Amidst the global financial crises a phenomenon of growth and innovation has been occurring in the food and beverage industry of Buenos Aires, Argentina. Rapid growth began in 2004 and has continued through 2008 with analysts predicting a minor slowdown ahead in 2009, but by no means a stoppage.
Many porteños (residents of Argentina) believe that because the country has already suffered and begun to recover from a disastrous financial collapse of its own in 2000 (2002) that Argentina is better equipped to handle the current situation than other countries.
A significant and perhaps more credible factor is the dollar to peso rate. Until 2001, the Argentine government arbitrarily fixed the rate of exchange at 1:1. Today the peso is allowed to float against other currencies, maintaining the rate for several years at around three pesos to one dollar. Even with inflation, this favorable exchange rate has made Buenos Aires a popular bargain travel destination for tourists with tighter budgets and financial concerns in addition to vacation plans. As well as a travel destination, Buenos Aires is increasingly attractive to expatriates looking for a place where their money goes further.
“I think there are other factors that are having more effects, both positive and negative—on the positive side, the influx of tourists and expats here has created a demand for ingredients that weren’t available just a couple of years ago,” says Dan Perlman, chef and owner of Casa Saltshaker. “You used to be able to walk into a Chinatown market and find nothing but, more or less, soy sauce, sesame oil, and a few jars of various Lee Kum Kee sauces. Now they’re packed with options from all over Asia and the markets stock exotic fruits and vegetables. Even outside of communities like Chinatown, Koreatown, and the Bolivian/Peruvian markets, more and more is available. Local supermarkets stock things like hot peppers and imported goods, something they didn’t do two years ago.”
Reports support Perlman’s theory, showing that the retail market and the economy in general have been recovering strongest in the middle and upper classes but also in the low-income bracket due to the increased income made available. This growth has heralded the return of many items Argentines once enjoyed before the crises in 2000, as well as a fresh crop of fusion restaurants, gourmet and value-added products, delivery services, supermarkets, specialty and ethnic foods and organic products. The new market is very flexible and accessible to almost the entire stratum of Argentines and foreigners.
Before the financial upturn, consumers focused exclusively on low prices and good value over ambiance, brand name, or attractive packaging. Salary increases and higher purchasing power have stimulated a renewed value for convenience, brand names, quality, variety and proximity. There is a pizza parlor or empanada restaurant on almost every corner. These venues have always represented quick and easy meals but have now branched out into delivery service and more “gourmet” styles of fast-food consumption.
As this trend strengthens, it is expected that the marketing niche for consumer ready foodstuffs, snacks, beverages and luxury items will grow in tandem. Import goods will also increase in demand. Although almost all food and beverages are domestically produced, major supermarket chains have taken note. Disco, Coto, Jumbo, and Carrefour are the major upscale supermarkets and each has at least a full isle or more dedicated to imported and luxury goods.
The Argentine palate traditionally consists of a diet high in beef and pasta, usually served with salad and a potato side dish, and is typically considered unadventurous.
“That is changing, bit by bit, as chefs, primarily those who’ve spent time traveling and working overseas, come back and see ways to take traditional dishes and make them healthier, more modern, more interesting, and/or revive dishes that have been lost over time and bring them into a modern style. The best exemplars of this sort of place are Urondo, Pura Tierra, Sucre, Bar Uriarte, and Thymus,” Perlman says.