WARRENSVILLE HEIGHTS, Ohio -- Heinen's seafood departments saw sales of the retailer's branded grilling planks soar after a local TV news show plugged them on the air, officials told SN.
ABC affiliate WEWS-TV put the cedar planks in the spotlight as one of the station's reporters, Stefani Schaefer, coordinated a test by the Cleveland Fire Department to see whether the planks release harmful particles into the air as they heat up on the grill. The firefighters' verdict: the planks create a lot of smoke but pose no threat to clean air.
The test was conducted at a Cleveland restaurant just before the start of a long summer weekend. As it turned out, the timing was perfect, said Paul Solomon, the retailer's category manager/buyer for seafood, meat, deli, food service and bakery.
"The evening news getting involved was great," Solomon said. "It had to have helped our sales. Sales of the planks were already going wild, but we sold more that week than we had even anticipated. We thought we'd sell maybe 150 to 200 packages the week before the Fourth, but we sold more than 250. I've already put in an order for 60 more cases."
The planks -- 12 packages to a case -- with Heinen's name and logo burnt into them, are sourced from the National Seafood Educators Association, based in Richmond Beach, Wash.
Plank sales have sizzled since grilling season began, said Solomon, who credited associates for showing them off and promoting them to customers. Packages are displayed standing upright in baskets in front of the seafood counter and stacked on wine crates or tables. Some seafood departments also display a salmon fillet overwrapped on a plank.
A package of four small planks, measuring 4 by 9 inches, retails for $8.95. A two-pack of the larger size, 6 by 12 inches, retails for $4.95.
"We're going to be offering more grilling products, too. We've already added Captain H smoker cans with four different varieties of wood chips, and I've just ordered 60 cases of smoker bags," said Solomon, who believes in merchandising grilling items such as these in the stores' fresh departments.
Heinen's worked with National Seafood Educators to get the planks made with the Heinen's name and logo, and rolled them out in gift baskets last holiday season. [See "Heinen's Launches Seafood Baskets," SN, Dec. 6, 2004].
"We figured any way we can get our name in front of the customer is worth a try," Solomon said.
The durable planks can be used over and over if used correctly, NSEA Director Evie Hansen said.
"It's difficult to brand or get your name associated with fresh foods," she said. "This is one way to do it."
The NSEA, which can be reached at 1-800-348-0010, distributes the smoker cans and bags that Solomon described as well as grilling planks. Schnuck Markets, Saint Louis, and Rouses, Thibodaux, La., are among the retailers merchandising NSEA-sourced grilling items in their seafood departments.
In the spring, Heinen's showed all the company's seafood managers how to use the planks correctly at a cookout demo. That, Solomon said, proved to be a sales booster.
"Our corporate chef, Dan Durick, did the cooking, using our private-label rubs and the planks," Solomon said. "He explained that the planks must be soaked at least 30 minutes so they won't burn and also so they'll impart maximum flavor.
"Naturally, everybody got to eat what was grilled, and they liked it," he said.
Seafood as well as plank sales jumped significantly after the cooking event, he added.
From mid-May to mid-June this year, the company sold 675 packages of planks. Several years ago, Heinen's tried selling them in the grocery aisle without success.
"People didn't know how to use them," Solomon said. "Now, they've seen them on cooking shows and have read about them in magazines."
With that in mind, one of Heinen's seafood suppliers, an Alaska wild salmon cooperative, wants to jump on the bandwagon, Solomon said.
"They're having planks made with their Kenai Wild name and logo on them," he said. "I think we'll do some promoting with them.
"Maybe we'll do it with a purchase of 2 pounds of salmon," he added. "If you buy 2 pounds, you get a free Kenai Wild grilling plank."
Solomon is sticking with cedar for Heinen's logo planks this year but said he may introduce a variety pack next year containing alder, cherry and hickory, as well as cedar planks.