Retailers, looking for ways to build a fire under lamb and veal sales, are finding demos, point-of-sale information and good pricing work to stoke the flames.
Showing customers how to prepare these less-familiar meats and, better yet, giving them a taste, and then handing them a recipe, could certainly help, said Jack Gridley, meat/seafood director at three-unit Dorothy Lane Markets, Dayton, Ohio.
Gridley reports that since the upscale retailer launched a grill-to-order program near the meat and seafood departments at a new store [see "Grill Station Heats Up Seafood, Meat Sales," SN, July 29, 2002] lamb and veal sales are up at that store and he believes it's because customers see the chef cooking lamb and veal chops.
"The grill is in the open, so visible. They may have ordered a steak, but they see our chef grilling a 2-inch thick lamb loin chops or a veal chop for somebody else and they see it's easy, and quick. They get used to the idea, and we also do demos throughout the day at the grill," Gridley said.
He sees great benefit for Dorothy Lane in offering good, trimmed cuts of lamb and veal.
"They're profitable and they differentiate us from the competition," he said, but noted there's a lot of educating to be done, especially when it comes to the less-expensive cuts. "The price of racks has been pretty high and our overall tonnage [of lamb and veal] has stayed pretty much the same. We [as an industry] can't just keep processing lamb and veal for loin and racks. We have to let customers know that shoulder and blade chops are good, too," he said.
Customers buy what they're exposed to in restaurants, and Gridley believes restaurants will get around to making those cuts more popular, particularly because they'll see the tremendous potential for profit. The retail meat veteran cited flank steak as an example of a protein that is today in high demand at both the retail and food-service levels because restaurants made it trendy. At least on the East Coast, restaurant menus feature lamb more often these days.
"On this visit to New York, I saw lamb on every menu -- at Artisanal, Gramercy Tavern, Prune, the best restaurants," said Australian Peter Howard, an internationally known chef and the author of 11 cookbooks.
"I kept seeing braised shoulder as well as grilled loin, even on lunch menus. That's a huge difference from five or six years ago. I used to be [in New York] and never see it, never on a lunch menu," Howard told SN.
At Fairway Markets, New York, meat director Ray Venezia said he's making the most of the public's growing interest in lamb and veal. But he, too, said consumers need to be reminded of the meats' attributes. He does that with ads, in-store materials and a quarterly newsletter.
"This summer, I went at it from a total health aspect. We told people, 'It's time to turn your grill back on.' It's been a fat issue. They're just not buying as much beef these days. So they don't enjoy the grill because they can't throw enough on it. Let's face it, it's difficult to keep chicken from drying out on a grill. It has to be watched too closely. But now they can throw some veal chops and lamb on there, just like they would a steak. They can feel confident the meat isn't high in fat, it's tasty and they can sink their teeth into it. That's what grilling is all about, sinking your teeth in," Venezia said.
He coordinated Fairway's veal and lamb ads around July 4th and the Labor Day weekend.
One Fairway ad for veal chops at a special price of $6.99 a pound, started out with, "The skinny on these chops is...," emphasizing that veal is a lean alternative to beef. Venezia said he pushed veal this summer because he has a new supplier that's providing him with "a wonderful product, the best I've tasted." But butterflied legs and half legs of lamb had a good showing this summer, too, he said. "They're great on the grill. It's equivalent to throwing a London broil on there, but it's lamb. At $3.99 a pound, customers see it's not going to kill their pocketbooks, so they'll try it."
Fairway carries both domestic lamb and all-natural, grass-fed lamb from Australia, and Venezia's consumer education efforts have paid off, he said. In the past two years, he's seen sales of lamb and veal combined rise at least 20%.
"We attribute that to giving people more information, just better marketing on our part and on the part of the industry," Venezia said.
Several retailers in the Midwest and Northwest said lamb and veal just don't move in their areas. While some noted price as a possible sales inhibitor, others said a lot of people just haven't tasted it and apparently don't want to.
"They've grown up with beef, and they know how to cook it. They don't have to look for something different," said a meat manager at a small chain in the Midwest.
An Oregon retailer said, "There's a whole generation, my generation, that just doesn't know how good lamb tastes. They think of mutton when they think of lamb. We have to show them lamb today is just excellent."
Knowing that consumers in many pockets of the country don't know how to use those varieties of meat they're less familiar with, some of the large chains -- like Albertsons -- took explicit measures this year to educate customers about veal when they expanded distribution of the protein to most of their stores across the country.
They implemented Veal Made Easy, an expansion of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association's Beef Made Easy program, which sorts cuts in the display case by cooking method. The NCBA's color-coded materials catch consumers' attention at the point of sale, and peel-back stickers on each package of meat give step-by-step cooking instructions.
Publix Supermarkets, Lakeland, Fla., and Winn-Dixie, Jacksonville, Fla., also made good use of the Veal Made Easy POS materials this summer, NCBA sources and veal processors told SN.
Albertsons, in its Texas division, brought in fresh, local lamb this summer, making Ranchers' Lamb of Texas, San Angelo, its exclusive source. With the help of the processor and the Texas Department of Agriculture, the chain kicked off its new selection of case-ready lamb with an ad in the Dallas Morning News.
The colorful ad showed packs of fresh ground lamb, loin chops, rib chops and shoulder chops, under the headline, "Albertsons Proudly Presents Ranchers' Lamb of Texas."
The division's 250 stores all are carrying the depicted items as well as lamb shanks. For the winter months, Albertsons' Texas stores will add lamb stew and kabobs.
The lamb grower/processor, which also supplies Fiesta Mart, Houston, and all of San Antonio-based H.E. Butt's stores, said demographics can make a big difference in how much lamb a store sells. At H-E-B's upscale Central Markets, for instance, lamb is a standout.
"Sales there are much, much better than I had expected. At each of the Central Markets, we easily sell 300% more product than we do at any traditional supermarket, including H-E-B's regular stores. I guess the lamb eaters shop at Central Market," said a source at the processor.
Especially since cultivating lamb and veal sales in traditional stores can be challenging -- very much so in the Midwest -- demoing, adding lamb dishes to the prepared-foods menu and getting the product on the shelf at an attractive price help acquaint customers with the products, retailers told SN.
Price has undoubtedly made the difference in whether customers will try lamb, or buy it more often, one mass merchandiser has found.
"I'm selling more volume and more dollars' worth [of lamb] because we've lowered the price significantly. I think more people are buying it because we made it affordable," said Doug Holbrook, senior meat buyer, at Costco, Issaquah, Wash., a chain that has more than 200 stores across the country.
"I've been able to negotiate better prices through a more direct line to the supply source, and we're passing [the savings] on to our customers. We're not doing anything else to promote it. It's just sheer price point," Holbrook said, adding that Costco carries only Australian lamb.
In some supermarkets, the meat department is getting help from its chefs or the deli/food-service department when it comes to familiarizing customers with lamb.
The chef team at a Kroger Co. unit in a trendy part of Louisville, Ky., recently introduced braised lamb shanks to its prepared-foods menu with success.
"They have it frequently now and I see a lot of people buying it," said a local source who shops at that Kroger store on a regular basis.