THE THRILL OF THE GRILL

No doubt about it -- for supermarkets, the grilling season means sizzling steaks -- and sizzling sales."Some promoted items related to summer will more than double their movement and, conversely, other items not barbecue-related slow down," said Joe Hoffman, vice president, meat merchandising and procurement for A&P, Montvale, N.J. Hoffman, who oversees meat merchandising, assortment, pricing and

No doubt about it -- for supermarkets, the grilling season means sizzling steaks -- and sizzling sales.

"Some promoted items related to summer will more than double their movement and, conversely, other items not barbecue-related slow down," said Joe Hoffman, vice president, meat merchandising and procurement for A&P, Montvale, N.J. Hoffman, who oversees meat merchandising, assortment, pricing and promotion for about 400 stores on the East Coast, can pretty much pinpoint when his customers begin to think about cooking outdoors over a charcoal fire.

"Grilling is popular throughout the year, but from right after Easter through mid-September our customers want to go out on the deck or in the back yard and use the grill," he said. And once the season begins, Hoffman shifts gears in a big way.

"We start to remerchandise the freezers in the meat department and incorporate a cookout section into the meat display," Hoffman told SN. "We also expand our display of cookout-related items, and suggest our stores stock certain 'must' items."

Those include very lean top round, London broil, chops, strip and rib steaks, and especially kebobs are high on the list. "The movement on kebobs jumps through the roof," Hoffman said. "We really focus on the kebobs because customers say they like them."

All store meat managers receive instructions on how to create kebobs, from how big to cut the meat chunks to "how to arrange the peppers and onions on the skewer," he said. Also a fan of value-added items, A&P sells marinated kebobs and seasoned steaks, with a spice company providing a special blend of herbs to provide consistency within stores, Hoffman added.

Poultry also dominates the grill, with boneless chicken breasts -- including marinated and seasoned product -- the most popular cut, he said. During grilling season, chicken breasts are also sold in the cookout section, alongside the steaks and chops. Hoffman noted that chicken continues to grow in popularity, with chicken breasts, either split or quartered, growing disproportionately.

"Chicken is very economical compared to other proteins," he said, adding that chicken is perceived as a 'healthy' food. The store also sells ground chicken and turkey.

But the runaway favorite, claims Hoffman, is ground beef, sold in a separate ground meat section. Customers increasingly prefer the leaner varieties, and A&P aims to satisfy the demand. In its fresh ground section, the chain stocks five varieties of beef, all identified according to the primal source and leanness ranging from 75% to 93%.

"Nothing sells better than ground beef," said Hoffman. "It's so versatile and relatively economical."

Frankfurters are also constantly promoted during the season, with A&P offering summer-only, three-pound packages. A&P launched its own Master Choice frankfurter line last year, said Hoffman, who explained how, over the past several years, consumer preference has shifted in favor of higher-end, premium franks.

Seafood, too, is a steadily growing grill category, with salmon leading the pack, followed by shrimp. Hoffman says that cross marketing works well with seafood, noting A&P's typical Father's Day "surf 'n turf" promotion pairing of steak and lobster. "Building a better burger" -- with an assist from the produce department -- is also a popular advertising campaign.

"The produce department will advertise items that make sense for the grill, not only burger-related produce but produce you can grill, like corn, and also serve at a barbecue, like watermelon," Hoffman said.

The chain's wide array of summer grilling specials translates into heavy advertising and promotions marked by a grilling theme, according to Hoffman. He also relies on a weekly circular within a newspaper, and in-store signage.

Food Circus Foodtown, a Middletown-N.J. based, 11-store operator, also caters to a year-round grilling consumer base, largely because of the tailgating celebrations by Jets and Giants football fans at nearby Giant Stadium. Nevertheless, Danny Metta, the chain's meat director, says during the summer, the chain "easily doubles" movement on meat.

Foodtown stores create seasonal meat display cases that measure about 10 feet in length and offer fresh ground beef -- some in three-pound family packs -- sold at 80%, 85% and 90% levels of leanness; steaks; kebobs; chicken parts and boneless breasts; and sausages. The case also stocks frankfurters, which are sold simultaneously in the deli and dairy areas, and marinated product, such as London broil, chicken and turkey breasts. The turkey breasts, which Metta refers to as "turkey London broil," do very well, he said. The chain buys marinade from an outside source.

