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    FRESH FOOD: Gourmet Proteins: Cuts above

    As consumers become more aware and discerning, it's prime time for more retailers to embrace the upscale meat movement.

    Show us a grocer that's not emphasizing signature branded premium meat products, and we'll show you a retailer who'd better start catching up, fast. From coast to coast, evidence of the upscale movement in retail fresh meat is mounting. Some examples:

    --Eight-store Woodbury, Minn.-based Kowalski's Markets is coaxing quality-seeking consumers to "experience fine dining in the warmth of your own home" with its proprietary, five-star restaurant-quality, all-natural USDA Choice beef.

    --Pittsburgh-based Giant Eagle's Market District stores are promoting dry-aged Certified Angus beef, along with charcuteries showcasing domestic and imported high-end cured meats from around the globe.

    --11-store Woodland, Calif.-based Nugget Markets is smoking with a handcrafted, store-ground signature sausage line made from natural and organic beef, pork, veal, and boneless/skinless chicken.

    "Interest in premium meats is going through the roof," contends one retail meat executive, who requested anonymity. "Customers are increasingly looking at the nutritional statements as much as the price."

    Meat is benefiting from a larger trade-up trend in food. Sales of gourmet, specialty, and premium foods and beverages reached record highs in 2007, according to a recent report by New York-based market research publisher Packaged Facts, which pegged the segment's market value at $59 billion, an 11 percent gain over 2006.

    By October 2007, the Packaged Facts report says, a full 15 percent of all new food and beverage product introductions fell into the gourmet category. This surge in products, coupled with increased availability of the premium segment in mainstream supermarkets, has helped build a hearty appetite for gourmet and premium foods.

    "Mainstream supermarkets and grocery stores lead the market for gourmet/specialty foods and beverages, accounting for 52 percent of the total retail dollar sales in 2007," notes Tatjana Meerman, publisher of Packaged Facts. "We anticipate this broadening of the gourmet/premium market well into the next decade as growing numbers of marketers and retail channels offer an ever-increasing number of products to attract more customers."

    The premium niche even appears to be getting a boost from the uncertain economic climate. At least some shoppers are favoring quality over quantity when they're shopping the meat case, and they're attracted to gourmet meats' reputation for higher quality, as well as their healthier profile.

    "We're seeing pressure from both sides of the spectrum in regards to our meat sales," says another senior retail meat official, who also requested anonymity. "We still do much better with a Select beef program for our urban stores. However. our all-natural antibiotic- and growth hormone-free programs are doing extremely well in our suburban locations, and now account for 56 percent of our company's total beef sales.

    "Women in particular have become noticeably more discriminating in regards to the hormone- and antibiotic-free movement than they've been in the past, and we think we're in right place at right time with our better-for-you breeds," the retailer says.

    Hamming it up

    With an obvious eye on that same demographic slice, Issaquah, Wash.-based club store juggernaut Costco Wholesale Corp. rolled out a co-branded holiday ham for the just-passed season nationwide, in partnership with Martha Stewart. The co-branded in-house Kirkland Martha Stewart ham is the first in a series of exclusive prepared food products the members-only chain will launch this year.

    Tim Rose, Costco's s.v.p./g.m.m., corporate food and sundries, says Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia's "creativity in food preparation and strict adherence to quality ingredients complements Costco Wholesale's philosophy of quality and value."

    Inspired by the hams Stewart claims to have enjoyed as a child, the Kirkland Signature Martha Stewart Favorite Holiday Hams are slow-cured for three to five days, and then lightly smoked over applewood chips for 12 to 14 hours. The hams weigh approximately seven to 10 pounds and serve 10 people.

    On the heels of this holiday ham and extending the foray into premium fresh, the 529-club operator will expand the Martha Stewart line this month with three soup varieties, including classic tomato, minestrone, and savory mushroom, with desserts and entrees to follow in the coming months.

    As the latest addition to its well-respected fresh meat program, Costco's new co-branded signature ham also follows the lead of other retailers' premium-positioned ham lines.

    Chesterfield, Mo.-based Dierbergs Markets, Inc. bills itself as the St. Louis market's "Holiday Ham Headquarters," and urges customers to compare its two gourmet hams with any found in specialty ham stores. It offers two signature ham products for advance order and pickup in-store on a limited basis: Dierbergs Premium Smokehouse Bavarian-Style Ham and Dierbergs Honey-Crusted Spiral Ham. The 23-store grocer packages the special hams in a handy oven-safe container, which also simplifies preparation.

    Dierbergs over the holiday period also unveiled a massive specialty meats menu featuring specialty cuts and signature ready-to-roast entrees. The special-order, expert-cut meat products can be seasoned upon request with any of the retailer's signature-recipe seasoning blends. Customers can order them in-store or online.

    Dierbergs also provides recommended cooking methods, including temperature charts, with all of its specialty meats and entrees.

    Following an "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em" strategy, 37 Michigan Kroger stores piloted a deal with HoneyBaked brand hams to offer the signature spiral-sliced and glazed hams from special "HoneyBaked Express" coolers located in the meat departments.

    Initially available through the beginning of this month, the HoneyBaked hams sold by the Kroger division were the same as those sold through HoneyBaked's mail-order catalog and retail stores, with the same 100 percent satisfaction guarantee.

    With interest in premium hams reaching new heights, the December issue of Cook's Illustrated led with a "Holiday Ham 101" feature based on a tasting of three nationally available spiral-sliced ham brands.

    The favorite? Cook's Spiral Sliced Hickory Smoked Bone-in Honey Ham, which also happens to be an ideal choice for the centerpiece of a Super Bowl sandwich bar, notes Jon Lewallen, director of marketing at Lincoln, Neb.-based Cook's, which is an independent operating company of Smithfield Foods.

