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04/09/2021

Flame and fortune

A grocer’s guide to a profitable 2021 summer grilling season
Shutterstock/Lukas Gojda

As they prepared for summer barbecue season 2020, grocery retailers were heading into uncharted territory. One year later, still contending with the pandemic, they’re poised for round two. What will it be like? In the absence of an ancient oracle to consult, we look to leading experts, retailers and producers to chime in on the 2021 barbecue season and the trends shaping it.

All signs indicate another successful summer is in store, as Canadians are itching to get outside and fire up their grills. The biennial consumer survey from the Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association, released in April 2020, predicted backyard cooks would be barbecuing more frequently and stretching the grill season into new months, and those predictions seem to have rung true. Clearly, Canada’s love affair with grilling runs deep: more than seven in 10 Canadians own a grill or a smoker, versus 64% of U.S. consumers.

It will be a big year for backyard barbecuing, says Dana McCauley, director, New Venture Creation at University of Guelph. “Canadians are so fed up with eating the same stuff,” she says. “They are experiencing serious oven fatigue and are looking for ways to end the boredom. There’s a desire to mix up their repertoire by being outside where they can grill and socialize safely.”

Indeed, Canadians are finding new ways to celebrate and summer barbecue season is a “big one” according to NielsenIQ. During its recent webinar on the State of the Canadian FMCG Industry in late February, Francis Parisien, vice-president, Eastern-Canada, said the 2020 season saw “big growth” for a number of summer categories including perennial favourites like beef and sausages, but also plant-based alternatives. “With the upcoming season you can expect people will be staying home and having friends, family and small groups over [contributing to] a good summer of 2021,” he said. Parisien is encouraging retailers and brands to look at what happened last year when planning for the upcoming season.

Protein as the main event

Further fuelling the thrill of the grill is the array of new products popping up, including alternative proteins. That makes barbecuing more appealing to broader types of groups, notes McCauley, and makes it easier for households with a mix of meat eaters, vegetarians and vegans. But even as many carnivores strive to add more plant-based proteins into their diets, it’s likely meat eaters won’t forego beef, if history is any indication.

During the first six months of the pandemic, beef prices rose by as much as 10% to 20% because of increased demand and interruptions in availability due to COVID. Even so, sales remained steady. The spike was temporary. At the end of 2020, meat prices were up just 2.5%.

Though price sensitivity is an issue for some consumers who have experienced income drops, others who maintained full employment throughout the pandemic are willing to splurge on more expensive cuts of meat. Grocers will need to cater to both groups, says McCauley. For the more price conscious, she suggests grocers promote “cheap and cheerful” proteins like sausages and ground beef, plus bulk boxes of burgers to encourage stocking up. For all shoppers, a steady stream of interesting products will provide inspiration.

Jack Rogers, sales director, Beef and Bison at Bouvry Canada, is feeling bullish on his company’s sales prospects this year. “We continue to build our cattle and bison herds, feeding capacity and [will] invest in expanding the size of our processing facility,” he explains. “All of our new brands are pointed directly to a solid sales increase in retail.”

Rogers is also concentrating on banishing consumer boredom. “We have a focus on unusual experiences that bring people together and are shareable. Our tomahawk has a unique cut and we are looking to this as an example,” he says. “Since our cattle have been feeding well, we are building out a prime-graded category. Though prime is the top 2% of all steaks in Canada and usually something you see just at high-end steakhouses, we hope retailers might look at it, too, this year.”

With shoppers looking for restaurant-style experiences at home, it may be the right time for prime. Grocers may also find bison is an enticing option for customers. Rogers predicts Springbank Bison cuts will do very well this summer—Bouvry raises the animals on its own grassland and finishes them with grain so they don’t taste gamey.

To encourage consumers to stray from their comfort zone, he underscores the importance of education and recipes. “We think retailers can help by getting the cooking techniques through to the consumer,” he notes. “Cuts popular in other parts of the world are another huge opportunity.” This includes tri-tip—used frequently in parts of the United States known for barbecue—petit tender, flat irons (becoming more popular in restaurants), bavette or flank steak (a favourite in Quebec), and skirt steak.

