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“With the economy the way it is, and less people eating out, it’s going to be a great summer for grilling,” declares Pat Raybould, president of Lincoln, Neb.-based B&R Stores, Inc., which operates 18 stores under four store concepts – Russ’s Market, Super Saver, ALPS and Grand Central Apple Market – in seven cities across Nebraska and Iowa. Indeed, while no taste trend has been hotter for summer than outdoor grilling throughout the past decade, Raybould is rightly fired up about the prospects of smoking meat department sales at the outset of peak grilling season.

In the realm of convenience, taste and quick cleanup attributes, it’s easy to see why grilling’s got it going on, and further, why it gives aggressive retailers a sizzling platform to stoke strong sales with creative merchandising and sharp promotions with each passing year.
Driving that point home are results from the 20th Annual Weber GrillWatch Survey, which finds nearly two-thirds (61 percent) of Americans planning to get their grills on at home more often and eat out less this summer. And though the economic downturn was cited as the primary reason among 74 percent of study participants, it doesn’t seem to be putting much of a damper on survey respondents’ planned grill-worthy expenditures, as evidenced by a quarter primed to spend even more on grilling in 2009, alongside another 42 percent who say the economy won’t affect their grilling spending habits in the least..
Even better, almost 10 percent of the grillers are planning to buy even more grill-friendly bling – think smokers, rotisserie spits and side burners – to update their current grills, which, on average, are used “at least a few times per week” by more than half of U.S. grill owners (52 percent) during peak grilling season, vs. 47 percent in 2008 and 43 percent in 2007.
Interestingly, while more Americans own gas grills overall, Weber’s GrillWatch Survey showed charcoal grills making a significant comeback during the last three years, a sentiment which Raybould fully supports. “Even though propane is more readily available, I feel charcoal imparts a better, truer, richer flavor,” he affirms, noting a friendly propane vs. charcoal “grate debate” that took place recently between himself anda B&R store manager. Regardless of personal preferences, though, Raybould and his team are in lock step when it comes to the foremost task at hand: “We just want to help get more people grilling.”
A key element in that endeavor is the handcrafted smokehouse meat products that are prepared in-house at B&R Stores’ various Nebraska-based Super Saver locations. In March, two of Super Saver’s smoked specialties – Summer Sausage (fermented) and Polish Sausage – received Grand Champion awards from the Nebraska Association of Meat Processors (NAMP), which Raybould says aptly reflects the company’s enduring “pursuit of the pinnacle of quality and craftsmanship.”
A Case for Hamming it Up Super Saver Smokehouse manager Bob Voss – who received his own Reserve Champion award for his boneless ham entry – says while the stores’ handcrafted signature selections are consistent year-round highlights of the retailer’s fresh meat offerings, “Our smoked sausages are especially popular in summer. We have at least a dozen smoked sausage varieties ranging from traditional Polish to Italian with Mozzarella to Smoked Chipotle with Sweet Onion.” While Super Saver’s smoked Polish sausage “has many times been a Grand Champion award winner,” Voss says, “Andouille Cajun is now crowding out Polish for the No. 1 spot.”
A 30-year meat industry vet, Voss – whose first job was sausage maker in a small store – spent 16 years as a meat-cutter before returning to his first love, namely, cured meats, at B&R Foods, where he’s helmed Super Saver’s Smokehouse operation since 1984. While consumer preferences have changed frequently through the years, Voss says, “Fresh and homemade is always ‘in.’ Customers are looking for something unique and different, and know they can count on us to offer just that, as opposed to the same old/same old.”  
As for what’s hot at present, Voss says, “Steamed sausages of all kinds are at the forefront right now,” including bratwurst blends infused with ingredients like green onion and apricot, pineapples and mango, tart cherry, and Philly-Swiss [Philly steak seasoning with cheese]. The flavorful selections, he says, give folks “a chance to have some fun” with new flavors for casseroles and tortillas. “With many of our customers now into healthier fare,” Voss continues, “we’re also doing several different types of chicken sausage that are going over very well.”
In addition to sausages, other fast movers on Super Saver’s hit list include smoked pork ribs, ready-toeat smoked turkey drumsticks, ham and beef jerky. “On any given day, we’ve got 500 to 600 items on our scales,” says Voss. “But it’s just fun, and speaks to the passion that we have for being able to give our shoppers something different.”
Undaunted by the busy pace that’s an inherent part of his job, Voss speaks for many in the business when he notes, “Busy hands are happy hands.” All in a day’s work for a smokin’ Grand Champion. 
