The Flame Game


New products, programs turning up the heat on summer grilling.

Some consider blooming flowers and trees the signature scents of May. However, as those who venture outdoors on a weeknight at dinnertime can attest, another aroma that signals the start of the summer wafts from backyard grills.

While many people grill year-round now, Memorial Day has long been the official kickoff to summer grilling season. According to a GrillWatch survey conducted for Palatine, Ill.-based Weber-Stephen Products LLC, the Fourth of July is the most popular grilling holiday of the year, with 90 percent of American grill owners reporting that they barbecue on that day, followed by Labor Day, at 77 percent; Memorial Day, at 71 percent; and Father's Day, at 53 percent.

To be sure, a lot of people own grills. A new report from the Arlington, Va.-based Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association (HPBA) reveals that 86 percent of U.S. households own an outdoor grill, barbecue or smoker, a 4 percent increase since 2009.

Sales of grill-ready products underscore the popularity of the summer grilling season. Recent retail scanning data from Hoffman Estates, Ill.-based FreshLook Marketing, as cited by the National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA) in Centennial, Colo., shows that summer grilling beef sales from Memorial Day to Labor Day top the $5 billion mark, and that stretch of time accounts for about 30 percent of yearly beef sales. Similarly, the heyday for hot dogs is in the good old summertime: According to the Washington, D.C.-based National Hot Dog and Sausage Council, nearly 40 percent of yearly hot dog sales take place from May to September.

Those who merchandise meat, poultry and seafood agree that grilling season presents new and dynamic opportunities for sales and brand visibility. "For us, grilling starts in a smaller way around Easter, but Memorial Day really is the official start of summer," says Mike Rodgers, merchandising manager for meat and seafood at Delhaize America's Tampa, Fla.-based Sweetbay Supermarket banner. "This is a good time for grilling promotions because people are thinking about grilling more often than not."

Processors, too, say that there's a reason they put muscle (no protein pun intended) behind summer grilling efforts. "Everything is enjoyable outdoors, and there is a certain satisfaction in being outside grilling," points out Denny Belcastro, SVP of government affairs and industry collaboration for Chicago-based Hillshire Brands, noting that the outdoor cooking season allows for a variety of foods to be tossed on the proverbial barbie. "It's as simple as grilling a hot dog or as complex as cooking a chicken rotisserie-style."

Firing Up

So what are consumers looking for as they step up to the meat case, produce section, and sauce/seasoning and accessory aisles as grocers launch summer grilling programs?

According to the Weber GrillWatch survey, the three foods grilled most often are hamburgers (73 percent), chicken (41 percent) and steak (40 percent). Within the steak segment, NCBA lists ribeye, strip steak, tenderloin, T-bone and top sirloin as the most popular grilling steaks. The Hot Dog and Sausage Council, meanwhile, reports that Americans typically eat 7 billion hot dogs from Memorial Day to Labor Day, most of which are prepared outside on a grill or campfire. As for poultry, the National Chicken Council, based in Washington, notes that sales and volume growth were up last year for dark-meat pieces (especially chicken thighs), and the increase was attributed at least in part to burgeoning interest in grilling chicken pieces.

This grilling season, shoppers might be surprised to see some changes at the meat case. The National Pork Board and Beef Check-off Program have updated more than 350 names of meat cuts as part of the Uniform Retail Meat Identification Standards (URMIS) system. The revamped nomenclature (signed off on by the U.S. Department of Agriculture) is designed to be more consumer-friendly and relatable.

Some of the new names for pork take a cue from red-meat counterparts. The traditional pork loin chop, for instance, is now known as the pork porterhouse chop; similarly, a pork rib chop is now a pork ribeye chop. On the beef side, the boneless shoulder top blade steak is retiring as a name, in favor of the flatiron steak, while the Denver steak is the new name for a blade boneless steak.

With the debut of simplified cut names and proposed label changes, the National Pork Board is encouraging consumers to cook pork chops like steaks this summer. "Retailers can merchandise these recognizable cuts to generate sales and promote value, since consumers already know how to cook them," declares Patrick Fleming, director of retail marketing for the Des Moines, Iowa-based board. "Customers are also willing to pay more for higher-quality cuts like porterhouse and ribeye, so retailers can charge more to secure better margins."

Likewise, NCBA is promoting and educating the updated nomenclature to retailers, so they can share it with shoppers. At the same time, through check-off funds, the association is launching a new "Beef. It's What's for Dinner" advertising campaign, which will include a variety of grilling recipes.

Retailers are already promoting the newly named beef and pork cuts, particularly those that are well suited for grilling. "We are in favor of the pork and beef industry efforts, and will rename several cuts of pork to match the names for similar beef cuts, for easier consumer identification," reports Casie Broker, director of marketing for Kansas City, Mo.-based Price Chopper Supermarkets. Broker says that Price Chopper plans to slowly start identifying pork and beef cuts by their new names in advertisements and in-store, to best gain consumer confidence.

Hot Launches

Names for fresh beef and pork aren't the only new thing at the retail meat case. Grilling season has traditionally been a time for new product introductions, and 2013 is no exception.