Trevor Nichols, brand manager, Maple Lodge Farms, also foresees strong sales growth this summer. He’s predicting the company’s Ultimate Frankfurters and Ultimate Chicken Dinner & Breakfast Sausages, arriving in stores in May, will do very well, along with its Fresh From The Farm chicken, raised on Ontario family farms. “These products are all prepared in Canada and recent research shows the pandemic has resulted in Canadians wanting to support local Canadian businesses even more than in the past,” he notes.

Chicken will continue to be a strong contender for space on the grill. The pandemic has seen increased sales and more at-home consumption, according to Lisa Bishop-Spencer, director of brand and communications, Chicken Farmers of Canada. She expects demand for chicken to grow. “The summertime is a good time for people to start making use of their outdoor spaces, and using their barbecues more and more,” she notes.

The boneless, skinless chicken breast is still the champ when it comes to popularity, but Bishop-Spencer says there’s interest in other cuts, like legs, thighs and whole chickens; along with a hunger for more multicultural recipes using dark meat as the primary protein. She feels that chicken is well-positioned for barbecue season because it’s the least expensive meat protein. To get the message out at the beginning of the season, Chicken Farmers of Canada will run a campaign on traditional, digital, and social media promoting barbecue recipes.

“Over 91% of consumers believe it’s important that their chicken be labelled as Canadian—and they want that label to come from the farmers,” she says. Partnership with the brand is free and helps retailers clearly demonstrate their support for Canadian farmers and Canadian products. “With that partnership comes the benefit of support within our traditional, digital and social networks, as well as access to content, supportive campaigns, recipes and more. That goes a long way with consumers. It’s an effective tool to deliver on the public trust so important to us all.”

Rocco Terrazzano, meat manager at Summerhill Market in Toronto, says he noticed a 35% lift on seafood barbecue items and a 20% increase for grill-friendly meats last summer. If the economy starts to reopen more and consumers head to restaurants more frequently, he thinks those sales may dip slightly. To compensate, Summerhill will up its game with aggressive features on high-quality proteins and keep providing excellent customer service.

Healthy fare, prime cuts and ready-made/easy-to- prepare options like kabobs will lead the pack. Terrazzano has also noticed customers are leaning more towards packaged meats and seafood as opposed to full-service cases. “We have noticed a 40% swing, due to the perception of food safety,” he says. “This trend will continue during and most likely after COVID.”

To compete with big-box stores, Italian Centre Shop in Edmonton is taking a different path. President Teresa Spinelli says they have started to sell a special type of Piedmontese meat, raised in Alberta from Chianina cows, which originated in Italy. It has a higher protein ratio and less fat. Once the pandemic started, sales went up by 83%. “I believe this trend will continue for the barbecue season,” says Spinelli. “Even though we may not be able to have people dine in our homes, we may be able to have small barbecue outdoor parties.” To go along with that fine meat, she expects sales of prepared salads and desserts to be brisk, since people will want to spend more time with family and friends instead of in the kitchen.

While the retailer can’t fire up its grill and offer samples, it will do promotions via social media events where customers can post pictures of what is on the barbecue. “We will continue to tell the stories about our farmers and let people know our meat products are local and hormone free,” says Spinelli.

Plant-based barbecue

It may seem “vegan butcher” is an oxymoron, but plant-based “meats” continue to gain popularity in Canada, especially among millennials. It’s not just vegans and vegetarians who are buying plant-based alternatives; carnivorous consumers are also purchasing them to reduce their meat consumption.

To encourage purchases and trials by new consumers, producers of plant-based alternative proteins will be utilizing promotional pricing and IRCs (instant redeemable coupons). Due to COVID, companies like Meatless Farm Canada face challenges around providing samples to consumers directly—a strategy that worked well in pre-pandemic times, according to Darcy Peters, vice-president of sales. “Instead, we are looking into digital demos, which would allow consumers to try our products safely,” he says.

