FRESH FOODS: Holiday Perishables: Tradition with a twist

There's plenty for grocers to be thankful for this approaching holiday season, as consumers are likely to spend big on food celebrations like they've done every season. But while retailers make sure they've got their turkey giveaways primed, their spiral hams in stock, and their traditional side dish offerings ready to roll, they also should be preparing some surprises for the holiday table, and inviting shoppers to splurge.

Unlike a routine meal that features one or maybe two dishes, the hallmark of holiday meals is abundance, a robust variety of dishes that accentuates the celebratory nature of the season. This is also a golden opportunity for retailers to encourage consumers to try new recipes, ingredients, and promotions that will put a new spin on their traditions.

Seafood often factors prominently in many customary holiday feasts. And though it could be true that seafood often "sells itself" in certain markets or for certain retailers during the holiday season, that's no reason to make do with subpar promotions, says Larry Andrews, retail marketing director at the Juneau-based Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute (ASMI), the official marketing arm for the state of Alaska's robust seafood industry.

Products such as wild Alaska crab, black cod, prawns, and smoked salmon experience noticeable lifts during the holidays, according to Andrews.

"Items that lend themselves well to higher-end party platters and offer the impact desired for that special dinner party are always successful," he notes. "Holiday entertaining is easy with smoked salmon and crab products, because they're easy to prepare yet very elegant."

Strong demand

With Oct. 15 the official start of wild Alaska king and snow crab season, the strong demand for Alaska crab is expected to continue into the winter, says Andrews. He cites a recent report from Norwegian seafood information provider Intrafish, claiming demand for crab in the United States continues to grow in both the retail and foodservice segments. ASMI has a variety of Alaska crab materials available to support retailers looking to profit from this increased demand for wild-caught crab this fall.

"Trends like consumer preference for wild, natural, and sustainable seafood translate well for grocers who choose to use the eye-catching materials available," adds Andrews. ASMI's key message of "'pure and pristine" product also speaks to heightened consumer concern over issues such as contaminants in certain seafood species.

ASMI is also developing new recipes with chef Govind Armstrong, co-owner of Los Angeles-based Table 8 Restaurants. In addition, the trade organization has videos on its Web site featuring Alaska seafood cooking tips and techniques, "not only for consumers to review, but also for retailers looking to capitalize on the success of in-store demos," says Andrews.

It goes without saying that the holiday season is also peak consumption period for high-margin premium beef roasts, which are ideal for both large family dinners and more casual buffets, notes ex-grocer Al Kober, now retail director of Wooster, Ohio-based Certified Angus Beef (CAB). Indeed, Kober says nothing can beat beef "for giving or receiving. It's always the right size and color -- no return policy necessary."

Kober advocates "heavily promoting eating at home with the family. When customers make their decision to eat out or to eat in, serving Certified Angus Beef can be the deciding factor to eat in. When that happens, the retailer gets the benefit of selling all the other great food that goes with the meal."

He also recommends that retailers focus on promoting easy-to-prepare, high-end prime ribs such as CAB's fully cooked beef prime rib, which is hand-seasoned and slow-roasted with attention to taste and tenderness.

Opportunities abound in the fresh produce department during the holiday season, given trends toward healthier eating, even for big feasts. Among the best-positioned items this season: cranberries.

These firm, round berries are enjoying a spike in demand not only tied to holiday tradition, but also to healthful attributes that keep them in the mix beyond the season, sometimes in nontraditional ways. Their deep-red color and tangy taste make the so-called "wonderberry" a versatile ingredient year-round, says Keith Benoit, director special markets at Lakeville-Middleboro, Mass.-based Ocean Spray, the agricultural cooperative owned by over 650 cranberry growers in Massachusetts, Wisconsin, New Jersey, Oregon, Washington, and Canada.

"Thanksgiving is traditionally known as the fresh cranberry holiday in the U.S.," notes Benoit. "However, the consumer trend toward establishing healthier eating habits is in turn extending demand for fresh cranberries throughout the entire harvest season, which runs from late September through October."

Alternative uses

The majority of the fresh cranberry crop -- 60 percent -- is sold between Nov. 1 and Thanksgiving, with the remainder of the crop sold in September, October, and December.