For example, complementing its line of brats and sausages, Sheboygan, Wis.-based Johnsonville Sausage is adding new Cheddar & Bacon and Swiss & Mushroom varieties to its Grillers line of pork "burgers." In keeping with the move toward more flavorful options, Johnsonville also is unveiling two new flavors of its smoked-cooked sausage: Pepper Jack cheese and Swiss & Mushroom.

Farmland Foods, based in Kansas City, Mo., is also focusing on flavor for its new product in the meat case this May: Unfiltered Wheat Beer Brats.

In the something-for-everyone vein, many manufacturers have been keeping an eye on demand for better-for-you and natural proteins. The Ball Park brand from Hillshire Farms, for instance, just introduced Ball Park Lean Franks. "We are seeing consumers continually look for premium products such as those made with Angus beef, and we're also noticing that consumers are looking for hot dogs made up of a single protein, like products made with 100 percent beef or 100 percent pork," says Timothy Smith, VP of marketing. "The recent introduction of Lean Franks offers another option for those looking for a great-tasting, juicy hot dog made with 100 percent beef or pork, but with less calories and fat."

Along with new products in the fresh and value-added segments, processors are showing consumers how to grill traditional products that they may not associate with barbecuing. Hormel Foods, for instance, is promoting its Cure81 ham steaks for the grill, focusing on the convenience factor of grilling single-serve, fully cooked portions.

As they merchandise new and different proteins, grocers continue to emphasize value. Indeed, value remains important to price-conscious shoppers who've tightened up on spending in the wake of the deep recession a few years ago. In response, the National Pork Board is encouraging retailers to add signage highlighting pork's price point, especially when compared with other proteins. NCBA is suggesting that retailers include beef in their weekly features, noting that shoppers are more likely to purchase an item that's featured.

Some of the renamed cuts of fresh beef also deliver on value, as Rodgers points out. "Today, compared to six to eight years ago, if you ask consumers what is important to them, most would say price and value," he asserts. To meet the needs of budget-watching shoppers, he says that Sweetbay is promoting value cuts like Denver steaks. "We're actually creating a section in the case with grilling steaks that are better from a price standpoint," he adds.

At Price Chopper, Broker expects some supply-and-demand issues as grilling season opens. "We have seen a slight decrease in beef sales, due to the fact that beef prices are higher than this time last year, and are probably as low as they are going to get before grilling season," she says. "At the same time, we are seeing an increase of sales in other proteins such as pork and poultry. Exports of those products are down, leading to more of that product being available on the domestic market, allowing us to provide more attractive pricing."

While there's a lot of data showing what consumers are looking to grill, other indicators point to how people are grilling. In March, the HPBA released its "trend watch" for 2013, which revealed, among other things, that consumers are looking to replicate restaurant-quality meals at home. As, such, people are looking at new grills and smokers with innovative technologies like easy ignition systems and built-in accessories like pizza stones, baking racks or fire bricks. Grilling tools, too, reflect more savvy and sophisticated backyard grill-masters, with unique items like multipurpose forks that serve as an all-in-one baster, brush, bottle opener and flavor injector.

Where There's Smoke …

Even as a segment of the population gets fancier with their grills (and what they put on them), there are always opportunities to educate shoppers about grilling. NCBA reports that 35 percent of consumers say they're lacking in experience or knowledge of grilling. Based on such findings, the association advises retailers to be able to answer shoppers' questions and provide materials or resources on grilling.

According to Broker, Price Chopper's meat merchandisers understand that the stakes (or steaks, as it may be) of educating shoppers are high during grilling season. All 49 Price Chopper stores, she notes, have a butcher on site daily to answer shoppers' questions, offer tips and suggest recipes. "We also have hundreds of grilling recipes available on our website, and recipe cards and grilling tip brochures are available in the meat section of our stores," she says.

A lot of attention in summer grilling season is given to meat, poultry and seafood as center-of-the-plate items. That said, as consumption of vegetables rises (and a focus on healthier eating grows), grocers are also highlighting veggies that work well on the grill, from peppers to sweet corn to portabella mushrooms. "Just like with meat, we offer recipes and grilling tips for produce online and in-store," Broker says.

Adds Hillshire's Belcastro: "Consumers are getting very creative with meals prepared on the grill. It used to simply be one key ingredient: hot dog, sausage, chicken or steaks. Now, consumers are combining several meal components, such as vegetables, appetizers and sometimes even desserts, for complete meal preparation. Everything is fair game to grilling chefs."

Finally, while grilling season kicks off now, it can run all the way through, well, kickoff. "Grilling plays well into the balance of the year, with tailgating and football season," Belcastro says. "You have a long season with a lot of continuity."

"Today, compared to six to eight years ago, if you ask consumers what is important to them, most would say price and value."

—Mike Rodgers, Sweetbay Supermarket

86 percent of U.S. households own an outdoor grill barbecue or smoker.

Source: Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association (HPBA)

"We ... have hundreds of grilling recipes available on our website, and recipe cards and grilling tip brochures are available in the meat section of our stores."

—Casie Broker, Price Chopper Supermarkets

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