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    FRESH FOOD: Grilling: Grills gone wild

    Retailers and suppliers are tossing around a variety of strategies to keep the grill hotter longer.

    With two of the three biggest annual grilling holidays over and the third one lurking right around the corner, it might be logical to assume that the coals of the backyard barbecue season would be cooling off by now. But as savvy food retailers are well aware, grilling isn't just for summer anymore, and it's definitely not just about meat.

    The cooking method has evolved into one of the hottest year-round culinary trends. A recent survey conducted by the Arlington, Va.-based Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association found 60 percent of Americans are grilling year-round, and nearly half are grilling during peak winter food months, in tandem with key selling occasions like the Super Bowl and Valentine's Day.

    Further, according to another recent survey from the venerable grill masters at Palatine, Ill.-based Weber, more than 70 percent of U.S. grill owners fire up their 'cues at least once a week during traditional summer grilling season, and 59 percent of them keep them hot year-round.

    Further fanning the flames, outdoor grill usage has steadily climbed over the past two decades, according to the Port Washington, N.Y.-based NPD Group's 20th Annual Eating Patterns in America and Kitchen Audit reports.

    In a 24/7 society where convenience and simplicity rule, it's easy to see why grilling's got it going on. In addition to providing consumers a more flavorful and convenient eating and cooking experience, the all-season trend is providing an outlet for creative retailers to develop grill-friendly displays and promotions throughout the store -- particularly around the perimeter. What's more, some grocers are spending promotional time and money on showcasing their "grilling guru" prowess.

    Enter Stew Leonard's, the renowned Norwalk, Conn.-based grocer that's rapidly building a solid reputation for its grilling greatness.

    The three-store operator has made grilling a vital part of its culinary calling card, backed up by a contingent of bona fide grilling gurus, among them executive chef George Llorens, chef Jeff Schack, and chef Chaz Fable.

    "Grilling is not just for hamburgers and hot dogs anymore," says Llorens of Stew's flagship Norwalk store. "Customers are going beyond traditional barbecue fare, and venturing into cooking everything, even vegetables, on the grill, to grilling pizza dough and fruits like peaches and pineapples."

    When asked to elaborate on Stew Leonard's grill-friendly summertime lineup, Llorens notes: "Al fresco dining is popular in the summer, so we started offering Friday and Saturday night 'Catch of the Day' dinners at our beach grill at Calf Pasture Beach in Norwalk. Under a lighted tent right on the beach, we have a chef grilling dishes such as lobster and scallop kabobs [and] grilled salmon and filet mignon. Through our catering department, we offer lobster and clambake parties on the beach that have also been high in demand among customers."

    In terms of in-store promotions, Llorens says, "We focus on providing tips and easy recipes for the top-selling grilling items, including our fork-tender filet mignon, corn on the cob, and asparagus."

    As if one resident grilling expert per store weren't enough, Schack serves as grill master of Stew Leonard's Norwalk "Hoedown," an outdoor grill open throughout the summer. With his grilling expertise focusing heavily on technique, timing, and trends, Schack has recently introduced new menu items based on the most requested dishes, including pulled pork and vegetarian options.

    Learning from the experts

    Then there's Fable, who's famous for adding flair to any grilled dish, such as his recipe for Rosemary Shrimp, in which a sprig of rosemary serves as the skewer when grilling the jumbo shrimp. Fable also likes to add a Tuscan touch to grilled dishes, as evidenced in his recipe for grilled vegetables featuring fennel, endive, baby portabella mushrooms, red pepper, and radicchio.

    Not surprisingly, shoppers have greeted Stew Leonard's grilling experts' assistance with open arms. Says the grocer's spokeswoman, Meghan Flynn: "We find that customers are willing to be more adventurous about the foods they grill as a result of seeing our chefs preparing these dishes on television, following the recipes and suggestions in our "Stew Leonard's Winning Recipes" cookbook, or talking with our grilling gurus in the store."

    "I've noticed that a lot of customers are apprehensive about grilling seafood because they're afraid it's going to stick on the grill or fall apart when they try to turn it," says Llorens. "I'll give them some easy tips, such as keeping the grill clean, using a nonstick spray on the grates, and making sure the grill is hot to sear the juices in. We also offer cedar grilling planks that are great for grilling fish on the grill. Just soak the plank, heat on the grill for three minutes on each side, and add the food -- no turning or flipping needed."

    While Llorens understands that grilling seafood can be daunting for some, it's been a specialty of his since he was a child growing up in the coastal town of Sitges, Spain, where he would grill just-caught fish fresh off the boats.

    With all the great equipment available to consumers right now, it's no surprise that grilling has become such a popular way to prepare quick and delicious meals, notes Tom Anrico, director of Stew Leonard's garden shop, which sells grills and other outdoor cooking implements and accessories. "People are essentially moving all their cooking and dining in the summer to the outdoors. As a result we're seeing bigger grills and patio sets selling well."

    Anrico expects to see the trend to continue to grow. "We'll see a growth in people having entire outdoor kitchens in their backyards, with refrigerators, sinks, ice makers, grills with side burners -- the works." On the other hand, he easily foresees indoor summer cooking "to be a thing of the past."