Meet “Kenny the Meat Guy” Speaking of retail meat mavericks, enter Kenny Chapin, meat director at Spokane, Wash.-based Yoke’s Fresh Markets, who’s been gearing up for an aggressive summer grilling season – seemingly since last September. “We’re ready; we’ve had a really long winter, with temperatures in the 40s and 50s through mid-May, and our customers are especially eager” to get their grills on this year. With restaurant business down and supermarket traffic up, Chapin is laser-focused on offering strong, center-of-the-plate features, inclusive of “affordable, good eating steaks. 
We do an aggressive grilling campaign every year with our Certified Hereford beef, and thanks to really affordable prices of center cuts, enjoyed a very successful Mother’s Day sale with $4.99-per-pound T-bones and ribeyes.” And though Chapin expects that beef prices will begin to climb, “we will still seek to be as aggressive as we can by offering the best quality and the best value that we possibly can.”
A vivid illustration of Yoke’s Fresh Market’s quality/value proposition is Chapin’s weekly “Kenny the Meat Guy” blog postings, which are a “mustread” component of the regional independent’s Web site. Touching on a number of meaty topics that run the gamut from food safety to country-oforigin labeling to practical purchasing pointers, Chapin shares an “insider’s perspective” on why Yoke’s chooses its particular protein programs, selection pointers and cooking techniques, among others.
With environmental stewardship at the vanguard of its core principles, Yoke’s penchant for supporting local growers, ranchers and orchards is further affirmed with its “never-ever” pork, beef, lamb, veal and chicken sourced from animals that have “never ever” been exposed to antibiotics or hormones.
In an earnest bid to help shoppers choose “the best of the best,” Chapin at presstime unveiled a new standing feature – “What’s What?” – in which he discusses the different qualities and attributes of various cuts of meat in layman’s terms. The first example tackled in the ongoing online series was beef chucks – the common “insider’s” term used to describe a part of the beef ’s front quarter.
Chapin’s personal, accessible postings not only go a long way toward demystifying the inherent consumer confusion often felt when confronting a sea of fresh proteins, but also unassumingly convey the pride Yoke’s Fresh Markets takes in seeking to develop high-quality, competitively priced programs. While most shoppers naturally gravitate to traditional meats for summer grilling, Chapin is duly committed to encouraging customers to try some new choices, including turkey breasts, vegetables and fruits, flat iron steaks, whole birds, and of late, pork riblets, the latter of which, he says, “we’ve been hammering the heck out of.”
A perennial highlight of everyday cookouts and large summer celebrations, ribs are obviously suited for year-round grilling. But thanks to the success pork riblets have seen in the foodservice channel, Chapin says he’s been able to turn many customers on to the reasonably priced ribs that are cut from either the loin or spareribs, and further sectioned into two, for at-home feasts.
Regional independents hardly have the summer grilling market cornered. To the contrary, Quincy, Mass.-based Stop & Shop is offering easy ways to add healthy twists to the menu without adding dollars to the grocery bill. “We want to educate our customers about how to grill healthy meals and select the best cuts of meat, so they can continue enjoying family traditions and outdoor parties without feeling limited by their budgets,” notes the chain’s consumer advisor, Andrea Astrachan.
As part of its diet- and budgetfriendly summer grilling tips, Stop & Shop is offering consumers a host of informational resources as part of its “Healthy Ideas” initiative and storewide refresh campaign, which include tips about choosing flavorful, lean, affordable cuts of steak like top round, eye round, and top sirloin, as well as customised recipes for beef sirloin kebabs, which include a colourful mix of seasonal vegetables like red and green peppers, and sweet Onions. 
Stop & Shop is additionally promoting its new on-shelf Healthy Ideas symbol that aims to help shoppers simplify their search for healthier options, especially with party snacks, buns and breads, which Astrachan observes can be a tricky proposition for even the most label-conscious shopper. To that end, the New England- based grocer is advocating a “Buy big, but serve small” mentality by urging shoppers to stock up on bulk meats and freeze leftovers for the next occasion. The chain – which operates stores throughout Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Maine, New Hampshire, New York and New Jersey – is further encouraging shoppers to turn to smaller portions of meat (about 3 ounces per serving), bone-in cuts of meat that are generally less expensive, fresh poultry, and a robust, locally grown produce program that features such beloved summer favourites as corn, tomatoes, peppers, mushrooms, zucchini and fresh herbs.   
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