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Selling summer: The food and beverage trends that could get sales sizzling

International flavours, meat alternatives and more
summer grilling
For grocery retailers, summer offers opportunities to leverage new trends, as well as seasonal shopping habits.

As summer arrives across Canada, the warmer weather brings with it opportunities to cook, eat, drink and entertain outdoors. From small-scale dinners with family to larger social occasions, backyards will come alive under the sun — and keep the party going long after it goes down.

The outdoor get-together is a tried-and-true tradition, but consumers continue to look for new twists on the standard format. While there will always be room for affordable classics such as burgers and hot dogs, especially in an age of high food prices, Canadians are embracing variety this grilling season.

According to 2023 research from Innova Market Insights, two in three Canadians say they are open to exploring global cuisines, while nearly half report a willingness to sacrifice indulgence to eat healthier. This helps explain several emerging trends, including a growing interest in preparing meat alternatives on the barbecue, serving non-alcoholic craft beers and offering guests an array of sauces and seasonings inspired by international flavours.

A zest for culinary adventure and a focus on health aren’t the only motivators for consumers, however. Joel Gregoire, associate director, food and drink at Mintel, believes there’s a common social denominator linking most of the key summer entertaining trends for 2024. “The first word that comes to mind for me is inclusion,” Gregoire says. “You want to have options for your guests.”

For grocery retailers, summer offers opportunities to leverage new trends, as well as seasonal shopping habits. “Customer shopping patterns change as we head into the summer months,” says Grant Daisley, forager for local and emerging brands at Whole Foods Market Canada. “Grocery trips tend to be less planned and can include more frequent, smaller baskets that feature increased impulse purchases.”

According to Dana McCauley, CEO of the Canadian Food Innovation Network (CFIN), retailers can help drive these purchases by making the often-daunting prospect of outdoor meal prep as easy as possible. “There can be a lot of elements [to a backyard meal], so helping people pull those things together will be a huge hit with consumers.”

What are the elements of a great outdoor entertaining event in 2024? And how can grocers help consumers pull them together? Let’s take a deeper dive into some key trends.

Global grilling

The grill features in food preparation all around the world, so it’s no surprise that outdoor cooking trends in Canada reflect the country’s growing diversity. “We continue to see an increase in international flavours in all styles of cooking and this year we expect the grill will take on more global flavours,” says Daisley.

Mike Longo, chief operating officer at Longo’s, echoes this sentiment, pointing out that this variety in global flavours manifests itself in both sauces and seasonings. “Korean cuisine is leading the way,” Longo says, adding that Korean dishes will be spotlighted in the summer edition of the Ontario-based grocer’s Experience magazine. 

CFIN’s McCauley partly attributes the popularity of Korean barbecue to the fact it can easily be applied to beef and chicken cuts that Canadians are already familiar with grilling. But, it’s not the only global flavour hitting Canadian grills, she notes. “There’s also the whole idea of using rubs with a Middle Eastern bent — Middle Eastern flavours are very popular.”

READ: As consumers embrace global foods, grocers look to diversify their offerings

Eric Hart, executive director at Plantropy, has also witnessed an increased interest in the tastes of the Middle East. Among the most popular products in Plantropy’s jackfruit-based portfolio of meat alternatives are kebabs, which lend themselves to preparation on the grill. “Kebabs are traditionally Middle Eastern cuisine, but we’re such a diverse population in this country and everyone seems to want to try new things,” he says.

Teresa Spinelli, owner of the Alberta-based independent grocery chain Italian Centre Shop, has also heard from consumers inspired by a wide range of international recipes. “Spatchcock chicken is popular to grill these days,” she says of the butterflying method considered to be of Irish origin. 

Spinelli and others also note the increasing popularity of halloumi, a cheese from Cyprus with a hard texture that resists melting on the grill.

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The evolution of plant-based

For the past several years, plant-based grilling alternatives have largely been dominated by products meant to mimic the tastes and textures of meat, but recent signs point to the waning popularity of this imitation game.

“Shoppers are looking for more plants in their plant-based options, with simpler ingredients like mushrooms, walnuts, tempeh and legumes in place of complex meat alternatives,” explains Whole Foods Markets’ Daisley.

