It's not the same old grind.
Just this past year, sales of sausage in all its guises have skyrocketed in some areas, spurring retailers to prod the category's growth with more variety, advertising and space to build bigger displays. Retailers who don't already have a private-label sausage line are developing one.
Ukrop's Super Markets is no stranger to sausage. The category has been big, steady and profitable for years at the family-owned chain. Sales, however, have gone into overdrive since this time last year, officials told SN.
"It's always been a good category for us, but now it's growing by leaps and bounds. In fact, our fresh dinner sausage is running about 45% ahead of last year. We're going to add a private label shortly," said Alan Warren, meat/seafood director at the 26-unit, Richmond, Va.-based chain.
When SN spoke to Jack Gridley, meat/seafood director at Dorothy Lane Market, Dayton, Ohio, he was setting out on a fact-finding mission to see what's what with sausage on the West Coast. His mission, he said, was preliminary to Dorothy Lane's launch of its own private-label line.
Gridley called sausage sales at Dorothy Lane "booming," with sales up 35% year-to-date.
At Higdon's Foodtown in Lebanon, Ky., sales were up 20% to 25% in the last year. Owner Jimmy Higdon attributed that to a barrage of new items on the market and to the popularity of low-carb, high-protein diets.
"Some of the new value-added products like Jimmy Dean ready-to-eat sausage have attracted attention, and then the [low-carb] diets are bringing more people back to the meat case."
In Tennessee, Donny Little, meat/produce director at 17-unit E.W. James Markets, Union City, gave credit, too, to value-added items for keeping sausage sales strong. So did Tom Hedegard, meat buyer/merchandiser, at 82-unit Save Mart Supermarkets, Modesto, Calif.
Save Mart launched two varieties of sausage under its corporate label in spring 2002 after seeing the category's sales zoom up 30% in pounds sold over the previous year. Now, sales have climbed again by 23% from last year, Hedegard said.
Back East in New York City, where a diet-conscious populace a few years ago may have shied away from sausage, that's no longer true. In fact, Steven Jenkins, general manager and partner at Fairway Markets, said sausage sales were way up, especially those ground fresh and stuffed in-store.
"Both fresh and smoked sausages are huge now. The soaring sales of fresh sausages are doubtless due to the high-protein diets that are rampant. Not to mention that they are foolproof and a breeze to cook," Jenkins said.
An informal poll of retailers, manufacturers and industry observers shows that many factors play into the new respect sausage is getting these days:
Independents are employing fresh sausage as a niche builder.
Regional manufacturers have begun distributing more widely.
Manufacturers are launching more new and value-added varieties.
Low-carb, high-protein diets have brought people back to eating sausage.
Television chefs are raising sausage's image.
The National Pork Board's Karen Boillot told SN the Des Moines, Iowa-based trade group saw sausage emerge as a growth vehicle two years ago. About that time, retailers started to devote more attention to moving the category. In fact, studies show that supermarkets increased their sausage advertising by 14.3% in 2003 over the previous year, Boillot said.
"It's profitable. Pound for pound, sausage profitability outperforms the average meat case item by 19% and ranks fourth among the top five profit segments. It ranks above chicken breast, which is No. 5," she added.
With these things in mind, it's not surprising that the industry's eyes are on sausage. In fact, it has become so important that Cryovac, Duncan, S.C., for the first time this year broke sausage out as a separate category when it began collecting data this winter for its National Meat Case Composite Study, which, among other things, looks at how much case space is devoted to categories. Figures derived from the study will be released later this year, said William Kuecker, Cryovac's national retail coordinator.
The combination of sales success and the stardom of television chef Emeril Lagasse has spurred the development of Emeril-brand smoked links, by Sara Lee Foods, Cincinnati. The food giant began testing Emeril-brand sausage in Wal-Mart-owned Sam's Club stores across the country last fall. The test run was good -- so good that Emeril sausages will be offered to mainstream supermarkets by the end of this year, said Rick Purcell, business development manager at Sara Lee.