"The selling period after Thanksgiving is more about managing supply limitations than consumer demand," says Benoit. "We are currently working with our grower-owners to find new ways to extend the availability of fresh cranberries to our domestic retailers through the winter holiday season.

"Our most successful retailers plan the fresh cranberry season to include programming in October, November, and December," he adds. "The retailers that have had the best success in increasing the year-to-year case sales and profits have focused on the alternative uses for cranberries, and on communicating those ideas in their ads."

Of course, many people living outside of cranberry-growing regions have never seen a cranberry harvest, nor have the foggiest notion how the berries are grown. Ocean Spray is hoping to counter that with a high-profile multimedia effort set to launch in the three weeks leading up to Thanksgiving.

Backed by a $25 million purse, the co-op will build on the success of last year's fully integrated "Straight from the Bog" marketing campaign, "to reintroduce consumers to the health, taste, and heritage of the cranberry," explains Benoit.

The campaign consists of television, print, and Web advertising; public relations; retailer tie-ins; and in-market events. It also will include "cranberry bog-building" demonstrations in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. The simulated cranberry harvests will use 2,000 pounds of cranberries and cranberry vines from Ocean Spray bogs to create a 1,500-square-foot freestanding bog.

No one needs much education on where apples come from. This year gourmet varieties are expected to be in high demand and ample supply, according to growers.

Gourmet apples

Cameo apple growers predict an excellent harvest this year as a result of ideal growing conditions, for example. "The size and color for this year's Cameo crop are the best we've ever seen," says Kevin Precht of the Wenatchee, Wash.-based Cameo Apple Marketing Association (CAMA). Growers will harvest more than 1.25 million boxes this year, making it the second-largest crop in the variety's history.

Cameo, known for its sweet-tart flavor and crisp crunch, ranked among the top five varieties for dollar growth during 2006's fourth quarter, traditionally the most profitable quarter for the apple category.

"Cameo maintains pressure and sugar levels longer than many other varieties," says Precht, adding that its superior storage capability allows the variety to generate incremental category growth throughout the entire year. Cameo is also one of the only varieties that are supported by variety-specific promotion and quality control programs.

This month CAMA is offering point-of-sale material featuring a decadent Cameo caramel apple recipe card to leverage the renewed attention the category receives with the arrival of the fall crop. The association is also implementing a point-of-sale marketing initiative during the holidays, featuring Cameos in a cross-promotion with wine and other gourmet snack items in the deli department.

"Consumers are becoming more sophisticated, demanding consistent high quality and flavor when they shop for apples," says Precht. "The marketing activities planned for fall and winter are designed to highlight Cameo as a premium gourmet apple."


Artisan chocolatier unwraps holiday lineup

Shoppers perennially look for high-quality gift ideas for the holidays, and encouraging them to convert holiday spending to food dollars is an excellent opportunity to increase retail sales.

With that in mind, award-winning chocolatier B.T. McElrath -- whose products are available in such places as Lunds/Byerly's, Whole Foods, Andronico's, Draeger's, Kowalski's Markets, Dorothy Lane, and Metropolitan Markets -- is offering a lineup of seasonal chocolates for the holidays.

"Our B.T. Berry Poinsettias and Champagne Truffles embody the spirit of holiday traditions and always make a festive and delicious statement at any holiday celebration or gift-giving occasion," says Brian "B.T." McElrath, the company's chief chocolatier.

The Berry Poinsettias feature an all-natural raspberry, black currant, and white chocolate mousse encased in delicate layers of white and dark chocolate with hand-decorated red poinsettias, while the Champagne Truffle features a champagne ganache center blanketed in 60 percent cacao dark chocolate topped off by chocolate confetti. Further, the special holiday Magdalena Truffle -- named after the largest river in Colombia -- offers an aroma of pure Colombian chocolate that lends a distinctive flavor to the ganache center.

All three of the special chocolates, which will be available nationwide beginning this month through December, feature a five-piece package adorned by a peace dove design, at a suggested retail price of $10.75. The truffle assortments feature special holiday gift packages with colorful gift-wrap, evocative of Christmas tree ornaments.

This ad will auto-close in 10 seconds