The dinner-sausage category can help bring the bacon home to the meat department, say retailers who've found ways to make the category work well for their stores.However, they add, it is not a business for the squeamish. While high-quality dinner sausages are a popular food trend, particularly at the gourmet end, it takes real commitment, diligence at the store level and, usually, education for both

The dinner-sausage category can help bring the bacon home to the meat department, say retailers who've found ways to make the category work well for their stores.

However, they add, it is not a business for the squeamish. While high-quality dinner sausages are a popular food trend, particularly at the gourmet end, it takes real commitment, diligence at the store level and, usually, education for both meat-department associates and customers.

"You have to throw yourself into this category. You have to do it right or you will hurt the business," said Marc Kane, director of meat and seafood operations at Andronico's Park & Shop, Albany, Calif., one of a growing number of retailers having success with premium-quality dinner sausages.

For one thing, they fit the profile of what many meat suppliers, and progressive retailers as well, are envisioning as the meat-department product of the future: convenient, high-taste, versatile meat items that can be easily yet interestingly prepared -- in a word, value-added.

It's the versatility of fresh sausage that is the key ingredient in the category's success in supermarkets, according to Charlie Bergh, vice president of fresh foods at Bristol Farms, El Segundo, Calif.

"Sausages can be used in a variety of ways, from a snack, to an ingredient, to a main meal," Bergh said. "People want food that tastes good. Sausages meet that desire with a variety of flavors, from the different meats and spices used. Sausage, by nature, has a fat content. That fat adds to the flavor."

Bergh and other industry sources said that, despite some continuing trade emphasis on low-fat foods, consumers still are on the trail of truly convenient, truly value-added meat-department selections, especially those that simplify meals while providing great taste.

Dinner sausages present easy options for preparation, ranging from grilling to baking to poaching. Retailers said that for many consumers, they are also fun, as well as easy, and satisfy the urge to try new tastes.

But sales don't come as quickly or easily, operators said, and the commitment needed may prove more than some supermarket meat departments are willing to bear.

The meat executives at West Coast operators Bristol Farms and Andronico's have discovered that grinding any substantial sales out of dinner sausages demands an attention to detail that is often not a requirement of other categories in the department.

You've got to devote enough display space to make a statement, they said. You also must feature the category regularly in the department's advertising and product demonstration schedule. And you have to be patient. The category needs time to develop, to grow a following and to teach the meat department about the special ingredients and home-preparation methods.

While Bergh and Kane agree on these factors, to get there they've chosen two different paths, illustrating the dual strategies that other retailers are choosing from to capture dinner-sausage sales.

Andronico's relies on a vendor-supplied program, using the expertise of several specialty manufacturers to build its assortment. Bristol Farms, on the other hand, swears by its focus on store-level production.

The latter retailer creates all 35 of its gourmet specialty-sausage varieties fresh in its six stores. The items are only offered from the service cases. The sausage case set in the stores is 10 linear feet.

Bergh said the sales performance justifies the allocation. "It is performing very well. It deserves its space. The category is a major part of our sales. It is a big contributor to the department -- and not only in sales, but in presentation, and it makes us unique."

Communication with customers about the sausage offerings is paramount, said Bergh. To start with, the operator schools each of its meat associates in how to prepare and produce the fresh sausages as part of the department's apprenticeship program.

Bristol Farms has also produced a category-specific brochure aimed to educating consumers. The brochure offers a complete description of Bristol Farms' hand-made sausage menu items, as well as directions for preparing and serving the program's fresh and precooked selections.

The material explains that the sausages are made fresh each day, using the "finest quality ingredients," describing each sausage and its ingredients. It also suggests meal accompaniments.

Among the items listed are turkey cranberry, with fresh ground turkey, sun-dried cranberries, cornbread and sage, described as a "Thanksgiving Dinner in a casing"; chorizo, made with lean pork shoulder, which "spices up any Mexican dish. Try it with scrambled eggs, omelets or paella"; American apple, including chunks of green apple, cinnamon and lean pork shoulder, which "makes this a natural for the grill or as a special touch to breakfast or lunch"; and Seawurst -- "fresh fish, scallops, smoked mussel and much more make this a truly unique sausage. A seafood lover's delight!"

