Summer Grilling: 'Grate' Ideas for Seasonal Success

Retailers expand and elevate offerings as peak grilling season arrives
Lynn Petrak
Senior Editor
a woman smiling for the camera
Summer Grilling: 'Grate' Ideas for Seasonal Success
Consumers are placing a widening and often elevated array of foods on their grills.

Technically and, increasingly in practice, grilling season extends all year. The Hearth, Patio and Barbecue Association (HPBA) reports that 75% of grill owners cook outside in the winter.

Still, May is the typical start of grilling season. According to the Arlington, Va.-based HBPA, 68% of American grill owners plan to cook out on the Fourth of July, while 56% grill out on Memorial Day and Labor Day, and 42% fire it up outside for Father’s Day.

2020 was a particularly hot summer for the pastime, as stuck-at-home consumers grilled more meals and often upgraded their grills, grilling accessories and outdoor living spaces. According to a new report from The NPD Group, consumers spent nearly $5 billion on grills, smokers, camping stoves, accessories and fuel last year. Another study conducted by Port Washington, N.Y.-based NPD in 2020 showed that consumers between the ages of 35 and 54 were more likely than their counterparts in other age groups to own two or more appliances.

“Camping vacations, Friday-night pizza, trying a new roast recipe, and smoking the Thanksgiving turkey are the kinds of activities helping to fuel growth beyond the core gas and charcoal grill options,” says Joe Derochowski, home industry advisor at NPD.  “Consumers have turned pandemic-driven boredom into an opportunity to experiment with cooking, and the wide range of grilling and outdoor cooking options are helping them do it.”

So what should retailers expect this year? Although visits to restaurants are expected to swing up, many consumers are continuing the pattern of dining at home. Further, thanks to loosening restrictions and accelerated vaccinations, it’s expected that people will be entertaining friends, family and neighbors using some of that newer equipment. What, exactly, they’ll be putting on those grills is a widening and often elevated array of foods.

Ball Park Fully Loaded Nacho Cheese Franks speak to consumers' desire for nostalgia and indulgence.

Meat Meets Grill

Of course, brats, burgers and hot dogs are summer grilling staples and among the comfort foods that consumers often turned to during the pandemic year. As this year’s grilling season arrives, new versions of these favorites are rolling out. Examples include grass-fed hot dogs from Coleman Natural Foods that reflect growing interest in more natural and sustainable products, and new Ball Park Fully Loaded Nacho Cheese Franks that speak to the desire for nostalgia and indulgence.

Basic brats and sausages are also getting a boost in flavor, such as limited-time queso bratwursts made with pepper jack cheese from Johnsonville Sausage, new cotija cheese and fire-roasted poblano smoked beef sausages links from the Aidells brand, and co-branded Budweiser brats from Coleman Natural Foods.

Although traditional proteins will always be part of backyard barbecues, consumers’ newfound or rediscovered interest in cooking and more adventurous palates are raising the bar for grilling. According to a report on anticipated summer 2021 trends from Kroger Precision Marketing and 84.51°, both divisions of The Kroger Co., based in Cincinnati, there’s an opportunity to move more premium meats and seafoods like steak and lobster for summer grilling. That report notes that units of lobster sold in the week leading up to Father’s Day jumped 194% from 2019 to 2020.

In addition to choosing and grilling more premium cuts of meat, poultry and seafood, shoppers are experimenting with different recipes and preparation methods. Kroger’s report points out that the number of households that bought meat and regionally flavored rubs on the same trip rose from 14% to 24% from 2019 to 2020.

As shoppers browse the meat case and frozen and refrigerated cases for summer grilling products, food retailers may have to deal with some supply issues for fresh meats. Hog shortages that began at the onset of the pandemic have continued, according to a recent report from Business Insider, and that’s expected to drive prices for pork and pork-based products higher as demand surges during grilling season.

Planterra Foods recently added frozen OZO Smokehouse Burgers to its plant-based portfolio.

Where There’s Smoke, There’s Plants

Given the proliferation of plant-based alternatives over the past couple of years, plant-based proteins can be added to retailers’ summer grilling programs.

Plant-based alternatives like patties from Impossible Burger and Beyond Meat have almost become stalwarts in the market and can be effectively merchandised for outdoor grilling. This year, alt-meat brands are introducing a spate of new products in time for the grilling kickoff in May.

For example, Field Roast, a plant-based meat brand from Elmhurst, Ill.-based Greenleaf Foods, has come out with a new vegan stadium hot dog.

Lafayette, Colo.-based Planterra Foods recently added frozen OZO Smokehouse Burgers to its portfolio of plant-based meals. The fully cooked, gluten- and soy-free products can be heated up and charred on the grill. “This year has changed the way so many of us enjoy and consume our meals,” says Planterra CEO Darcey Macken. “The OZO expansion into frozen plant-based proteins offers more opportunities for flexitarian consumption through high-quality foods with positive protein solutions.”

Blends of animal- and plant-based proteins are other options for consumers who want to split the difference. Bridgewater, N.J.-based Applegate Farms, a subsidiary of Hormel Foods, recently introduced Well Carved, a line of frozen organic blended burgers made with meat and whole vegetables, legumes and grains.  Varieties include a grass-fed organic beef burger made with cauliflower, spinach, lentils and butternut squash, and an organic turkey burger blended with sweet potato, white bean, kale and roasted onion.

