BBQ & Marinades: Betting on the barbecue

Do not mention the words 'barbecue summer' certainly not to people seriously affected by expectations of a hot, dry period last year only to experience another grey, drizzly damp squib. It might have been a PR disaster at the Met Office, but for those who depend on barbecues for their growth gas-burning and charcoal sellers and marinade companies it was a major financial hit.

Rectory Foods, the Cheshire-based supplier of meat to supermarkets, foodservice and butchers experienced a 22% dip in sales of chicken portions over the middle period of 2009. "Last summer never really got going," says MD Nick Bowyer. "We saw a drop in barbecue-type cuts and they didn't recover. Prices then got depressed, with the retailers not having a particularly good time, and then the discounting started on cuts of poultry. Levels have only recently got back to normal."

Butchers did not escape either. Alan Dye, owner of Scotts in Carshalton, was cooking a barbecue at a sports ground in suburban Surrey when he was caught in a downpour that left him drenched amid the squelchy mud of Sutton Arena, and the dripping marquee tents. There was also the small matter of 2,000 fewer people than expected turning up. "I got absolutely soaked," says Dye, "and Sutton council, who bought all the meat, were left significantly out of pocket. At these large do's you're dependent on the weather and lots of meat went to waste."

So there is a lot hanging on a rather better summer in 2010, with manufacturers of barbecue sauces, and butchers all part of a £7bn industry (Kantar Worldpanel). However, in the wake of the botched barbecue prediction last year, the Met Office has scrapped long-range forecasts, so if you want to plan your outdoor business for 2010, either hope for the best or look at what Surrey-based forecasters Netweather, using latest data from the US National Weather Service, and with Michael Fish on staff, are predicting. They reckon there will be flooding throughout the country in June yes that again. The Met Office actually let slip back in December, before it closed the long-range forecast facility, that 2010 would be the hottest year since records began 160 years ago, but this doesn't discount the possibility of rain, just that temperatures will be high. So both could be true a hot, wet period just to muck up barbecue plans nicely.

So you would expect operators such as Dye, a butcher expanding his business into outside catering, to move back into retailing. But in fact, he recently invested in five industrial barbecues and has forward-bookings for events this year. Last year he took 40% of his sales from outside catering. Is this over-confidence or a clever strategy? The barbecue is not exactly in major growth in the UK. According to Mintel, outside grilling occasions have gone up just 10m in four years. In 2007 they even fell, to 93m from 110m, recovered a bit in 2008, up to 103m and rose a bit more in 2009, to 120m.

Yet Brian George, president of the National Barbecue Association, waves away such talk. "The summers in 2007 and 2008 were terrible, but it's not as if the market halved on us," he says. "The dip is nowhere near as much as it could have been, considering the bad weather, which shows the strength of barbecuing as an activity. Last year there was a burst of good weather around the August Bank Holiday, which led to 4m barbecuing occasions on that weekend alone. Barbecuing is inbuilt in the British lifestyle now."

In fact Kirklees Developments, a manufacturer of gas barbecue machines for outside catering, experienced its best year in 13 in 2009. MD Keith Ambler explains: "Despite all this forecasting, if you're putting on an event you have to look on the optimistic side or nothing would ever happen. No one knows what's happening three days in advance, so they plan the events regardless."

In other words, the weather may ruin an event, but it doesn't stop it being planned in the first place. Bruce Hunter, managing director of Tasty Trotter Event Supplies, is seeing the proportion of butchers who take his hog roast machines increase rapidly. "Most butchers can earn a lot of money doing a hog roast. It has taken me ages to persuade some of them in the past, but the ones that go for it are back to me for a second machine within six months."

Hunter cannot emphasise enough the fact that butchers possess a major advantage over other event planners in having a shop as well. "It's easy to put up signs promoting the catering arm or mentioning it to punters. Everybody is always having a do, whether it's a birthday party or a canoe club party, and for everyone that comes to one of them, that's another three or four recommendations." Customers can also take any meat that has been left over after an event. "When caterers buy a pig wholesale, they have to chuck away the head and the trotters. Butchers, on the other hand, can put the trimmings into £50-worth of sausages."

