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    Supermarket FRESH FOOD Business: Feeding the protein people

    Atkins dieters could be a meat manager's best friends, but so far there's been little effort to target this ready-made customer base.

    Like millions of Americans over the last decade, Philadelphia-area retailer Steve Brown has chosen the Atkins diet--which emphasizes meat, eggs, and cheese while discouraging bread, rice, and fruit--to help him lose weight while still being able to eat some of his favorite foods.

    For Brown, the battle of the bulge has been "an ongoing process throughout my life," and the Atkins diet, he says, has helped him stay on track with his weight-management goals without feeling deprived.

    Though the "Dr. Atkins Diet Revolution" first came on the scene way back in 1972, the three-decade-old regime has been all the rage the past two years. Between the media coverage and the swarms of Atkins converts, it's been hard to escape exposure to the movement.

    Ironically, supermarket executive Brown finds it necessary to buy most of his food from Internet sites geared toward the diet. But he and others see plenty of possibilities for mainstream retailers to cater to Atkins shoppers, who are a ready-made customer base for the meat department.

    For the most part, Brown says, the Web sites capture a good portion of the Atkins market because of the lack of retail outlets--his family's stores included--that carry the products. "For the last four or five years, the category in supermarkets has focused on the protein and nutritional energy bars and the newer carb solutions-type bars," he says. "You just don't see many places carrying the pastas, breads, and mixes unless you go to a health food store."

    Nevertheless, Brown sees promise for retailers seeking to expand the niche section into a full-blown grocery category in the near future, particularly since a number of specialty suppliers now carry a variety of Atkins products. "The category is taking off, but it's taking off slowly," he says, noting that an Atkins section would be a strong complement to the traditional dietetic section, "which has been dead for years."

    'A positive spin'

    While the meat and deli departments contain the vast majority of Atkins-approved items, Sarah Donohoe, retail training coordinator for Certified Angus Beef, says she "has not seen nor heard of any specific marketing or promotional strategies built around the trend. But obviously it's been a positive spin for the departments and the industry in general."

    So is there room for supermarket retailers to improve their response to Atkins enthusiasts with creative cross-merchandising and display opportunities? Deanna Scrimger, director of CAB's marketing communications division, who considers herself an Atkins success story, says yes.

    "From a consumer side, when I went grocery shopping when I was on the diet, I kind of got into a rut of eating the same stuff. I think if retailers could provide consumers with Atkins-friendly meal planning tips and recipe ideas—either in the aisles or in their consumer communications vehicles like newsletters or Web sites—I do believe there's an excellent opportunity to really help consumers expand their choices."

    The surge of Atkins devotees has been a pleasant surprise for many meat suppliers, which are hustling to keep up by introducing new flavor profiles and package sizes to spice up the meat category.

    "Today's Atkins dieters enjoy a continually expanding spectrum of meat products to help them maintain their interest and focus on their weight-loss program," says Swift & Co. spokesman Jim Herlihy. "Our company now offers a line of seasoned/marinated pork items and marinated fresh pork, as well as fresh steaks and roasts in our branded program, including Swift Premium Black Angus, Swift Premium Classic, and Swift Angus Select. On top of that are various lean points in ground beef products that can be enjoyed in a wide variety of recipes."

    Since becoming an independent company with a new ownership structure in September, Swift has unveiled a new tagline and customer commitment—"A Fresh Approach to Meat"—which includes cutting-edge process innovation, premium quality products, and state-of-the-art procedures, Herlihy says.

    This year, the Greeley, Colo.-based company will promote its line with a variety of marketing initiatives including direct mail, outdoor, trade, and radio advertising, consumer promotions, point of sale efforts, and public relations.

    The controversial high-protein/low-carbohydrate diet pioneered by the late Robert Atkins has defied the establishment on many fronts because it bucks practically everything ever taught about proper nutrition habits.

    Atkins blamed America's growing obesity epidemic squarely on the U.S. government's food pyramid, which places a heavy emphasis on carbohydrate-rich bread, pasta, and rice.

    Burning off the fat

    Without carbohydrates and sugar-laden foods, Atkins maintained, the body is forced to burn fat for energy, which in turn will take off pounds. While many of the foods permissible on his namesake diet are rolling in fat and high in cholesterol, they contain almost no carbohydrates, which Atkins saw as the fundamental key to bona fide weight loss.

    While the diet has come under fire from a variety of nutrition experts, it has gained respect in certain health circles after several studies showed that people lost weight on it without compromising their health. However, the jury is still out for the many other health experts and agencies that remain skeptical that the diet will lead to long-term weight loss, and instead advocate a lower calorie/higher exercise regime as the best way to take off pounds.

    Regardless of the naysayers, people who have enjoyed success on the Atkins diet as a way of life, including 36-year-old Steve Brown, are undeterred. "I've been on the diet over 10 years and can tell you that it definitely works for me," he says. The tricky part, he adds, is sticking to it rigorously.

    CAB's Scrimger says her experience made her a believer. "I was on the Atkins diet for about six months, and really made the choice by seeing the success that some of my friends had had," she says. "I found it to be very successful for me. I lost a total of 20 pounds, which was the max of what I needed to lose to put me at my target weight."

    As someone who had never dieted before, Scrimger says what she liked best about Atkins was that it allowed her to eat and enjoy her favorite foods. But more than that, she adds, the diet opened her eyes to the need to limit sweets, and to see the value of eating beef, shrimp, cheese, and other highly desirable foods.

    Maintaining the diet as a lifestyle is key, says Brown, who finds it far easier to accomplish today than when he first began, thanks largely to Internet sites Synergydiet.com and Atkins.com. "Ten years ago, I didn't have a choice. I didn't eat bread because I couldn't find low-carb breads," says Brown.

    Today, he continues, "I can find any bread I want, not to mention endless amounts of other low-carb foods like pastas, pizzas, candies, desserts, and pancake and muffin mixes on the Internet. What I end up doing is going to these Web sites, ordering a month's supply of their food, paying a premium for it, throwing it in my freezer, and using them until I need to order more."

    So why does a guy who's in supermarkets every day of his life patronize Internet sites instead of taking a few extra minutes to select provisions while he's at work? "Even though I'm in the supermarket business, I'm like everybody else out there who doesn't have the time or desire to prepare meals," says Brown.

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