Time to fire up sales

Before you know it, barbecue season will be in full swing.

It's that time of year again, when winter-weary Canadians are itching to get outdoors, soak up the sun and light up that most-favoured cooking apparatus: the barbecue.

And there are plenty of reasons why people love their grills. According to marketing agency Acosta, 33% of consumers feel grilling is easier than the ho-hum in-kitchen alternative. It’s also a flavour thing: 79% choose grilling because food prepared this way tastes better. But more than practicalities, barbecue reigns because it’s a way of life for many folks. “It’s about slowing the pace and taking something from the beginning all the way to the end,” says “godfather of the grill” Ted Reader, a Toronto chef and food innovator who’s written 21 cookbooks, most of which are about grilling, smoking and barbecue.

It’s also worth noting that eight in 10 Canadians own a grill or smoker, says the Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association (HPBA) in its 2017 State of the Barbecue Industry Report. “It’s a fast-moving business, the world of barbecue right now, and it just keeps growing,” says Reader.

Social media has a lot to do with the growing popularity of grilling, as does convenience, the higher costs of eating out, and cooking shows (Food Network launched The Grill Dads in 2017, for instance). But this return to hands-on cooking is also powered by Canadians’ growing interest in savouring their summers with friends and family.

And barbecue enthusiasts are burning to re up their grills as soon as a whiff of spring hits the air, says Cheryl Radisa, vice-president of marketing at McCormick Canada. “It’s a longer season now, which enables retailers to get into merchandising earlier.”

“You have to tell a story,” says Matt Lurie, president and CEO of Toronto’s Organic Garage. That may mean pairing a frozen burger with fries, peas and buns, all in the same spot in the store. “People don’t want to think. They want to see the whole meal right there in front of them—boom.”

Chef Reader suggests grocers sweeten the tale with inspirational recipe cards in dedicated barbecue displays and cross-merchandising. Grocers could offer spice rubs with steaks and a selection of vegetables that grillers can prepare alongside them. They can also expose consumers to ideas they might not have considered such as pairing a quinoa-cranberry salad with fish or preparing lamb spiedinis.

At Pete’s Fine Foods in Halifax, meat bunkers are offset by a full aisle of hot and barbecue sauces, marinades, spices and barbecue salts. There are also accessories such as cedar and maple chips and planks, and grilling papers and twine (along with instructions for wrapping salmon or asparagus to create an attractive presentation).

Toronto’s Summerhill Market features a selection of grilling accessories—covers, baskets, silicone tools, etc.—around its refrigerated meat case.

“The more inspiration stores can provide for shoppers, the better,” says McCormick’s Radisa. “Consumers don’t just want products. They want solutions.”

The charcoal grills that were backyard staples during the 1970s, before high-tech gas alternatives displaced them, have made a nostalgic comeback (“It’s about flavour,” Reader enthuses); and today’s avid grillers will often keep both. According to the HPBA, gas remains the most popular (64%), but charcoal lovers (44%) aren’t far behind. Charcoal selections can offer up oak, hickory, apple and coconut notes to food.

Up next for the true fan? Smokers, or smoker/grill combos. The range of options here is impressive, and includes pellet, charcoal-based, vertical, horizontal, water and electric varieties. Pecan, peach, cherry and other wood types can add another dimension to food. And the digital revolution means people can run their smokers from their iPhones.

There’s also a lot of chatter on the subject of what to put on your grill. From unconventional cuts of meat to innovative non-meat proteins, choice is rampant.

The National Restaurant Association’s What’s Hot? 2018 Culinary Forecast named “new cuts of meat” the top trend for the year. Among them: shoulder tender, oyster steak, Vegas strip steak and merlot cut. Also hot are meats cut thinly so they cook faster (and relieve the griller of having to fuss over internal temperatures). Health consciousness means meat servings are smaller, too, and grillers are chopping up 32-oz. porterhouses to feed multiple guests.

Michael Young, vice-president of technical programs and marketing services at Canada Pork International, says North American grills are increasingly hosting “underutilized cuts” such as pork bellies, and dishes like pulled-pork carnitas and artisan-style sausages. A growing contingent of barbecuers are taking pride in leading the new meat charge, says Young, and are hungry for more ideas.

Florentine steaks—the centre cut of a short loin cooked on high heat, finished on low to medium rare and shingled off the bone—are hot at the moment, says Cynthia Beretta, co-founder of Beretta Farms, a Toronto-based supplier of organic meats. Same goes for skirt steaks, cut against the grain and flash-grilled in a butter, sea-salt, ground-pepper and chimichurri sauce bath, she says.

Fish on the grill is another trend. Frank Yunace, operations manager at Pete’s Fine Foods in Halifax, says barbecue fans are discovering grilled octopus and squid, perhaps set off with a punchy ancho chili sauce. His store has also added line-caught Icelandic char and cod, and is pushing them as grill-friendly alternatives to red meat. British Columbia manufacturer Simply West Coast offers four flavours of salmon sausages, another relative novelty to the grill.

But at the end of the day, there’s no denying the enduring star of the barbecue scene. Says Yunace: “The burger trend is not going away.”

There’s long been a range of plant-based burgers to entice vegetarian and vegan shoppers craving grilled dinners. Now, flavoured vegan sausages are also becoming more popular.

Summerhill Market distinguishes itself by selling Beyond Meat burgers, plant-based alternatives to the real thing that have attracted attention for being “the meat that bleeds.” Additionally, the Toronto retailer offers such meat-free grill options as sliced portobello mushrooms, stuffed mushrooms, veggie kebabs and grilled Mexican street corn.

Condiments and seasonings are central, with consumers looking to try more global flavours. Last year, McCormick introduced a Brazilian barbecue-style seasoning; this year, it’s launching a Hawaiian woodfire seasoning. “Every year it gets more exotic,” says Radisa.

“I don’t think we can ever get enough condiments,” says Reader, who claims to have 15 jars of mustard in his fridge. Barbecue sauces, he believes, are now getting their time in the sun, shifting from their tomato roots to carrot-and beet-based sauces.

“We’re seeing people get a lot more adventurous in their toppings,” explains Stephanie Egan, marketing manager at Piller’s Fine Foods. Whether it’s slaws and fresh greens, or condiments that wander into red-pepper aiolis and sriracha-, garlic-, and wasabi-based territory, it’s all about heightening flavours.

“I can’t stress enough the importance of a good digital probe thermometer,” says Reader. Other toys include pizza stones that can fit onto grills and silicone grill mats, which protect veggies from falling in while giving them desirable grill marks.

Finally, grill brushes are essential parts of the barbecue display. The conventional metal ones have been under fire for the potential health risks their wire bristles present. The reigning alternative is a slab of hardwood that develops grooves the more it’s scraped across the grill. Reader urges retailers to educate consumers on the value of spending money on grill brushes, and to expect to burn through at least two a summer.

Grilling, says Pete’s Yunace, is a red-hot consumer category that’s filled with energy and inspiration. The Food Network and foodies’ Instagram tributes to their barbecued efforts means “everybody’s an expert on barbecuing these days, and people are definitely open to experimenting on the grill. That method of cooking is just sizzling with innovation right now.”

This article appeared in Canadian Grocer’s March/April 2018 issue.

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