Grilling Hero Article

Getting Ready for Grilling Season

Ideas, promos and opportunities abound for grocers
Lynn Petrak
Senior Editor
Lynn Petrak profile picture
Brandt Beef partnered with Chef Brandon Rogers to offer recipes such as a charcoal-grilled ribeye with grilled romaine lettuce.

The practice of cooking meat over fire may be about as primal as it gets, but there’s always room for innovation. That’s what suppliers, retailers and consumers discover every year when the temperatures thaw in much of the country and outdoor grills get fired up and used more often.

Certainly, stalwart proteins like burgers, steaks, hot dogs, kebobs and cut-up chicken remain top of mind and top of cart for many shoppers. But as with other eating habits and product categories, the trends reflect the times.

[Read more: "Shoppers Keep Meat in the Basket, But Switching It Up for Value"]

Take, for example, pricing. Stubborn inflation rates are causing many consumers to shift some of their habits as the traditional grilling season arrives. 

Steven Raichlen, author of “The Barbecue Bible” cookbook series, highlighted what he calls “budget-que” as his top trend for 2023 in a blog post earlier this year. In a recent exclusive interview with Progressive Grocer, the barbecue guru says that other cuts can be swapped for pricier portions. “If you smoke top round and bottom round low and slow, they can deliver a similar pleasure to that of brisket,” he explains, adding that beef shanks also come out well in a smoker. 

Variety and Other Trends

Shifting to other proteins to save money doesn’t mean that consumers are totally eschewing premium cuts, however: They’re often saving them for days they feel like splurging, or simply mixing up their purchases. Protein providers are accordingly emphasizing the variety of their offerings.

One World Beef Alliance, of Solana Beach, Calif., offers a broad selection of beef products under its umbrella of brands that is grill-worthy and also aligns with consumers’ parallel interests in attributes like grain-fed beef, third-party-verified transparency, and sustainability. For instance, Brandt Beef, a brand of One World Beef, has launched a “head to tail” initiative and points out that there are more than 100 types of possible beef cuts.

“Brandt Beef offers award-winning performance in the traditional portion-cut steaks and value-added items that characterize the summer grilling season: ribeyes, baseball cut top sirloin, hot dogs and hamburgers, to mention a few,” says VP of Sales Steve Summers. “These lines are always popular, but we also aim to introduce our customers to new culinary experiences such as the flavorful beef flanken-style short ribs and our brand-new beef demi-glace.” 

Burt P. Flickinger III, retail industry consultant and managing director of New York-based Strategic Resource Group, notes that shoppers may be making other adjustments in today’s still-volatile marketplace, like getting ahead of possible price jumps this summer. “Given the explosion of prices last summer, people who want to cook steak may grill it in March or buy steaks to freeze and cook later, going into Memorial Day,” he observes. 

One trend that bodes well for brands and grocers ahead of grilling season is the rise in cooking savviness over the past few years. “I think people got the grill and smoking ‘fire’ during COVID, when grill and smoker sales shot through the roof, as did sales of my book,” says Raichlen, who is hosting a new public television show, “Steven Raichlen’s Planet Barbecue,” that premieres Memorial Day weekend.

Because of that, Raichlen believes that this is shaping up to be another robust season for inventive grilling. “People are cooking more at home and a) learned how to grill and smoke better during COVID, and b) realized that restaurant trips have gotten more expensive,” he notes. 

Britney Banuelos, senior brand manager at Tyson Foods’ fresh meats marketing group, shares that sentiment. “Consumers have become increasingly comfortable and confident at the grill, and with that comes creativity,” she affirms.

Pandemic-fueled creativity applies to a wide variety of proteins that can be grilled to deliver a signature char flavor, from fresh seafood to red meat and poultry. To provide consumers with inspiration and instructions, Brandt Beef offers recipes curated by award-winning chefs, like a juicy bacon burger. “As part of Brandt Beef’s partnerships with world-class chefs, James Beard Award nominee Chef Brandon Rodgers has crafted a series of recipes for customers to learn how to prepare Brandt Beef dishes, along with a touch of certified chef techniques,” explains Summers. 

Springdale, Ark.-based Tyson also spotlights different cuts and proteins to help discerning at-home grillers. “Today, confident grilling consumers can elevate their summer grilling experience by allowing different proteins, such as pork, to take center stage of the backyard barbecue,” notes Banuelos, adding: “Ribs are a great way to kick off this grilling season and experiment all summer long, with a variety of options like St. Louis ribs, spareribs and back ribs, which are conveniently available at Walmart stores around the country. Other cuts to try this summer would be bone-in or boneless pork loin chops, pork tenderloin, or a pork tomahawk chop, which offers the best of both worlds, with a rib and chop all in one cut.”

