Internationally acclaimed celebrity, Chef Pepin, known for his thousands of appearances on the Spanish-language television channel Univision, has helped USA Rice Federation begin changing the profile of rice in Guatemala City, Guatemala.

Hired by USA Rice as part of a pilot marketing program to reach an untapped foodservice sector in which rice had a ho-hum role as side dish or a non-descript additive in soups, Pepin created a buzz among restaurant owners, and attracted attention to the launch of a fall 2007 USA Rice pilot marketing campaign.

Although Guatemala’s local rice organization had been promoting consumption in the country for years, the per capita rice consumption rate has remained at 15 pounds and the restaurant sector remained relatively untouched by anyone trying to promote rice to the city’s lunch-time crowds.

And what a buzz Pepin created! USA Rice Federation’s first foodservice workshop drew 600 restaurant owners and cooks who came to learn new rice recipes from Pepin and other popular local chefs.

The large foodservice audience was for the first time introduced to the idea that the United States offers the highest quality rice available on the market. The local brand partner, ALCSA, which imports, mills and packages the U.S. rice under its two premium brands, Gallo Dorado and El Molinero, donated 3,000 pounds of rice samples for the restaurant owners to try.

As follow-up to this first successful foodservice event, USA Rice then launched “Club USA Arroz,” a club that offers members the chance to participate in hands-on cooking classes taught by Guatemala’s own celebrity chef, Chef Javier.

Club members also receive a regular newsletter that includes rice recipes from Pepin and Javier, as well as business advice on hot topics such as food costing and customer service. The club now boasts 151 members who actively attend cooking classes focused on using rice as a profitable main dish on restaurant menus.

“We weren’t sure if the restaurants would care much about rice because Guatemala’s diet consists largely of corn-based foods,” said Jim Guinn, USA Rice vice president for international promotion. “But we have discovered the interest is there.

“As with all restaurants, these owners are looking to offer something new and better for their regular customers,” Guinn said. “Once the owners compare the price of rice to pasta or potatoes, the choice for rice becomes a simple matter of mathematics.

“Guatemalan chefs are quickly recognizing that rice can be mixed with meats, vegetables, even a little bit of seafood, to create center-of-the-plate menu items at a very reasonable cost,” he said.

Despite the early success of the program, the current economic downturn has hit Guatemala particularly hard. Monthly remittances from Guatemalan workers living in the United States to family members in Guatemala totaled $4.3 billion in 2008. With remittances recently in steep decline, Guatemalans at home are also cutting back on spending.

Silver lining

Since the launch of the club, some of the original members are no longer in business, having succumbed to the worldwide economic contraction. Yet, these difficult economic times make the pilot program especially timely, with focus on how to serve low-cost, high quality food.

And, the program receives rave reviews. In a survey meant to help improve the program, which was conducted after an April 24 cooking class, members were asked what they liked least about the class. Two respondents said simply, “That it had to end.”

In an earlier independent program evaluation conducted by Allen F. Johnson & Associates, the foodservice sector responded with equal praise.

Nine out of 10 club participants said they would recommend that their friends and colleagues join. More importantly, 70 percent reported adding at least one new rice dish to their menus, and 67 percent reported increased rice consumption in their restaurants.

Perhaps most important to U.S. rice farmers, however, is the fact that 73 percent of club members say they now purchase only U.S. rice, noting they learned the importance of origin through the club seminars and cooking classes.

In the future, USA Rice Federation hopes to expand the club beyond the pilot phase and recruit additional members. The club is also being expanded for a consumer audience, which is being encouraged through various media to visit the club’s Web site, www.clubusaarroz.com, to search for rice-based recipes to feed their families.

With this continued effort to promote U.S. rice, USA Rice Federation hopes have a real effect on increasing rice consumption in this country of 14 million people.