READ: Plant-based sector focused on better price, taste and texture amid consumer wariness

It’s a similar story at Longo’s, where cremini, shiitake, oyster and portobello mushrooms grown at Piccioni Bros. Mushroom Farm in Dundas, Ont. are making their way to customers’ grills. “These mushrooms lend themselves to creative dishes such as lion’s mane mushroom steaks, oyster mushroom Nashville fried ‘chicken’ sandwiches, Korean mushroom bulgogi and portobello wellingtons,” says Longo.

According to McCauley, food manufacturers are continually hunting for new ways to enrich the plant-based grilling experience. “People keep trying to iterate on the meat alternatives,” she says. “Where we’re seeing innovation is what’s being used to make them.”

This is where products such as Plantropy’s jackfruit-based kebabs fit in. “The kebabs seem to be an easy extension [for grillers looking for plant-based options] because they’re so meat-like,” says Hart. 

Corn is another item finding its place on the grill. Gregoire sees corn as a barbecue staple for vegetarians and consumers rooted in the culinary culture of India and other nations. And products such as PC’s Smokin’ Stampede Corn Ribs — pre-seasoned, frozen cob strips — can make preparation easier for convenience-minded shoppers.

READ: Loblaw releases 2024 PC Insiders Report

You can win friends with salad

In an environment of high meat prices and health-conscious consumers, side items such as salads are taking a more prominent role in backyard meal preparation.

“I’ve noticed in social media and the mainstream food media that salads and bowl-style salads are huge,” says CFIN’s McCauley. “Definitely there’s this whole idea of how to have a meal that looks and feels substantial in a bowl that doesn’t look like your mom’s salad.”

Ezio Bondi is a co-founder of arte*, a Toronto-based company that launched four salad-kit SKUs in Ontario grocery stores in October. He says the inspiration for the salad kits came from observing a gap in the market.

“I noticed walking through my grocery store that the prepared food section was really lacking in restaurant-quality kits. There were a lot of sad caesar salads,” Bondi says. “I saw an opportunity to make a product that not only tastes good, but also incorporates a lot of produce from Ontario and Quebec.”

Bondi sees arte* salad kits as meeting the needs of consumers who prioritize sustainability and convenience along with taste. Heading into the company’s first summer, he’s excited to see how customers respond to the kits.

“Summer is prime salad season, so that’s when the product is really going to shine,” says Bondi, adding that arte* Honey Yuzu Coleslaw is particularly well suited to pairing with grilled fare. “Not only do the products lend themselves to entertaining a large group — you can buy one of each kind and have all your salads for the party.”

Hold the booze

Gregoire at Mintel says his notion of inclusion also applies to the beverages that provide cool comfort on hot days. Beer and cocktails aren’t going away anytime soon, but many consumers are avoiding or reducing alcohol consumption.

Longo is seeing this trend play out in store and says younger consumers are driving it. “Our non-alcoholic and mocktail section is experiencing rapid growth, especially among millennial and gen-Z guests,” says Longo, adding that Grüvi’s Bubbly Rosé and Dry Secco, as well as Above Mojito and Above Whiskey Cola are among the buzz-free beverages the grocer sells at its stores.

READ: Is Canada sobering up?

Muskoka Brewery, an indepdendent microbrewery in Bracebridge, Ont., got into the non-alcoholic beer game in 2022 with its purchase of Rally Beer Company, which had seen success with its Dry Run Alcohol-Free Pale Ale. Brewed with sea salts, Dry Run offers health-conscious consumers functional benefits such as potassium and electrolytes. Muskoka then launched its Veer Lager with Lime in May 2023, followed by Veer Hazy IPA.

Kyra Dietsch, brand manager at Muskoka Brewery, says feedback on the company’s booze-free beers has been positive. “People are asking for non-alcoholic products and we always want to be able to offer a drink for everybody who comes to the table.”

Dietsch says non-alcoholic beer recipes have come a long way in recent years, yielding an expanding menu of styles that can pass the taste test among discerning consumers.

“The trends have been moving away from the IPAs and really hoppy beers and towards lagers,” Dietsch says. “Lagers are not easy to make. They are a crisp, clean style where there’s nothing to hide behind. You have to have a good, strong recipe.” 

So many non-alcoholic beverage products are flooding the marketplace that it can be difficult to keep track. CFIN’s McCauley believes the flurry of launches will settle in the coming years. 

“I think the category is potentially mirroring where plant based was a couple of years ago, where there was so much and it was so new and there are a ton of launches,” she says. “In a few years, I think there’ll be fewer players ... But this year will be the coming-out party.”

This article first appeared in Canadian Grocer’s May 2024 issue.

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