In addition to alt-meat products, plant foods in other forms can be promoted for grilling season. In a recent blog on his popular Barbecue Bible website, author and barbecue expert Steven Raichlen put vegetables first on his list of 2021 barbecue and grilling trends. “2022 will be the year of the grilled vegetable,” he predicts.

Beyond standbys like corn, peppers and zucchini, Raichlen says that all kinds of vegetables are grill-worthy, such as okra, Brussels sprouts on the stalk, and whole cauliflowers that can be spit-roasted like chickens. “Hardcore carnivores will grill veggies for their health benefits and as killer accompaniments for our favorite grilled meats,” he writes. “Vegetarians and vegans will grill vegetables for the smokiness and supernatural sweetness live fire imparts to plant and dairy foods.”

In its recently released “Power of Produce 2021” report, Arlington, Va.-based FMI The Food Industry Association confirms new opportunities for cooking vegetables. The report reveals that 78% of shoppers have changed their meal preparation with regard to vegetables and fruits, trying different cooking methods, including grilling, and experimenting with different varieties of produce, seasonings and sauces.

a bottle of beer
In time for grilling season, Sweet Baby Ray's has come out with two more no-sugar-added barbecue sauces.

Accompaniments and Accoutrements

Meat and vegetables may be the center-of the-grill, center-of-the-plate attractions, but accompaniments are an important part of summer grilling – and help lift basket sales.

Here, too, produce items are often promoted as side dishes for backyard barbecues and picnics, from fresh fruits and vegetables to value-added items.

In time for the 2021 grilling season, several consumer brands are introducing products that go with grilled fare. In the sauce category, for example, Chicago-based Sweet Baby Ray’s is adding to its line of no-sugar-added sauces with a new Ray’s Sweet and Spicy BBQ sauce and Ray’s honey mustard-flavored dipping sauce.

“The response to Ray’s No Sugar Added sauces has been outstanding,” says Tom Murphy, the company’s VP, brand marketing. “We focused first on making sure that our sauces would taste great – no synthetic flavors or runny texture allowed – then ensured that everyone around the table, whether watching sugar intake, following a keto-friendly eating plan, or looking for plant-based and gluten-free options, could enjoy them," 

Atlanta-based fast-food chicken chain Chick-fil-A is also introducing new products that pair well with grilled foods. Chick-fil-A sauces in Barbecue, Garlic Herb Ranch, Honey Mustard and Polynesian varieties will be available in 15 states at such banners as Food Lion, Harris Teeter, H-E-B, Publix, Target, Walmart and Winn-Dixie.

Buns and breads that go with grilled meats and produce are also elevated beyond the basics. Reichlen spotlights brioche buns and breads on his list of 2021 barbecue and grilling trends “Use them to upgrade your burgers, sliders, sausages and hot dogs, not to mention brisket sandwiches and pulled pork,” he suggests. Many brands have gotten into brioche offerings, including Sara Lee, Bakerly and Nature’s Own.

Meanwhile, the Los Angeles-based King’s Hawaiian brand is teaming up with celebrity chef Guy Fieri for a summer grilling campaign that directs shoppers to its sweet buns and rolls. The campaign launches in May and includes a sweepstakes.

Direct Heat: Promotions and Merchandising

The King’s Hawaiian campaign is one of many examples of promotions developed by CPGs and others for the four-month peak season for grilling, ranging from beers to potato chips to condiments.

As with other seasonal periods and holidays, grilling offers many opportunities for cross-merchandising. Grocers can spotlight complementary products such as baked beans, coleslaw and a broad spectrum of beverages, including nonalcoholic drinks and adult beverages. These promotions can extend throughout the physical store and online.

Although COVID-19 restrictions in some parts of the country have limited sampling and on-site grilling in parking lots or sidewalks, retailers can get creative with in-store displays, social media posts and smaller-scale events. Any kind of communication can also include helpful tips on food safety and grilling safety.

  • Gearing Up for Grill Season

    Food retailing operations that also carry grills will heavily spotlight those items in summer. It’s been a good time for those departments: More than 14 million grills and smokers were sold between April 2020 and February 2021, according to a new report from The NPD Group, based in Port Washington, N.Y. While many of those items were traditional gas and charcoal grills, sales of products with specialized uses, along with smaller-scale products like pizza ovens and portable grills, also spiked in 2020.

    Given last year’s strong performance and an overall growing interest in grilling and barbecuing, equipment manufacturers are adding new models to their portfolios. Palatine, Ill.-based leading manufacturer Weber, for its part, is offering four new “smart grills” for 2021, with a built-in digital tech package that provides real-time food temperatures and readiness countdowns.

    Fellow big houseware brand Cuisinart, based in Stamford, Conn., is debuting a pellet grill and smoker with features like a large viewing window and sliding racks. The system allows home cooks to smoke, grill, bake, sear, char-grill, barbecue, braise and roast on one unit, and also includes a backlit LCD control and Wi-Fi remote monitoring via a Cuisinart app.

    Tech is a growing part of the grilling and barbecue market. Salt Lake City-based Traeger Grills, known for its wood-pellet grills, came out with a new Apple Watch app that allows users of WiFIRE compatible grills the capability to monitor and control their grilling from their Apple Watch.

    Likewise, there are more options in grilling supplies. Oakland, Calif.-based Kingsford, a brand practically synonymous with summer grilling, is introducing 100% hardwood pellets this season, made with all-natural ingredients and no fillers, preservatives or binders. The pellets are available in five flavors: a classic blend of hickory, oak and cherrywood; a blend of mesquite, oak and cherrywood; 100% hickory wood; 100% cherry wood; and 100% maple wood.

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