Bristol Farms even promotes its willingness to accommodate special orders -- based on, for example, customers' own sausage recipes -- given 48-hours notice.

Bergh told SN that Bristol Farms' shopper base is a contributing factor to the success of the dinner-sausage program. "Our customers are very in tune to food. They look for new items and they are more experimental. They want good food."

Bristol Farms also offers a limited selection of vendor-supplied prepackaged dinner sausages, most of which are precooked. To a large degree, that is also an accommodation to customers, he said.

"If a vendor offers a unique product which our customer wants, we should offer it," said Bergh. "To deny our customers the products they want is inviting them to go somewhere else. In-house-produced items should not be protected just because they are ours but, rather, used to expand a category and its sales. If they get sales, the gross profit will be there."

Andronico's Park & Shop is bullish on dinner sausages. It has chosen the vendor-supplied route, relying on four to five vendors to supply products for both the service and self-service cases in its eight meat departments. The category gets double facings, for the convenience of customers in a hurry, said Kane, its meat operations director.

The pursuit of adding value through convenience continues. Over the past year Andronico's has been testing a prepriced package of four sausages, which is also vendor-supplied.

The varieties of the dinner sausages Andronico's Park & Shop units offer include traditional flavors, poultry and seafood for the health conscious and classic European pork recipes.

"Today, we are moving more poultry-based items than I ever thought possible," Kane remarked. "The category continues to expand, because specialty sausages are time-oriented. They are quick and easy to prepare, with hardly any clean-up involved. They also offer maximum flavor for the customer's dollar investment. They assault the senses.

"It's an amazing category. The field was virtually untapped in the 1980s," Kane continued. "We got in on the ground floor, and had a good entrance.

That's not to say that living today is easy in the sausage category, however. While he said the retailer is committed to using outside suppliers, it is also constantly seeking out better vendors and products, even on a daily basis, to keep the business vital. "We regularly bring in new items to boost the category, not to cannibalize what we already have.

"It is the hardest area to learn for our associates," Kane said. "There are 20 different types of sausages we generally carry, and 40 in one unit. This variety and the various cooking methods and ingredients challenge us to stay on top of the category."

He routinely brings meat-department personnel up to speed with current offerings and new selections. Cooking methods and directions, suggested accompaniments and ingredients are painstakingly reviewed with each unit's department staff, he said. The service-counter associates are, in turn, encouraged to pass this knowledge along to customers to enhance the possibility of a great dining experience.

"When a customer pays $7 to $8 for sausage, we want to make sure that their cooking and eating experience is right," Kane said. "That way, we foster repeat business for the category, our department and the store."

Both Bristol Farms and Andronico's Park & Shop claim that regular promotion efforts, including placing sausages regularly in department advertisements and on demonstration schedules, bolster consumer communications about the category. Featured pricing and in-unit sampling spur sales. Then it's the flavor that cinches the repeat purchase.

Getting Under the Skin

Meat merchandisers agree that dinner-sausage sales are growing at a moderate yet steady pace.

They also say they expect sales to keep on a course of expansion, since the category comprises currently one of the meat department's best shots at appealing to contemporary consumers; the sausages are convenient to buy, prepare and cook, and at the same time can be made available within a wide variety of meat ingredients and taste profiles.

Industry studies concur. An NPD Group study claims that three-quarters of American households purchase some type of processed meat item at least one time per month, and that dinner sausage commands a 25% share of that purchase occasion -- more even than bacon or hot dogs.

Dinner sausages account for 54% of all sausages sold, according to the American Meat Institute, and the trade group expects the figures on pounds purchased to maintain a steady single-digit climb.

According to industry data, the top sellers within the category include smoked-sausage varieties, Polish kielbasa and bratwurst and hot sausage. Pork/meat combinations account for 80% of all sausage sold. Beef accounts for 6% of sales, as does poultry; and all other ingredients, including vegetarian and seafood, account for the remaining 8%.