    Fully cooked and available in three flavors-- honey, brown sugar, and hickory -- the pre-sliced hams "literally serve themselves" and require only a small cut around the center bone, so each guest can easily take a slice from the ham to their plate, says Lewallen.

    Rising demand for higher-end hams, as well as locally grown products, is also fanning the flames of niche pork, which bodes well not only for regional producers, but retailers as well. In an effort to help retailers become better informed about niche pork so that they can in turn more confidently source and promote niche products, the Des Moines, Iowa-based National Pork Board it touting the development of a new niche pork terminology fact sheet and in-store poster that are available free online.

    "As the appeal and demand for niche products continue to grow in the meat case, retailers may find this fact sheet especially helpful in explaining niche terms and attributes to consumers," says Larry Cizek, the board's director of culinary/niche marketing development. "The poster can be useful in arming employees with the facts about niche pork, too."

    The new niche pork Web site, www.nichepork.org/chefsRetailersHome.aspx, "is also a great resource for retailers to locate and connect with local niche pork producers," says Cizek, noting that retailers can also access supplemental in-store materials on the Web site, including information on cooking times and temperatures, FAQs about storing and defrosting pork, the basics of pork cuts, and recipes. Specialty and independent retailers may also want to consider promoting their own brands by customizing these materials with their stores' identities, he adds.


    Tale of the $800 pig

    In what would seemingly make the up-and-coming domestic niche pork market seem pedestrian, Williamsburg, Va.-based family-owned gourmet Spanish food retailer LaTienda welcomed with open arms what's likely the most expensive pork in the world -- Jamon Iberico Spanish hams.

    Akin to culinary luxuries like caviar and truffles, Jamon Iberico, which at presstime finally made its long-awaited U.S. debut, is expected to retail for $60 to $85 per pound, give or take, or roughly $800 a piece.

    While the haute ham fast became the butt of jokes relating to sticker shock among some bloggers and media types, approximately 300 fanatical foodies had already pre-ordered the hams, contends LaTienda owner Don Harris, some of whom had placed deposits as long as five years ago. Calling those who did so "true believers," Harris says the product's appearance "on our shores" comes in tandem with Americans' growing appreciation for healthy, responsibly bred, and humanely cared-for livestock.

    No doubt about it, this pig's got quite a story to tell. Produced from the rare cerdo Iberico breed -- which lives only in select regions of southern Spain and is the only breed of pig that naturally seeks and eats mainly acorns -- the prized pork is more commonly known in its native country as "pata negra," in reference to its distinctive black hooves. It offers an abundant marbled fat content that’s closer to olive oil than saturated animal fat.

    The fabled Jamon Iberico's American debut required the concerted efforts of many on both sides of the Atlantic, explains Harris, particularly tipping his hat to celebrated chef Jose Andres, who he says was invaluable to the domestic clearance process.

    To make the prodigious Spanish pork available to the well-moneyed masses, Harris is selling it through his store's existing eponymous Web site, as well as on a sister site, Jamon.com, the latter of which he says aims to be a complete resource for all aspects of the production of cured hams in Spain, featuring information as to history, techniques, and breeding. In addition to resource materials and commentary, Harris says Jamon.com will also offer a full array of Spanish ham products, as well as a representative selection of leading European and American hams for food fanatics to enjoy and compare.

    Jamon.com will also feature a blog chronicling the latest adventures in the quest for Spanish hams, adds Harris. One of the happy coincidences of the comprehensive site is that it enables him "to assist people who are seeking to renew the cultivation of bellota (Spanish for "acorn") free-range hogs in America, and also to develop their own heritage American breeds."

    Costco adds premium crab cakes

    With food factoring heavily on Costco’s respectable financial scorecard, the latest addition to the club store chain's high-end restaurant-quality fare is a new line of Dungeness Pacific Northwest Crab Cakes, produced by Seattle-based Ivar's Seafood, Soup & Sauce Co.

    Initially rolled out in select Bay Area and northern California warehouse clubs, the crab cakes are made with the same recipe as those served at Ivar's namesake restaurants. The heat-and-serve crab cakes represent Costco's first move into the prepared seafood category.

    For Ivar's, "Retailing with Costco in northern California" is also a first, notes Chris Lewark, Ivar's director of sales.

    Ivar's, which produces a range of top-quality seafood entrees, soups, and sauces, has long enjoyed retail success throughout the Northwest with its refrigerated clam chowder and bottled cocktail and tartar sauces.

    Catelli Bros. expands Italian Bistro line with chicken entrees

    Collingswood, N.J.-based veal and lamb purveyor Catelli Brothers has expanded its Italian Bistro line of premium center-of-the-plate meals with three new chicken entrees that fast-track restaurant-quality meals to the kitchen table in less than seven minutes.

    The new Marsala, Parmigiana, and Piccata chicken additions extend Catelli's premium two-serving prepared protein line that's typically merchandised in the fresh meat case alongside cuts of fresh veal and poultry.The products feature seasoned sauce in a vacuum-sealed package, along with simple package-to-plate cooking instructions.

    The gourmet entree line is currently in distribution at Acme Markets, Super Target, Wal-Mart, and Winn Dixie, among other grocers, says Tony Catelli, president/c.e.o. Catelli says his company is promoting the line through retail partnerships, broadcast advertising, and regional cooking shows.

    Catelli's 10-item Italian Bistro line features Veal Marsala, Veal Parmigiana, Veal Piccata, Veal Provencale, and Lamb Rosetta, as well as both veal and beef meatballs. "Many people enjoy Italian favorites at restaurants but not at home, since some are unsure of how to create these dishes on their own," says Catelli. "The Italian Bistro products alleviate that uncertainty and provide a high-quality in-home dining experience."

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