Cook-offs, contests, burgers at long-ago prices -- even a World's Fair reenactment in a parking lot -- are some of the ways retailers will be marking the centennial of the hamburger -- and selling a lot of ground beef.
There are a lot of stories about how the hamburger sandwich originated but all of them place the birth of the all-American favorite at the 1904 World's Fair in St. Louis. That's why Springfield, Mo.-based Ramey/Price Cutter has scheduled a fair-like event in one of its parking lots to commemorate the burger centennial.
"I think we'll even rent a machine to make cotton candy, and we'll certainly be grilling hamburgers all day," said Terry Eacret, director of perishables at the 32-unit chain. "We're doing this at one of our largest stores and it's in a great location, right at a major intersection. We're trying to make a fair-like atmosphere with a dunk tank to dunk local celebrities, and a [beanbag] hamburger toss, that sort of thing. We're going to try to get the Shriners to maybe give us some clowns."
Another Missouri-based independent is having celebratory 100th anniversary hamburger cook-offs in the parking lots of all its stores this month, in combination with a one-day sale of ground beef at a very hot price, a source there told SN.
Meanwhile, at C&R Supermarkets, Macon, Mo., a hamburger recipe contest will get into full swing two weeks before the Memorial Day weekend. Drop boxes will be positioned in the meat departments and at the customer-service desk in all 12 C&R units.
A colorful "Celebrate the 100th Anniversary of the Hamburger" poster will invite customers to submit a recipe for their favorite hamburger. Winners will get a $100 gift certificate to be used at the store.
It seems only fitting to lavish attention on the burger's big birthday since ground beef is the mainstay of the meat case. Not only that, but it can be a tremendous draw into the store. In fact, one retailer told SN that when he drops ground beef prices to cost or a little below, and promotes it in his ad circular, he more than doubles the store's traffic volume.
"It's a good thing to feature. It brings people in and every department benefits. The last time we featured ground beef in a big way like that, we had a lot more business in deli -- in fact, tripled sales of some items. Bakery, actually all departments, had big increases," he said.
A representative of Associated Wholesale Grocers, too, stressed that ground beef is a mighty traffic builder.
"Just about everybody buys ground beef. It's universal, all year round. It makes up probably 24% to 25% of our total beef sales, and beef is 40% of meat case sales. It's certainly the mainstay of ads, and this year, the 100th anniversary of the hamburger gives retailers terrific opportunities to call extra attention to it -- cross merchandising and running promotions like 'buy two pounds, get a package of buns,"' said Mike Cucchiara, director, meat merchandising, at AWG's Kansas City, Kan., division, which services 328 independents in the Midwest.
A lot of fairly recent happenings have added to ground beef's popularity, SN's sources said. For example, the hamburger made at home became an easy, quick meal with the advent of the George Foreman Grill.
He theorized that the Foreman Grill, the increased popularity of outdoor grilling, and the ever-present, delicious-looking burgers in fast-food ads have had a big hand in increasing retail's ground beef sales by at least 20% over the last five to 10 years.
"In fact, ground beef represents 60% of beef-eating at home, and the hamburger sandwich is the No. 1 way people use ground beef," said Randy Irion, director of retail marketing at Boulder, Colo.-based National Cattlemen's Beef Association.
Statistics show that while the total number of pounds of beef sold last year was somewhat down during the usually strong third quarter compared to that period a year earlier -- probably because of prices -- ground beef was down the least, at minus 0.7%.
"Ad activity on ground beef was 17% higher than the same period a year before. I think retailers saw featuring it as an opportunity, because with price increases of last year, it was still a very good value," Irion said.
"We have seen sales increases in ground beef year after year, and, thanks to menu staples like the hamburger, we can only project that the trend will continue. Now people are eating hamburgers without the bun!" said Cy Jansen, vice president of meat merchandising, at 100-unit Schnuck Markets, St. Louis.
"Fast-food restaurants have helped to increase the hamburger's popularity by making it a convenience item for many people, but ground beef is a strong seller in the grocery industry. Ground beef is our largest fresh meat category at Schnuck."
In fact, throughout a typical day, Schnuck stores grind 80,000 pounds of fresh beef, and in one year, the company sells the equivalent of 120 million quarter-pounders, officials at the family-owned chain said.
Another St. Louis retailer, who concurred ground beef is a mainstay, said his company would probably do something to commemorate the burger's birth further into grilling season.
"We don't do the price-war thing, but we'll do something on our own to mark the anniversary," said Bob Schierding, meat director at four-unit Straub's Markets.
Several retailers have tied their anniversary events tightly into the community, involving chambers of commerce and local charities or local branches of charities.
At Ramey/Price Cutter, for instance, proceeds from the fair will go to the local food bank and other local charities, said Dawn Thurnau, marketing director of the Columbia-based Missouri Beef Council, which is an affiliate of NCBA. The council is coordinating the retailer's May 22 event, offering all kinds of help as well as donating the ground beef. They'll be donating posters and banners, and running contests.
One contest will pit the three top beanbag-hamburger tossers against each other in a race to assemble a grill. Each will get to keep the grill, and the winner will get a Memorial Day weekend party for 20, put on by the council.
Meanwhile, the Missouri Beef Council's counterpart in Nebraska is ready to kick off "Beef Bashes" at seven independents who belong to Affiliated Food Stores of Nebraska. There, one day this week huge parking lot banners will be proclaiming, "Help Celebrate the Hamburger's 100th Anniversary," and grilled burgers will be featured in parking lots.
"From a marketing standpoint, the 100th anniversary is something you can run with, and we are," said Ann Marie Bosshamer, director of marketing for the Nebraska Beef Council, Kearney, another NCBA affiliate. She's coordinating the retailer events.
At one grocer in particular -- Graybeal's Foods, a single-unit independent in West Point, Neb. -- Bosshamer expects the crowds to be immense.
"This retailer is very well liked in the community and we'll be selling a hamburger, chips and pop for $1. All of it for a $1. I'm betting we'll serve well over 1,000 people at that store, and it's in a small, rural town of only about 500 to 600 people."
The NCBA, which has partnered with Sutter Home Winery the last few years in a "Build A Better Burger" contest, is centering its contest ads and point-of-sale materials this year around a 1904 World's Fair theme with ferris wheels and the like in the background.
"The hamburger's 100th anniversary gives us one more handle to promote the most popular item we sell," NCBA's Irion said.
All the hoopla in retailers' parking lots and stores is, for the most part, scheduled for this month.
Right now, radio spots and newspaper inserts as well as front-of-the-store banners and ad circulars are alerting consumers to what's going to be happening.
Ramey/Price Cutter's May 19 ad circular, for instance, will devote most of its front page to a huge photograph of a juicy-looking hamburger overflowing with lettuce, tomato and onions. The headline invites customers to "Celebrate the Hamburger's 100th Anniversary," and there are special prices listed, not just for ground beef, but for all the trimmings, too.
"It's all on sale: the lettuce, tomatoes, mustard, ketchup, anything you could possibly put on a hamburger," Ramey/Price Cutter's Eacret said.