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    FRESH MEAT TRENDS: The Year of the Burger

    The trying economy that's keeping customers laser-focused on prices and promotions to make the most of their food dollars has altered buying preferences in a number of key categories, which has, of course, dramatically spiked trading-down activity with sharp impacts on sales mix and margins.

    The trying economy that's keeping customers laser-focused on prices and promotions to make the most of their food dollars has altered buying preferences in a number of key categories, which has, of course, dramatically spiked trading-down activity with sharp impacts on sales mix and margins. And nowhere has this situation been more palpable than in the meat department, which has seen higher-priced cuts shrivel to all-time lows in favor of alternatively priced value cuts and stalwart ground beef.

    Indeed, the familiar grind of skittish consumers cutting back on beef purchases at the meat case has found most retail meat executives working double time to delicately balance the mix in a bid to keep meat case interest robust. But as the other night owls that were tuned into the Jan. 8 edition of ABC's Nightline will readily attest, the segment provided ample inspiration for grocers to get serious about hamburger promotions until further notice.

    "With the real estate market reeling, car companies crumbling, and the economic outlook ominous, there is one delicious, juicy exception[m]the burger," intoned Nightline reporter John Berman's opening lead for a segment chronicling how the savory staple is rebounding in a big way with economically stressed food shoppers. "The succulent, savory American staple has continued to thrive, and even grow in popularity during tough economic times," the reporter went on, seconds before partaking in a breathtakingly beautiful burger[m]medium-rare, and for breakfast, no less[m]in Manhattan's famed Spotted Pig restaurant.

    The reporter's guest, Josh Ozersky, food blogger and national restaurant editor of CitySearch.com, certainly said a profound mouthful in his response to what's fueling the present burger boom: "The burger is omnipotent and irresistible. It can never be weakened. It can never be slowed down. It can never stop its ever-increasing growth and popularity. It's the most single powerful force in the food universe."

    Ozersky's "burgerlishous" infatuation can be viewed as nothing short of cold comfort to meat merchandisers in this dreadful economy, during which time he handily confirms he's in excellent company, given his supporting footnote that 7 percent more restaurants now offer burgers than they did two years ago[m]with the biggest boom hailing from fine-dining establishments.

    "The hamburger is a way that people can experience everything that's great about eating beef," said Ozersky. "The flavor, the tenderness and everything, [is there] in a way that's affordable and in a way that also you know that doesn't make them feel so enervated."

    And though the burgermania on display during the Nightline segment would seem to fly in the face of what the broadcast referred to as "the nutritional and environmental outrage that seemed to be popping up the last few years about burger makers and their practices," Ozersky minced no words. "Nobody cares about any of that. People love hamburgers, and nobody cares about any of the social and environmental or health effects about them."

    In the realm of preparation, the plain-talking Ozersky said, quite rightly, that it simply doesn't get any easier for time-challenged consumers than a burger. "All you need is a flat-top and a spatula," and you're in business.

    But perhaps it was the blunt food critic's conclusion that made it seem like an original no-brainer for grocers not to promote the living daylights out of burgers[m]and all of their inexpensive accoutrements to boot, regardless of the season. "The worse things are, the more people need great, cheap food."

    I rest my case.

    Parting thought: To help get consumers fired up about the 2009 Beef Checkoff-funded National Beef Cook-Off, West Sacramento, Calif.-based Raley's has a link on its Web site escorting customers to the competition's Web site for easy entry.

    What's more, the privately owned supermarket chain--comprising its eponymous Raley's banner, as well as Bel Air Markets, Nob Hill Foods, and Food Source stores in Northern California and Nevada[m]is also placing full-page color ads about the consumer beef contest in its Something Extra magazine. The grocer is also distributing Beef Cook-Off entry brochures in its 138 northern California stores, while Kenwood and Kunde vineyards have agreed to be in-kind wine sponsors for the chef event, welcome event, and gala awards banquet.

    The American National Cattlewomen (ANCW), which manages the program, is also raising noncheckoff funds for the event's ground transportation, chef event, and some other activities not covered by the 2009 checkoff budget.

    For more about the Cook-Off, visit National Beef Cook-Off.

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