Likewise, Creekstone Farms Premium Beef, based in Arkansas City, Kan., is helping home cooks beef up their grilling prowess. “This is part of the reason why in 2021, Creekstone Farms formalized a longstanding relationship with All Things BBQ and Yoder Smokers,” says Director of Marketing Dan Stewart. “Partnering with these suppliers of premium grilling and smoking equipment is a win-win.”

Fruit Grilling
Grocers can promote a variety of foods that work well in grilling applications, like thick portions of fruit.

Not Just Meat on the Grill

Given the rise of plant-based eating over the past few years, grocers can also tout ideas for flexitarians, vegans and others who are looking for inventive ways to grill plant-based foods. For instance, meat departments can feature plant-based meat alternatives like El Segundo, Calif.-based Beyond Meat’s new plant-based steak. Additionally, produce departments do well when promoting grill-ready plant-based items like peppers, corn and eggplant, to name a few.  

Retailers can also take a cue — no ’cue pun intended — from chefs who have experimented with nontraditional foods on the grill, from lemons to lettuce and from pound cake to doughnuts. Pittsburgh-based Giant Eagle, for its part, shares recipes on its website for making fruits and desserts on the grill, such as a grilled banana split and s’mores nachos. On Brandt Beef’s recipe pages, Chef Rodgers provides a recipe for grilled romaine lettuce. 

Consumers’ elevated taste expectations and experiences are reflected in accompaniments for grilled fare, too. Leading brioche brand St Pierre, for instance, has found success with its brioche buns for hamburgers and hot dogs, and the U.K. company added sesame seed brioche burger buns to its line of “grilling must-haves” last year.

"While we’re not launching any new products for grilling season this year, we are working with retailers to offer an attractive promotional calendar, kick-starting grilling season with increased marketing for National Brioche Day (May 14), which this year coincides with Mother’s Day, and we have market-leading fill rates," says Neil Pittman, director of U.S. sales for St Pierre Bakery.

With “The Barbecue Bible” now in its 25th year of publishing, Raichlen notes that the food retailing industry and consumers have come a long way since. “When I wrote the book initially, I had to give work-arounds for things like lemongrass and coconut milk — ingredients that were not available in mainstream grocery stores,” he recounts. “Now I’m amazed that grocery stores offer a dozen different types of peppers, and they have coconut milk and many different types of fish sauces. The [grocery] industry has really responded, and that’s great.”

Suppliers also continue to roll out new products for home cooks. Palatine, Ill.-based Weber, for example, is making a splash with its new electric grill that offers multiple functions in a modern design. Meanwhile, the Watkins Co. is an example of a CPG that is introducing new items in time for grilling season: The Winona, Minn.-based company recently expanded into the salt-free category by adding three new flavors to its 1868 Organic Grilling Seasoning line, including seasonings for chicken and steak.

Although grilling is a year-round pursuit for many aficionados, there is a certain seasonality to such promotions.

Light It Up 

As retailers and CPG companies ready their grilling fare, when is the best time to kick off in-store merchandising efforts? Although grilling is a year-round pursuit for many aficionados, there is a certain seasonality to such promotions.

Given economic and weather patterns, those promotions may be backed up a bit this year, according to Flickinger. “Typically, the grilling season starts Memorial Day,” he notes. “Nevertheless, this year will be different — you’ve got many more people eating and entertaining at home because this is the first full calendar year [after COVID restrictions] with family and friends, and because more people are eating at home rather than eating away from home,” due to higher menu prices at steakhouses and other restaurants.

“Also, with the La Nina weather pattern, the weather is supposed to be warmer across the U.S. this spring, which will encourage grilling,” adds Flickinger, “and over spring vacation, people will be traveling locally instead of long distance.”

Several brands will soon roll out new grilling promotions. At Creekstone Farms, the brand is supporting retailers with consumer-facing campaigns. “As grilling season approaches, we include grilling tips and inspiration in our newsletters, and we will heavily promote Creekstone Farms ahead of major grilling holidays like Father’s Day and the Fourth of July,” notes Stewart.

One World Beef’s brands, including Brandt Beef, are likewise ramping up efforts for the season. According to Summers, “We work closely with chefs and restaurants around the world to develop our beef offering, polishing traditional favorites and developing innovative beef experiences to bring to store shelves and, ultimately, to the home chef.”