All senses aren’t equal when it comes to cooking, at least not when it comes to grilling.
There’s something almost, well, primal about getting a whiff of food sizzling on an outdoor grill. From the first ancestral foods seared with fire, people have had a strong connection with this particular method of cooking.
- Grilling remains popular in the United States, with taste, convenience and social engagement cited as key reasons for this by consumers.
- While burgers, hot dogs, steaks and chicken are still top choices to toss on the grill, seafood, veggies and plant-based alternatives are gaining traction among shoppers.
- Even outside the official grilling season, many Americans continue to barbecue, making year-round marketing and merchandising on major grilling occasions a must for grocers.
No less a revered culinary figure than James Beard waxed poetic about the thrill of the grill among those who make and eat such fare: “Grilling, broiling, barbecuing — whatever you want to call it — is an art, not just a matter of building a pyre and throwing on a piece of meat as a sacrifice to the gods of the stomach.”
REASONS FOR GRILLING
That said, many people do just throw meat on the grill, joining those who consider it an art form. According to the 2020 “State of the Barbecue Industry” report from the Arlington, Va.-based Hearth, Patio and Barbecue Association, almost two-thirds of U.S. adults own a grill or smoker. Other research, from the recently released 2020 “Power of Meat” study, prepared by 210 Analytics LLC for FMI — the Food Industry Association and the Foundation for Meat & Poultry Research and Education — reveals that 50% of grill users cook on their grills sometimes, and 28% use them frequently.
Taste is the top reason that people venture outside their homes to grill or, in some cases, buy a range-top griller to use indoors. The “State of the Barbecue Industry” report shows that 68% of grill owners do so because of the flavor, while a third (33%) like the convenience aspect. To James Beard’s point, there’s an element of artisanship to it, too: 45% cited the grilling lifestyle, 32% said it’s because grilling is entertaining, and 19% noted that it’s one of their hobbies.
Grilling might be a millennia-tested way of cooking, but there are other, newer drivers for preparing food over an open flame or charcoal.
EQUIPPED TO GRILL
Just as there’s a greater variety of foods being grilled these days, there are more and different ways to cook meat over flame and smoke.
According to the Arlington, Va.-based Hearth, Patio and Barbecue Association, the majority of grill owners (61%) use gas grills, while the tried-and-true classic charcoal grill is used by 49% of grill owners, a number that’s actually up 4% since 2017, suggesting that people enjoy taking their time to use this outdoor method.
There are new types of grills that are attracting the attention of grilling aficionados, too. The survey found that 9% of grill owners have a natural gas grill, while 3% said they have a wood pellet grill.
The pellet grill has been getting some attention lately. The Food Network listed it as one of the top trends of 2020 because of its ease of use, “clean” way of cooking food, and the fact that people can use it to grill and smoke at the same time. (There’s even a name for this type of grillers: pellet heads.)
Indoor grilling is also catching on among year-round grilled-food fans. In addition to special built-in grilling cooktops, stand-alone, fumeless indoor grills are available from brands like Breville, Phillips and T-Fal.
While grocery stores might not sell indoor grills or larger outdoor grills, most do offer grilling supplies and accessories, from bags of charcoal and smoking chips to skewers, tongs and grill mitts.
“While the flavor, convenience and social aspect of grilling still remain key themes that will capture consumers’ attention, the power of influencers and social media continues to grow, bringing new engagement opportunities for brands and retailers to reach grillers,” says Rebecca Cullen, household care analyst for Chicago-based Mintel, commenting on the market research firm’s “2019 U.S. Grilling and Barbecuing Market Report.”
As the weather warms up — and with people largely cooking at home in the wake of restrictions related to the COVID-19 outbreak — expect more grills to be deployed as a way to get outside and enjoy some fresh air while still remaining at home base. Late spring and summer are high season for grilling as it is, with the “State of the Barbecue Industry Report” revealing that 56% of people plan to hold cookouts on Memorial Day, and 68% enjoy grilling on the Fourth of July. The other big grilling days of the season are Mother’s Day, Father’s Day and Labor Day.
As for what’s getting tossed, or, for that matter, artfully arranged, on the grill, mainstay items like burgers, hot dogs, steaks and chicken are still popular.