    While filet mignon and locally grown summer produce are perennial summertime top sellers, Anrico and his associates strive to get consumers to branch out. "We continue to take the intimidation factor out of grilling by making it easy for the customer. We cross-merchandise fish with dry rubs, and marinades for meat, and offer gadgets such as kabob racks and shaker or corn baskets that making grilling vegetables a cinch, for example," he says.

    Another supermarket retailer firing up a grilling campaign this summer is Pleasanton, Calif.-based Safeway, which designed a comprehensive "Great Grilling" merchandising program to make its stores a one-stop shop for grilling needs.

    Working with Sunset magazine to develop the program's 28 recipes in the publication's test kitchens, "Safeway's Great Grilling" guide features specially developed recipes and a how-to handbook, along with tools and ingredients, including the chain's signature Rancher's Reserve Beef brand.

    The Great Grilling Center, located in the meat department, is the focal point of the program, while signage throughout the store points out grilling ingredients and accessories. The recipes generally cater to the layman's tastes and skill levels, but include some "surprising secrets," such as novel techniques and ingredient combos, designed to appeal to the seasoned backyard chef, adds Cornell.

    At presstime Safeway kicked off a road show demo of its Great Grilling techniques, starting in Portland, Ore. and Denver, and featuring grilling expert and author Chris Schlesinger, who was recently named one of the world's top 10 hot BBQ chefs by Gourmet magazine.

    Consumers are invited to see Schlesinger grill up dishes featured in Safeway's grilling program at selected stores, and they can also glean tips about building the perfect fire; how to grill fish, vegetables, and other nontraditional grilled foods; and lots more.

    The grocer is making recipes and how-to guides available during the demos, and the materials are also available throughout the summer at the nearly 1,700 Safeway stores across the country. To pile it on some more, Safeway is also posting additional grilling recipes, tips, and techniques on its corporate Web site.

    Beyond burgers

    In the same way that grilling isn't just for summer anymore, grills are no longer being used solely for burgers and dogs.

    "Many consumers are looking for something new, special, and different to grill," says Michael McMann, retail marketing manager for Milford, Ind.-based Maple Leaf Farms (MLF). "And many grill parties provide the opportunity to serve guests an experience on top of a meal. Duck fits this trend perfectly, works well with other fruits and vegetables, and even complements other proteins."

    With home chefs constantly in search of tasty alternatives to make meals more meaningful, McMann says MLF's biggest grilled success stories are centering on processed duck parts, "particularly fully cooked, value-added items such as our rotisserie half duck and rotisserie duck breast. There is virtually no preparation time needed, and consumers can even spice them up more by adding sauces or their favorite seasonings."

    "Duck is not just for special occasions anymore," says McMann, noting that duck consumption continues to grow every year among everyday gourmands. "Consumers are starting to purchase duck more frequently than in the past," he says, in contrast to the days when consumers' sole exposure to duck was relegated to a whole bird prepared once a year during the holidays, or a visit to a five-star white-tablecloth restaurant.

    "Our retail efforts and initiatives have been slowly changing that trend as more retailers start to offer our products," observes McMann, adding that MLF has developed what he feels are "the right variety and flavor profile products that consumers -- as well as aggressive retailers -- are looking for. Our initiatives to grow within retail have been very positive in the last couple of years."

    Carrying and promoting alternative proteins also provides retailers with simply ducky opportunities to separate themselves from their competitors. Explains McMann: "Duck isn't found in every location, and consumers who love duck will choose where they shop based on where it's available. Duck consumers are considered to be higher-end food users and have proven to spend a considerable amount of money, more than the average. These all indicate better-than-average customers that retailers want to target, and translate into higher cart spending."

    Year-round availability of fresh produce is helping home cooks enjoy an endless summer of grilled meals, says Karen Caplan, president and c.e.o. of Los Alamitos, Calif.-based specialty produce distributor Frieda's, Inc.

    "Burgers and hot dogs are great, but we've really seen an increased demand for unique grilling offerings that are perfect for in-store displays that aren't restricted to the produce department," says Caplan. "Retailers can better educate their shoppers on these products with our specially targeted marketing support," including recipes. One of Caplan's personal favorites, from The Purple Kiwi Cookbook, is grilled purple asparagus with Camembert sauce.

    With prime football tailgating season upon us, devising a great grilling game plan is of paramount importance to grocers. To that end, an ongoing multiyear grilling partnership between Golden, Colo.-based Coors Brewing Co. and Weber is helping to fire up adult consumers with grilling recipes and entertaining tips via three free "Outdoor Grilling Guidebooks." More than 3 million guidebooks were expected to be distributed in stores nationwide this summer.

    "Consumers know that barbecue and ice-cold beer are synonymous with hot summer days," says John Nachbur, channel marketing director for Coors. While the first two summer holiday grilling guides contained recipes from chef and journalist Jamie Purviance, author of several best-selling cookbooks, including "Weber's Real Grilling," and food and grilling safety tips, a third grilling guide, "The Silver Playbook," available in stores this month through October, will contain everything grillers need to kick off the football season, including recipes, pregame tips, and special Coors Light offers.

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