He also foresees a sizzling barbecue season ahead: “Burgers and barbecue go hand-in-hand. The great thing about Meatless Farm’s burgers is that they cook quickly, which is the name of the game when you are trying to feed the family; all it takes is three minutes per side on the barbecue.” Meatless Farm ground is also popular among those who like to make homemade burgers, adding their own spin to a family recipe.

Building on the success of those “premium affordable” products, Meatless Farm has recently launched two new products ideal for camping season: breakfast sausages and breakfast patties. Both can be cooked on the fire or barbecue. The company will be promoting barbecue season with social media promotion (on its own and with retail partners), in-store promotional activities and flyer ad support, as well as an influencer campaign for early spring.

Shaking up buns

With burgers and hot dogs of all kinds playing star roles during summer grilling season, the bun category is keeping pace as a strong supporting player. According to Tania Goecke, senior director, marketing for Bimbo Canada, the company saw double-digit growth last summer. She expects a comparable volume level of sales for 2021, driven largely by its expansion of premium buns with new flavours and different textures across Canada.

In the West, the popular garlic and onion flavour of the bestselling Everything Bagel will now be available in hamburger buns, too. Dempster’s Everything Bun will be a limited-time offering from April to September. Meanwhile, consumers in Ontario can choose Dempster’s Signature Potato Hamburger Buns and Quebec shoppers will be able to pick up POM Signature Potato Hamburger Buns. Made with a blend of potato and Canadian wheat flour, the Dempster’s and POM Signature potato buns will be available in Ontario and Quebec from April to September as well. What’s more, Dempster’s Signature Gold Sausage Bun returns to Ontario as a permanent listing and will debut in Quebec as a limited-time offering under the POM brand. And finally, in Atlantic Canada, Dempster’s Signature Gold Bun will be back permanently after a successful limited run last year.

“Even though the pandemic brought economic uncertainty, consumers are looking for ways to treat themselves and have restaurant quality experiences at home,” says Goecke. “Premium restaurant-style buns and proteins are their go-to items and they are willing to pay more for them.”

B.C.’s Silver Hills Bakery is also offering consumers something new as the sprouted grain trend has taken off. It now offers sprouted whole grain hamburger buns (with or without sesame seeds) and hot dog buns. And under its Little Northern Bakehouse brand, there’s new millet and chia hot dog buns, a vegan, gluten-free option.

Easy meal enhancers

With consumers trying to shake up their tried-and- true repertoires with anything new, the door is open for sauces, spice blends and marinades to add a fresh spin to barbecue-based meals. As Halvana CEO Mark Stein explains, his shelf-stable roster of products like tahini, hummus and halva is perfect for customers who are shopping less and looking for culturally inspired and nutritious options. “The way we eat has changed a lot because of COVID,” he says. “We’re at home snacking more and those snacks have become more like meals. Consumers want them to be more elevated and more curated.”

Halvana’s hummus ticks a lot of boxes for consumers and grocers as well, since it does not have to be refrigerated in store. Retailers don’t have to worry as much about expiry dates and wastage; while shoppers, who have shown a tendency to stock up, can buy hummus without concerns about it going bad. In time for outdoor entertaining, the company will launch a new mango and turmeric flavour. Speaking of the future, Stein says tahini (made from milled sesame seeds) is an up-and-coming superfood that will be trending, just like hummus has been, for its superfood qualities. Halvana’s silky-smooth versions (including a pesto flavour) come in a squeeze bottle, ideal as a topping for burgers and hot dogs, perhaps giving traditional condiments a run for the money.

When COVID has subsided and life starts to look a little more normal, Stein feels that a new kind of consumer will emerge as a result—one that is more sophisticated, willing to shop “outside of the box” and willing to embrace foods from around the world.

This article appeared in Canadian Grocer's March/April 2021 issue.