Exotic meats remain a small, niche category, but retailers that market and sample these items say they can help a meat department stand out
Thrill-seeking carnivores have a lot to look forward to this grilling season, with a growing number of supermarkets now stocking a wide variety of exotic meats, from buffalo to alligator. Although the exotics segment remains a tiny player in the conventional supermarket channel, many retailers are attempting to differentiate themselves by providing a one-stop shop for customers looking to try something new, something healthier, or something called for in a traditional ethnic recipe.
“We have an extensive exotic meats section here,” said Scott Severs, meat manager for Jungle Jim's, Fairfield, Ohio.
“It's been probably 12 to 13 years since we really started getting into it, and it's just grown every year. We sell tons of exotic meat.”
Jungle Jim's offers meats such as buffalo, venison, kangaroo, alligator and ostrich, according to Severs, who described the products as a staple of the company's meat departments. Most selections are frozen, with the exception of ground buffalo, which is sold fresh. During the holidays, however, the huge independent sells a lot of fresh venison as well, because there is a higher demand for it then, Severs said.
Rattlesnake is extremely popular, Severs said, as well as ostrich eggs, but both are limited in availability.
Buffalo and venison are the most popular exotics at Bristol Farms Markets, El Segundo, Calif., although Pete Davis, senior director of meat, seafood and sushi, said that in general, the category doesn't move very quickly.
“Typically, the two things that sell are buffalo and venison, and they're kind of hit-and-miss,” Davis told SN. “If you do a feature on them or something, you get a little action, but it's also sort of an out of sight, out of mind thing.”
Bristol Farms offers many species through special order, such as alligator, rattlesnake, emu and others.
Giant Eagle, Pittsburgh, offers a wide selection of exotic meats, including farm-raised venison; rabbit; buffalo meat in the form of steaks, ground patties, bacon and hot dogs; boar sausage and bacon; Peking duck; duck breast, bacon and hot dogs; and quail and other game hens.
Sprouts Farmers Markets, Phoenix, currently offers frozen buffalo year-round and periodically offers fresh buffalo.
“We also sell whole ducks, game hens and geese year-round,” said Ken Swanson, meat expert at Sprouts.
“Although [exotics] will never over take standard beef, pork or chicken, it is becoming a viable category.”
Buffalo appears to be one of the most popular of the exotic meats, according to industry executives.
Bashas', Ukrop's and Publix all carry buffalo, and Publix may be adding additional varieties on top of its cubed steak and ground versions because of growing popularity, Maria Brous, spokeswoman for Publix, said.
The upcoming Fourth of July holiday presents an opportunity for retailers to promote their exotic meat offerings, according to industry experts.
Bristol Farms plans to run a promotion on buffalo tritips, which are very popular, as well as on ground buffalo and buffalo sausage, known as prairie sausage, from a local vendor, Davis said.
“We do a four-page color insert or direct mail, and we have a little box in there that talks about the ground buffalo, the sausage and the tri-tip. And, of course, [we also use] in-store signage.”
Jungle Jim's always puts buffalo patties in its ads during all of the grilling holidays in order to offer its shoppers something different, and sells a lot of them as a result, Severs said.
Giant Eagle's Market Stores are featuring D'Artagnan beef, pork, buffalo, duck hot dogs and ground buffalo patties.
“For our Fourth of July promotion, we are promoting only in our stores with signage and sampling,” said Ed Steinmetz, vice president of meat and seafood, Giant Eagle.
“We do advertise our exotic offerings at times in our monthly newsletter.”
Michelle Barry, president of research consultancy Tinderbox, Bellevue, Wash., said she believes the Fourth of July holiday presents a better occasion for consumers to experiment with exotic meats than others, such as Thanksgiving or Christmas. Still, duck and venison can prove to be popular fall and winter holiday meat alternatives among some consumers, according to retailers.
“I think that if there's any occasion, [the Fourth of July] is probably one of them that tends to be social and a little more playful, and there's not as much risk as if you were trying to sit down for a really fancy Thanksgiving dinner, or an intimate Christmas Eve meal,” Barry said.
“There's much more fun — more room to mess it up and play and have some other alternatives on the grill along with the exotic meats.”
Exotic meats aren't necessarily top-of-mind for most shoppers, Barry noted. Most shoppers are fine with the standard diet of chicken, beef and pork. But, there are many ways that retailers could promote the category more aggressively.
“Right now, consumers don't seem to have a real problem with meat. There's not a lot to solve, so what you're looking at are finer points of distinction,” Barry said.
“So if retailers can communicate very specifically the differences in flavor and/or health and nutrition benefits, they'll be more likely to be successful in terms of a more rapid adoption.
Since many exotic species, including venison and buffalo, tend to be leaner than beef, some of the contemporary food trends are right in alignment with exotic meats, Barry added.
“Consumers seem pretty content with meat overall as a category, so retailers will need to be more aggressive and clear about their reasons to try [exotics]. It's probably more along the lines of health and taste.”
Retailers SN talked to agreed that health is one of the leading factors driving consumer interest in certain exotic meats like buffalo, which is naturally leaner than beef.
“This category has shown some growth, driven by buffalo,” said Tom Buttes, meat buyer at Bashas'. “I would attribute the increase in sales to a growing concern about reducing cholesterol.”
Severs of Jungle Jim's said he also believes health is a factor in consumer interest in buffalo.
“It's real lean, it's real healthy; I think a lot of people are leaning toward the buffalo and the venison, things like that — especially the ground products — for health reasons,” he said.
Swanson said he believes Sprouts' exotic meat consumers “are generally eating healthier and are looking for leaner, unique meat alternatives.”
“We have seen positive response in this category overall — not just in sales, but also with customer feedback,” Swanson said.
“The exotic customer is usually educated on the nutritional attributes of the cuts they're seeking, and therefore do not have many questions, besides wanting to know if you can stock or order a particular item.”
Barry said retailers could generate more interest in the category by ensuring that their consumers are in fact educated about these benefits and are familiar with how to cook exotic meats.
“It's not that consumers aren't highly experimental today, and wanting to try new things and delight in new experiences — they often just don't know how to go about doing it,” Barry said.
Steinmetz told SN that sampling and education improved sales at Giant Eagle.
“The response at first was a bit slow, due to the unfamiliarly of product,” Steinmetz said. “We are seeing improving sales as we sample product and educate our consumers.”
Jungle Jim's recently had a demo to introduce a new brand of buffalo patties, elk sausage, wild boar and more.
“We went through a lot of samples, because people were really interested in seeing how it tasted,” Severs said.
“Not everybody bought it, but everybody tasted it. So people are actually curious and becoming a little more adventurous.