RETAILERS LOOKING AT UPDATED SPREADS

NORWALK, Conn. -- Stew Leonard's is among the retailers who are spreading their hopes on the addition of gourmet peanut butters from Peanut Butter & Co. to store shelves.According to Meghan Flynn, spokeswoman for the retailer, the grocer's buyers met with the company at this summer's Fancy Food Show in New York, and recently began carrying two of six retail-pack varieties: Crunch Time, which contains

NORWALK, Conn. -- Stew Leonard's is among the retailers who are spreading their hopes on the addition of gourmet peanut butters from Peanut Butter & Co. to store shelves.

According to Meghan Flynn, spokeswoman for the retailer, the grocer's buyers met with the company at this summer's Fancy Food Show in New York, and recently began carrying two of six retail-pack varieties: Crunch Time, which contains chopped peanuts, and Cinnamon Raisin Swirl. The 16-ounce jars retail for between $5 and $6.

"One of our philosophies at Stew's is that we hold our items at 2,000, but we do like to bring in new, trendy items that we think the customer would like. And this is a new category for peanut butter -- gourmet peanut butters that still have all-family appeal," Flynn told SN.

Traditional grocery staples going gourmet is not a new phenomenon, but one that has evolved to include different products over the years, according to John Roberts, president of the National Association for the Specialty Food Trade, New York.

"The history of the specialty food industry -- after we got through with imported items and fancy stuff like caviar and smoked salmon -- has been want of taking on normal American products that Americans consume quite a bit of, and upgrading those products and setting up a new level of competition at the quality level," Roberts said.

Bottled water experienced this in the late 1970s when Perrier upgraded the category by going mass market. In the early 1980s, items like barbecue sauces, jams, preserves, salsas, mustards and tortilla chips continued the upgrading trend, Roberts said.

"Someone finally found peanut butter interesting," he noted.

Peanut Butter & Co., founded in 1998 by Lee Zalben, is a sandwich shop in New York City's Greenwich Village that serves gourmet peanut butter sandwiches in a variety of concoctions. Other varieties of its jarred peanut butter, which is all-natural, certified vegan and kosher, include Smooth Operator, White Chocolate Wonderful, Dark Chocolate Dreams and The Heat is On.

"The peanut butter category in general has been stagnant for a certain period of time, and I think that adding a gourmet product, a new all-natural product and something with new flavors into the category has helped bring some newfound excitement to the shelves," Zalben said.

"While most people think of peanut butter as being something for kids and they focus on selling to moms or kids, what we've found is that adults actually eat more peanut butter than kids in the U.S."

Zalben told SN that his company had also just inked a deal with Shaw's Supermarkets, West Bridgewater, Mass., to have its products included in the retailer's Wild Harvest section. Shaw's officials were not available for comment.

At Stew's, initial samplings conducted by Zalben were met with good response, Flynn said.

As an overall category, Flynn said sales of peanut butter are pretty steady throughout the year, with a slight upturn during the back-to-school season.

Indeed, it remains a staple with mass appeal. According to Information Resources Inc., Chicago, peanut butter sales have increased every quarter for the past year in all food channels combined, including supermarkets, drug stores and mass merchandisers excluding Wal-Mart.

For the 13 weeks ended Dec. 29, 2002, peanut butter generated sales of $217.9 million, an increase of 4.3% from the prior year. Sales blossomed even more during the 13 weeks ended March 30, up 6% to $221.1 million, and up 5.7% to $213.7 million for the 13 weeks ended June 29.

Overall sales in all gourmet categories are slightly more skewed to the entertainment season, starting at the end of September through Thanksgiving and into January, Roberts said.