According to the Washington, D.C.-based National Hot Dog and Sausage Council, most Americans who prepare hot dogs like to make them on the grill, a method widely preferred over steaming, microwaving or pan-frying. In addition to burgers, a perennial favorite, sales of ribeye steaks and beef back ribs peak from May through September, based on data released by the Cattlemen’s Beef Board and National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, in Centennial, Colo.
More recently, shifts in consumer eating habits are affecting what types of burgers and other conventional cuts are going on the grill. In addition to beef burgers, consumers are grilling up all kinds of other patties, including those made from poultry, seafood and even plant-based ingredients.
For example, the Walburgers brand, created by Chef Paul Wahlberg and his famous actor brothers Mark and Donnie, in partnership with Bloomfield Hills, Mich.-based ARKK Food Co., offers fresh ground beef for hand forming as well as ready-to-use frozen patties. In addition to Angus Beef Original and Angus Beef Bacon, Cheddar and Jalapeno varieties, the frozen line also includes Turkey Burger Patties with Herb and Stuffing.
As consumers seek variety and health, seafood is also landing on grills, and not just shrimp on the barbie, as in the old Australian tourism commercial. John Livera, consulting chef for the Norwegian Seafood Council, whose U.S. office is in Boston, says that seafood can be an inventive twist on tradition. “In fact, most Norwegian fish can be formed into both savory hamburgers and unique hot dogs,” notes Livera, adding that whole seafood filets or seafood filet portions can be served on hamburger-style buns, while cubed, skewered and grilled salmon or steelhead trout can replace a frankfurter on a hot dog bun.
Seafood, like other proteins, also pairs well with the vegetables that are being grilled more often today as consumers seek healthier food choices. “A great way to incorporate more vegetables is to add grilled tomatoes, chilies, onions and garden-fresh zucchini in a bowl, and toss with some freshly chopped herbs and a splash of olive oil,” suggests Livera.
Speaking of veggies, while cauliflower “steaks” may not elicit the same sizzle and aroma as conventional beef steaks on a grill, such items are an option for the growing number of flexitarians, vegans and others seeking to add more plant-based proteins to their diets. As the 2020 “Power of Meat” report shows, sales of plant-based meat alternatives grew 11.8% to reach $760 million in 2019.
WINGING IT AT HOME
As consumers are rediscovering their cooking and grilling talents in the wake of stay-at-home orders in many parts of the country, many are looking to recreate favorite dishes that they’re missing from restaurants.
One example is chicken wings, which can be smoked or grilled at home. The Just BARE Chicken brand, for its part, has developed tips for consumers to make wings at home, starting with portioned Wingettes and Drummettes that can be seasoned using a basic marinade ratio of one part acid, one part oil, and one or two parts aromatics, with added herbs and spices.
Among other ideas, Greeley, Colo.-based Just BARE is offering recipes for Sriracha Spiced Sticky Wings, Blackberry-Chive Glazed Chicken Wings, Korean Marinated Chicken Wings, and Chipotle-Spiced Honey Garlic Wings with Pepper Jelly Dip.
Like brands based on animal proteins, plant-based food companies are using grilling season as a time to roll out or tout plant-based products that can be cooked outside. MorningStar Farms, for example, will introduce plant-based alt-meat items over the next few months under the new Incogmeato brand.
“Our burger patties, original bratwurst and Italian sausage are the first of many new plant-based foods coming this year from Incogmeato, so that people who are looking to sneak more plants on their plate can do so deliciously,” says Sara Young, general manager of plant-based proteins at Battle Creek, Mich.-based Kellogg Co., the parent company of MorningStar.
A plant-based brand striving to replicate the signature “snap” of traditional hot dogs is Chicago-based Upton’s Naturals, which has a vegan hot dog that it says mimics the taste and texture of the real deal, but is made from wheat-gluten seitan and other natural ingredients.
There’s another thing that retailers should bear in mind when marketing and merchandising the barbecue experience: The grills being fired up now and through an uncertain summer don’t really go cold when the weather turns. Around 75% of grill owners use their grills in the winter, according to the “State of the Barbecue Industry” report, with “off-season” grilling tending to spike on Thanksgiving, New Year’s Day and Super Bowl Sunday.