Although meat moves all year, the promotions tagged to Memorial Day, July 4th and Labor Day celebrations focus on the grill. London broil, always a popular sale item, sold for $1.89 per pound with a customer club card this Memorial Day.

In the beef category, steak -- including porterhouse, shell, filets and boneless sirloin -- is the grilling winner and periodically sale priced. The only beef item not put on special are the labor-intensive kebobs, which skewer meat chunks, peppers, onions and cherry tomatoes. The seafood department creates its own kebobs using swordfish and shrimp.

Food Circus has also rolled out a new labeling program in its Red Bank, N.J., unit that is expected to hit all stores by the end of the summer. The two-part, tear-off label contains cooking instructions for grilling, roasting, broiling and stir-frying -- targeted for specific cuts of meat and chicken -- as well as recipes. All meat and chicken items already show safe-handling labels, with grilling items stamped with an additional "great on the grill" and "healthy grilling" label. Grilling signage in-store and throughout its advertising circulars also abound.

But not every seasonal promotion involves meat. According to Mike Evans, the chain's whole-health coordinator, consumers are "really concerned about their health and diet."

Frankfurters made of soy protein, which the chain has sold for several years, are also catching on, according to Evans.

"It looks just like a hot dog and tastes good," said Evans, noting a recent recommendation from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to add 25 grams of soy protein to one's diet. These types of sanctioned health claims have helped perk consumer interest in categories beyond beef and chicken. There's been a surge in the popularity of fish for the grill.

Ingles Markets, Black Mountain, N.C., has observed the extraordinary interest in salmon and different steak fish.

"In the last four years, sales have just about doubled," said Michael Sargent, the seafood manager at the 214-store chain's Merrimon, N.C.'s supermarket. "It's been amazing, especially in the last two years."

Sargent attributes increased fish consumption to people's concerns about mad cow disease, as well as to government recommendations that fish is a "heart healthy" food. The best-selling items are salmon and tuna steaks, usually cut to a 1-inch thickness, which grills the same way as beef, he said. He also noted the importance of educating customers how not to overcook fish.

Another reason Sargent says seafood sales have soared is the chain's registered dietitian and healthy eating advocate, Leah McGrath.

"It's the best thing that could happen to Ingles Markets," Sargent said. "She really puts us up along with the canned goods!"

"Grilling is a lean way of cooking, with much of the fat dripping off," McGrath said, noting that adding vegetables is an extra health bonus. The chain's "Build a Better Burger" circular ad campaign underscores the importance of the "fixin's," along with the meat.

"Customers have a lot of questions about food safety," McGrath said. "Questions on how long to keep meat, and how to take a meat's temperature so you get the best flavor by neither undercooking nor overcooking it. I also tell them about cleaning up as you go, so there's no cross contamination, and about not using the marinade the meat has sat in for basting."

Her wellness-themed column -- often tied into specific, promoted in-store merchandise -- appears monthly in the chain's advertising circulars. One of her recent pieces addressed ways to add spark to burgers by creating Mediterranean, Mexican and Italian variations. Three summer-scheduled columns will address marinades, food safety and grilled meal ideas. Ingles' Web site also contains expanded versions of the content appearing in the circulars.

The recipes McGrath provides -- often heart-healthy and low in sodium -- also affect revenue.

"Customers give me a lot of positive feedback about the recipes," she said. "They say that, when they see the recipes, they know what to buy."

McGrath says if her column does not include all nutritional data on an item, customers either phone her at the toll-free number listed in the circular or e-mail her.

Unlike many chains that don't send its employees into the community, McGrath attends health fairs and food bank meetings, gives supermarket tours to high school students, and speaks to diabetic and weight-loss groups.

But despite people's increased motivation to eat healthy, grilling season seems to be the time simply to enjoy the bounty.

"During the summer holidays, people don't care," Food Circus' Metta said. "They buy everything."