Starting to sizzle

Retailers willing to promote grilling options that go beyond the typical fare are poised for a summer of hot sales in the meat department.

By Craig Levitt

Most of the country has endured a long harsh winter and Americans are hankering to spend some time outdoors, which often involves cooking meat over an open flame. Whether it is flipping good old-fashioned hamburgers and hot dogs on the weekend or something a bit unconventional mid-week, warm weather and the grilling season cannot get here soon enough.

“People rub their hands together and really look forward to the grilling season,” says Marty Carpenter, senior director of U.S. market development for the Calgary, Alberta, Canada-based Beef Information Centre (BIC). “Retailers need to keep that in mind when they are looking at their meat case layout or strategy for the summer. Seasonality drives everything and when there has just been such a tough winter, it really does create some pent up desire to get outside.”

The economy is still a factor as retailers fi­nalize their plans for merchandising the meat case for the summer season. While many consumers happily head to the meat case in preparation for a barbeque, budgets remain tight. To that end, some industry observers say there is a reduced demand for premium middle meats. Others say that is not always the case, but do agree that increased meat prices pose a challenge to retailers.

“The best way for retailers to survive high meat prices is to better understand their customer, gain their trust and merchandise the product mix appropriately,” says John Hagerla, vice president of global marketing/sales strategies for the Windom, Minn.-based PM Beef Group. “That means the meat department has to be an advocate for the consumer, forming a relationship, making sure customers know proper cooking techniques for their meat, suggesting a variety of cuts and understanding the story of where their beef comes from. If retailers can communicate these messages, especially during the grilling season, it allows consumers to purchase across the beef section, rather than limiting their purchases to ground beef.”

While special occasions can still drive premium sales, there is an opportunity for retailers to expand the reach of what they can offer for the grilling season.

Carpenter says retailers can still capture shoppers’ imaginations with less expensive cuts that they will enjoy. Cuts outside the traditional middle meat have been gaining traction. Carpenter says the thin meats, such as bottom sirloin flat meat provide an excellent opportunity to grow the category.

Another cut Carpenter champions is the tri-tip. “While retailers on the West Coast may be familiar with the tri-tip, retailers outside the region may not have as good an understanding of what sort of value the tri-tip really has,” says Carpenter. “In California they do a very simple presentation. It is dry rubbed with spices and onion and garlic are the predominant flavor profile, it is slow roasted, preferably on charcoal but it can be done on a gas grill as well. Just roast it nice and slow and it cooks up beautifully.”

A concept that Carpenter says was pioneered in Canada that the BIC is passing onto American retailers is the quick roast. The idea, says Carpenter, is to isolate a muscle—he uses a top sirloin as an example—and cut it into a smaller roast, usually 1 pound to 1 ½ pounds. He says that smaller cut can be cooked in 45 minutes to an hour, providing a perfect, fast-cooking weeknight roast that can be easily prepared on the barbeque.

Beyond burgers
When it is time to grill, most backyard chef’s generally favor beef, chicken or maybe even pork within the meat case. Officials at the Des Moines, Iowa-based National Pork Board are doing their part to help promote the grilling of pork cuts. Part of the Pork Board’s recent brand repositioning includes advice for consumers on how to best grill the different pork cuts available. The Pork Board provides these tips to retailers and recommends they offer them to shoppers who may be avoiding making a pork purchase because of a lack of understanding when it comes to preparation.

There are also those trying to get ham into that equation. Always popular around Christmas and Easter, Jon Lewallen, director of marketing for Kansas City, Mo.-based Cook’s Ham, says they are always trying to drive incremental ham sales outside the holidays.

Similar to BIC’s quick roast idea, much of Cook’s Ham’s efforts revolve around either developing smaller unit sizes or reworking existing smaller items, such as its bone-in ham steaks, which are cut from the center of a traditional bone-in ham and weight about 1-pound. Cook’s now offers its traditional bone-in ham with a glaze in the package. There are three different flavors—brown sugar, honey maple and pineapple—that come in packages of bone-in ham.

“The idea is to provide the consumer with some variety and another reason to give [ham] a try for an everyday meal opportunity,” says Lewallen. Cook’s also offers coupons with its holiday bone-in hams and ham steaks to encourage purchases throughout the year.

“If ham is good enough to serve for arguably the biggest days of the year, it shouldn’t be so tough to get consumers to use in smaller formats at some other times, including grilling season,” says Lewallen. “It’s important that retailers be able to sell bone-in ham steaks during non-holiday time periods and the best way to do that is provide feature ad support and in-store merchandising support.”

Healthier options
While ham may not be high on the list of most shoppers when it comes to barbequing, chicken continues to be a popular grilling option as Americans try to eat healthier. It is with health in mind that in May, St. Cloud, Minn.-based Gold’n Plump Poultry will begin shipping its seasoned boneless skinless chicken breast fillets. According to Terra Nothnagel, product manager for Gold’n Plump, the fillets are made with all-natural ingredients and contain no preservatives or phosphates. They come individually wrapped in a 24-ounce package that contain four 6-ounce fillets and are available in four varieties: Original, Lemon Pepper, Butter & Herb and Tomato Basil.

“[It’s important to use] only natural ingredients that the family cook can feel good about serving,” says Nothnagel. “Consumers continue to look for simple, convenient and good-tasting chicken products; that’s what our new seasoned boneless skinless chicken breasts provide.”

Smithfield Foods, based in Smithfield, Va., is also highlighting healthier grilling options, having reduced the sodium levels in all of its fresh marinated pork products by an average of 25.5%. The venture is part of Smithfield’s company-wide initiative to lower sodium across all product categories over the next three years.
According to company officials, consumers participating in blind taste tests found no difference in quality and taste between the original and lower sodium products.

“Smithfield has long been an industry leader in new product and flavor development,” says Eric Esch, senior director of marketing for Smithfield. “We value our loyal customers’ feedback and will continue to deliver healthier selections in our line of products.”

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