Consumers are splurging on specialty sauces that pack a powerful punch
The judges were deadlocked.
After tasting three variations of barbecue sauce fashioned after best-selling brand Montgomery Inn, Dorothy Lane Market's testers could not agree on a favorite for its new store brand.
A group comprising mostly Dayton, Ohio, natives was stuck on a sweet version, while an equal number wouldn't budge on their favorite: a spicy, smoky and bolder, Texas-style sauce.
Although DLM corporate chef Carrie Walters counted herself among the latter group, she did what any self-respecting chef would: Headed back to the drawing board to combine elements of the two.
“Kind of like if [sauce] A and B had a baby,” she told SN.
That did the trick. And after gaining testers' approval, DLM's new barbecue sauce, packaged in old-fashioned water jugs, hit shelves in January.
“It's done pretty well,” said Walters of the sauce whose summer sales will determine whether her plans for a spicier, chipotle-version will come to fruition.
Similar scenarios are playing out across the country as retailers scramble to bring high-end store brands to market. In fact, more than one in five retailers (23.6%) polled in May as part of SN's survey of Center Store performance reported plans for specialty private-label introductions within the next 12 months.
A recent Information Resources Inc. Times & Trends report confirms that in spite of the recession there is an audience for high-end fare. It found that 16% of shoppers are splurging on premium and gourmet products on a regular basis.
Although these consumers are willing to put their money where there tastes are, their spending shouldn't be interpreted as freewheeling. Instead these shoppers are staying within budget by purchasing their favorite national brands in value channels, and turning to premium corporate brands. The trend is especially evident when it comes to meal components used to feed guests in the home.
“When entertaining, consumers aren't willing to take the inexpensive way out; they're trying to impress, trying to meet the tastes of their guests,” said Susan Viamari, editor of IRI's Times & Trends report.
Such is the case at St. Louis-based Straub's, an upscale five-store chain that caters to gourmands via high-end flavor enhancers like Earth & Vine Pineapple Sake Teriyaki, Paula Deen Vidalia Onion Peach Grilling Marinade, and Andria's Steak Sauce.
These are among the best-selling branded varieties there, but shoppers are more readily sopping up barbecue sauces and marinades that bear the Straub's label, said gourmet food buyer Roger McElroy.
In fact, dollar sales of store brands grew 15% during the last year. That's 10 percentage points higher than overall category growth. The retailer's upward momentum mirrors the national trend.
During the 52 weeks ending May 17, unit sales of private-label barbecue sauce were up 16%, while overall category volume grew by just 1.9% in the food channel, according to IRI.
McElroy attributes the popularity of Straub's sauce to the fact that he's featured it more often this year than in years past. Regularly selling for about $5, Straub's Smooth and Spicy, and other varieties are promoted for about $3.99.
“I've probably put them on sale two or three times more than I have during previous years,” he said.
Wegmans Food Markets is also aggressively promoting its store-brand sauce.
The chain is so confident in its line of regional, Wegmans-brand barbecue sauces, that it recently featured Wegmans Memphis Style BBQ Sauce, Kansas City Style BBQ Sauce, Asian BBQ Sauce and Tropical BBQ Sauce on an endcap for $1.99 each.
“Talented chefs like ours are constantly coming up with ways to spice up the dinner table,” says Wegmans in promotional materials. “So the next time barbecue is on your menu, slather on this chef-developed sauce.”
Flavor enhancers like these are among the categories benefiting from at-home eating trends, not just because they require a minimal investment relative to restaurant meals. They also pack a powerful punch when their flavor contribution and price are compared with other do-it-yourself meal components.
Take, for instance, the cost of an Ancho Chile rub that makes up about 6% of a barbecue budget, estimated Ron Tanner, vice president for communication and education at the National Association for the Specialty Food Trade.
“It may be just the thing that's really different that people will remember from the event,” he said.
Unique flavor profiles that draw on familiar ingredients like fruit and coffee are helping to leave a lasting impression.
In its 2009 Flavor Forecast, McCormick projected that a cayenne and tart cherry pairing would be among the most popular flavor combinations this year.
“The pairing goes so well in barbecue sauce and adds a whole new dimension,” McCormick spokeswoman Laurie Harrsen told SN. “It's so much more powerful than just knock-your-socks-off heat; this gives you some heat and some tart.”
McElroy noted that sauces drawing on similar combinations are moving quickly from his shelves. They include Brownwood Farms' cherry barbecue sauce, Straub's-brand peach marinade and Tulocay's Steak Sauce with Peaches.
DLM's Walters has added similar flavors to recipes that incorporate her sauce. As part of a recent Boys Night Out class that she describes as “a man, a can and his grill,” she demonstrated a recipe for Cherry Coke baby back ribs. It combines the carbonated soft drink with DLM's new store-brand barbecue sauce.
Manufacturers are also adding coffee and chipotles to grilling sauces for a smokier taste.
Tanner noted that consumers are becoming more appreciative of unique flavors like these.
“People aren't just looking for something that's going to be drowned in barbecue sauce,” he said. “It just doesn't taste as good as something with a lot of distinctive flavors.”
Since restaurant-quality sauces and seasonings aren't easily replicated at home, retailers should make using store-bought varieties easy on shoppers.
Viamari suggests bundling proteins and sauces, or providing quick and easy recipe ideas.
“Consumers aren't looking to spend all of their time cooking from scratch,” she said.
DLM does this by positioning its store-brand Jack's Grill sauces in the meat section, Walters said. The three-year-old line is named for DLM's meat and seafood director, Jack Gridley, and features Honey Ginger Teriyaki and Apricot Brandy Sauce varieties.
Tanner agrees that promoting simplicity is key.
“It's a lot easier to buy something that has eight spices in it that's already made up than to go buy the eight spices, measure them out by teaspoon and try to make it up yourself.”
Wegmans aims to eliminate some of the guesswork by offering sauce suggestions to consumers before they've even reached the store.
Recent circulars have paired up proteins like Organic Grass-Fed Beef Strip Steak with Wegmans Chimichurri Sauce; Uncooked, Peeled & Deveined Shrimp with Wegmans Citrus Soy Sauce; and Center Cut Boneless Pork Chops with Wegmans Roasted Sweet Pepper Sauce.