Retailers are taking the guesswork out of cooking meat.
Ready-to-cook proteins, store demonstrations, marinating options and cooking advice are among the products and services retailers are using to shed light on one of the supermarket's most puzzling departments.
"Many people are time-starved so they're limited in their ability to cook meats," said Randy Irion, director of retail marketing for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, Centennial, Colo. "Anything that takes consumers one step closer to making a great meal is a good idea."
Three-store independent Dorothy Lane Market has been making meat convenient for the past 15 years. The Dayton, Ohio-based chain offers ready-to-cook items created in-house and, according to the retailer's website, couldn't make meat preparation any easier unless DLM went to shoppers' homes and turned on their ovens for them.
"Customers are looking for new and different things to fix and these provide excitement and are quick and easy," said meat and seafood director Jack Gridley. "We've got people buying [the meats] 52 weeks out of the year."
DLM's high-end offerings include Italian delicacies like meatballs made from hot Italian sausage and ground chuck rolled with garlic, onion, Parmesan cheese, Italian flatleaf parsley, Italian bread crumbs and egg. There's also Arista Pronta di Cuocere, which is cradled boneless pork loin seasoned with fresh garlic and rosemary. Also on the menu: Fagottini di Pollo, boneless chicken thighs seasoned with salt, pepper, fresh rosemary and garlic; Petto di Tacchino, boneless, skinless turkey breast stuffed with garlic, basil and fennel; and Monastici, boneless eye-of-round thinly sliced and rolled with mozzarella cheese and prosciutto.
These and other value-added meats are displayed together in the retailer's service meat counters, while its Chef's Express value-added offerings can be found in Dorothy Lane's self-service meat case. At any given time, the retailer features about 40 ready-to-cook items, Gridley said. All are made in-house.
Chef's Express items include beef kabobs for $10.99 per pound, Cajun marinated chicken breast for $6.99 a pound, Sicilian-style flank steak, $9.99 per pound, and stuffed butterfly pork chops, $5.99 per pound.
The best-selling items are closely guarded by Gridley. "This is the one category I want to keep mum on," he said.
The retailer encourages customers to try the products by offering samples at weekly demonstrations. On a recent weekend, shoppers tasted the retailer's stuffed boneless Cornish hens.
"We try to produce these meats as quickly to the time of sale as possible," said Gridley, who noted the perishability issues are no different with value-added meats than with fresh meats. "These items will deteriorate visually before they will from a food safety standpoint."
Lakeland, Fla.-based Publix Super Markets provides a selection of items that the retailer promises will turn out the same whether the customer cooking it is a seasoned chef or just a beginner.
"Our goal is to have a good selection that includes traditional favorites along with varieties that customers may not be familiar with," said Publix spokeswoman Maria Brous. "The cooking directions are right on these packages so there is nothing to be afraid of."
Shish kebabs, marinated flank steaks and stuffed pork chops are just a few of the ready-to-cook items that Publix prepares in-house. Best sellers vary by location, according to Brous.
Shoppers looking for a more adventurous experience in the kitchen can take part in the Apron's program that's designed to help busy customers discover, or rediscover, the joys of cooking. Recipes featured in the program take as little as 15 minutes to prepare and in-store demonstrations make it convenient for customers to watch, taste and learn about the week's featured recipe, according to Publix.
"First, our in-house chefs create and perfect the recipe, then we print up recipe cards and have actual in-store cooking demonstrations," Brous said. "All of the recipes have a prep time of 30 minutes or less."
The ingredients used to prepare the week's featured meal recipe are merchandised together near the cooking demonstration kiosk.
"Most often, meat or seafood is the recipe's main attraction and it's prepared with a side dish like couscous or rice," Brous said. "The demonstrations occur around high-traffic times and near the dinner hour. The program helps people who are conscious of time but still want to prepare a meal for their family."
Apron's has featured recipes for dishes as sophisticated as grilled prime rib with sautTed mushrooms and baked steak fries, roast leg of lamb with garlic mashed potatoes and green beans with tomato, and veal in champagne with pesto couscous and asparagus.
Shoppers who want to take a more independent approach to cooking can rely on store associates who've been trained to demystify the preparation and cooking processes. "They know how to cook the meats and what types of meat work best in which recipes," Brous said.
At the service counters, shoppers ask the most questions about preparing steaks.
"Customers ask more questions about beef, like skirt steaks and flank steaks," Brous said. "They want to know which are best for stir fry or grilling." Publix merchandises marinades and breading for meats on islands in the meat departments.
Safeway's revamped "lifestyle" store in North Boulder, Colo., caters to time-pressed shoppers with a wide assortment of ready-to-cook products. SN observed an extensive selection, including Butcher's Cut brand beef flank pinwheel steak for $7.99 per pound and boneless stuffed pork chops for $6.99 per pound. Shoppers also can have fresh cuts of meat marinated for free. Associates at the store's 34-foot meat service counter are available to advise customers on which wet or dry marinades will work best with the meats they've selected. The meat and its marinade are then placed in a heavy-duty, plastic sealable bag to prevent spillage.
The marinade service is also available for seafood at the store's 28-foot seafood service counter. Shoppers can have the shellfish that they intend to buy steamed at the seafood counter at no additional cost. Consumers can also pick up cooking tips at the store's Culinary Center, which is equipped with a full working kitchen that's used to demonstrate recipes for meat and seafood. Each weekend, advanced student chefs from a local culinary school present the demonstrations that incorporate cooking tools that are also sold in the store. The recipe's ingredients are merchandised together on the cooking station and recipe cards are distributed to shoppers.
Perhaps even more so than meat, fresh seafood can be intimidating to home cooks.
"Eighty percent of seafood is sold in restaurants," Mike Remington, seafood field merchandiser at Safeway, told SN last month at the store's grand reopening. "A lot of people are terrified when it comes to cooking seafood and marinating it at home."
Perhaps no other market has as much demand for convenience than the Big Apple. FreshDirect, the online grocer that makes home deliveries in New York City, introduced value-added meats last summer, and officials have been pleased with the response so far.
"Our market base is comprised of busy people, but a good percentage of them want to cook but they don't have the time," said David McInerney, senior vice president of merchandising and new product development. "Before, they were purchasing cooked foods that they'd heat up, but now we're taking them a step further. These foods can be cooked in a really minimal amount of time with really high results."
Since rolling out ready-to-cook meats, the retailer has built up the category. It's become "substantially stronger than regular [uncooked] meats," McInerney said.
FreshDirect's ready-to-cook menu includes Chinese-style glazed pork tenderloin, $6.99 per pound, sirloin steak pallard for $7.99 per pound, and a full rack of grill-ready ribs for $17.99 each. The strongest sellers - a line of marinated skirt steaks that are designed for the indoor and balcony barbecues of apartment dwellers - retail for $9.99 a pound.
"Sales of those have just exploded," McInerney said. "The [skirt steaks] really absorb flavor."
A line of marinated and breaded chicken breasts and fresh dining meals, which include raw meats and vegetables required to make dishes like chicken teriyaki and Thai shrimp, have recently been introduced. The meals' packaging uses a steam-valve system to help transform the raw ingredients into a fully cooked entree in five minutes in the microwave. They sell for between $6.99 and $9.99.
The retailer plans to add new products, including a line of flavored, premium hamburgers scheduled for rollout next month.
"The fresh dining meals are selling even better than the value-added meats," McInerney said. "But sales of the value-added meats will absolutely increase when the summertime rolls around. That's when [the category] experiences the largest amount of growth."