine isn’t.

In March, Louisiana State University’s AgCenter released a new Clearfield jasmine, CLJ01, and the first acres have just been planted. We plan to take the 2018 USA Rice Foodservice Farm & Mill Tours to those fields for harvest and tasting. By next year, we could see more than 15,000 tons of this rice in the market.

And earlier this year in California, a new early maturing, high-yielding jasmine-type, Calaroma-201, was approved for release to growers, joining a catalog of another jasmine and two basmati-style varieties.

Jasmine or basmati: a gateway starch

These are exciting times when we’re able to tell foodies they can get authentic and local rice on the same fork. So what did I mean when I said this interest in basmati and jasmine could help traditional rice varieties?

My theory is rooted in the science of persuasion. It is well established that it is far easier to get people who are already doing something to do more of it than to get them to start doing something new. Convincing a rice eater to eat more rice is easier than convincing a potato devotee that rice is the answer.

If we have consumers with a mild interest in rice but a strong interest in the exotic jasmine and basmati, let’s get them eating our aromatics. Then we can help broaden their palate to long, medium and short grain.

I bet when you woke up this morning, you weren’t thinking of jasmine or basmati as a gateway starch. That’s OK. We do, and thanks to these new varieties being made available to producers and eventually consumers, we’re going to put this theory to the test by bringing the two together. I’ll leave you with another hybrid maxim for your thoughts: “An ounce of action is worth a ton of theory (milled basis).”