"These items have appeal. There are four flavors: chicken and apple, sun-dried tomato, habanera-green chili and a kicked-up, traditional smoked pork sausage," Purcell said.
While sausage and pork used to be almost synonymous -- and make no mistake about it, pork sausage itself is climbing -- poultry-based items are the relatively new kid on the block.
"We offer an exciting line of all-natural, gourmet sausages that includes tomato basil chicken sausage, artichokes and olive chicken sausage, spinach and feta chicken sausage, apple-maple chicken sausage, as well as roasted pepper pork sausage," said Brian Frey, marketing assistant, corporate communications, at Pittsburgh-based Giant Eagle, a chain that offers an extensive variety of fresh sausage under its corporate brand.
Other retailers like Dorothy Lane's Gridley commented on the huge variety of flavors -- he singled out basil-cheese -- that are enticing their customers.
Save Mart's Hedegard said upscale gourmet sausages and ethnic varieties represent the major line extensions that manufacturers have launched and that Save Mart is offering.
"Five or six years ago, most of our customers wouldn't have known what bratwurst was. That's not true anymore. Johnsonville was one of the first to put them on the West Coast. We have much better distribution out here now," he said, adding that in the last two years, the number of flavor profiles has more than doubled.
Many of the new, interesting flavor combos on the market were inspired by sausage made at retailer's stores.
"Many of our independents have created a niche for themselves with their own fresh ground sausage. There can be a lot of variety. It gets to be a signature item. More [regional manufacturers] are getting into smoked sausage, too. Fresh sausage and smoked attract different consumers, but they're both growing. People are buying more protein than they ever have," said Joe Melton, meat director, Robesonia, Pa.-based Associated Wholesalers Inc.
AWI owns 10 corporate stores and services more than 800 independent retailers in the Mid-Atlantic region.
One independent in the heart of Pennsylvania Dutch country -- Stauffers of Kissel Hill in Lititz -- has been specializing in sausage since the mid- to late '90s, but only recently have its sausage sales climbed to new highs.
"I'd estimate our sausage sales are up somewhere in the neighborhood of 30% to 50% in the last two years. We've seen growth before, but not to this extent," said John Gerlach, meat buyer/merchandiser at the four-unit independent.
Like other retailers SN talked to, Gerlach credited the low-carb trend in part for sausage's sales ascent.
"I think the Atkins, South Beach and Zone diets have had some effect. Just the fact that you have doctors who specialize in heart care telling you that you don't need to be concerned about eating meat. Now, people are feeling good about eating meat -- sausage included," he said.
Bringing Home the Bacon
Like sausage, bacon also is enjoying a comeback.
Retailers -- some reporting double-digit sales increases -- believe bacon sales like sausage sales are fueled by low-carb dieters. Pre-cooked bacon's increasing presence is also pushing the whole category, they said.
"Bacon is huge right now. We're running about 20% ahead of last year, in both raw and fully cooked," said Alan Warren, meat/seafood director at 26-unit Ukrop's Super Markets, Richmond, Va.
At E.W. James Markets in Union City, Tenn., pre-cooked bacon sales have picked up appreciably in the last year, officials said.
"We display it in shippers and by now we always have two or three different brands in shippers standing in the meat department," said Donny Little, meat/produce director at the 17-unit independent.
More manufacturers are bringing the pre-cooked product to market, and that's a plus because the competition has spurred development of better quality and even better packaging, said Ukrop's Warren, who gave fully cooked bacon a push last summer with a bacon-cheeseburger promotion. The product was cross merchandised alongside beef patties and sliced cheese in the meat case.
The National Pork Board, Des Moines, Iowa, gives some of the credit for bacon's surge to the food-service industry, at least for reminding low-carb dieters that bacon is one of the more flavor-packed proteins.
"I think food service has driven it some with bacon cheeseburgers. They remind consumers of that great flavor of bacon," said Karen Boillot, the NPB's director of retail marketing.