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  • Grilling Season Is Not Canceled

  • 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.

    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.

    Grilling might be a millennia-tested way of cooking, but there are other, newer drivers for preparing food over an open flame or charcoal.

    “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.

    What’s Cooking?

    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.

    Plant-Based Options

    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.

    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.

    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.