Hunter is suggesting that for some butchers an outside catering arm is essential not an added extra. "They're now competing against Morrisons and Tesco. This is one area where the supermarkets cannot reach them. When butchers say to me 'I work six days a week, I can't work Sunday as well', I tell them that they'll earn more on that one day than the rest of the week combined."

Doing the calculations shows how it makes financial sense: one pig will feed around 200 people and if a butcher charges £5 a head, that amounts to £1,000 in takings. Subtract the cost of a pig, about £150, and the hire of a machine, £200 from Hunter, and add extra costs of £50, and one small event equates to £600 profit.

So a distinction needs to be made between outside catering and people doing the grilling at home. The first is less dependent on the weather, the second far more reliant on sunshine. In that instance, it makes even more sense as a butcher to split the risk by setting up an outside catering business so that he or she is not dependent on sausage and burger sales during the summer months.

However, there is one factor that may well push up the burger and sausage quota in the coming year, regardless of the weather the Fifa World Cup. It is hard to tell whether the high barbecue figures for 2006 were due to the heat or a major international football tournament, but there was a jump in barbecue occasions during the World Cup before that, from 31m in 2001 to 40m in 2002. "And if England do well, we'll really be on to something," says George.

So to capture some of that football fever, George has changed the name of National Barbecue Week this year to 'National Braai Week', braai being the South African word for outside grilling. He has also put together 32 recipes one for each country that is competing in the football tournament. For an Argentinian dish, George is suggesting cooking sirloin steak in chimichurri sauce, while his Italian contribution is pancetta with chicken in ciabatta.

It seems a lot of effort for what few people will bother to do, but, says George, "You can suggest these to customers and it makes you look knowledgeable and helpful." More prosaically, George is also recommending butchers provide carry-away bags of sausages and burgers during the summer. He is right though in that most companies are looking for a big jump in sales from the tournament.

Spices and sauce company Verstegen has brought out eight different sauces for use in the butchery counter, from a 3kg South African 'schnitzel mix' to a 3.7-litre 'Braai sauce'. Leonards, the Sussex-based seasonings and glaze firm has launched a South African-style 'Bobotie' sausage, a 'Peri Peri' burger and a 'Cape' kebab.

But are customers really interested in buying meat covered with all sorts of marinades? Dan May of Northumbria-based TCD Foods thinks so for sure: "Increasingly, consumers are not only experimenting with different cuts of meat but are also looking for exciting spice blends and marinades to set their BBQ apart from the rest in order to impress guests," he says. "British barbecues have come a long way since the traditional burnt bangers and burgers."

May has an interest in talking up this added element of the meat market with his recently launched 'Spicy Cajun', 'Texas Draawl', 'Flaming Mango' marinade products, but Chester butcher Stuart Bebbington confirms that, on the ground, it can be a good idea too. "We get value added to sales with marinades and make money twice over on the sauce as well as the meat," he says. Adding more sauce to the meat means more weight on the final product, as well as allowing Bebbington to charge for the value-added nature of what he's offering.

Now, almost 50% of Bebbington's counter is filled with glazed or sauced products, most from Verstegen and the Manchester Rusk Company, contributing over half of his weekly £4,000 turnover. Bebbington sells minted lamb shanks, chicken Kievs, or poultry parcels with cheese and smoked bacon, covered in a barbecue glaze, sirloin steaks covered in a mild chilli sauce and ready-made stir-fries with strips of meat, red peppers, onions, carrots and green beans. For marinade sauces, Bebbington charges about 30% more, while he adds on 10-15% for oil and powder-based coverings. Many are served in small ovenproof dishes, to which Bebbington adds a sauce of the customer's choice having seen what it looks like in the display window. Bebbington then puts the dish through a machine for sealing with cling film, before giving to the customer to take home they can then just put it straight in the oven.

"We're only doing what the supermarkets have been up to for a while, but then they've pinched all our ideas, so this is a way at getting back at them!" says Bebbington. "Plus we can do a better job, offering small dishes with just two fillets, where you have to buy a pack of six or eight from them."

The advantage of added-value sales is clear with in-the-counter sauces; selling actual packs of sauces must be a harder ask. But Gareth Pearson, owner of the 'Puréety' sauces brand, launched last year, says that in-store sales do not have to take up much room and can benefit butchers and suppliers like himself. His sauces come in a single serving size, as "anything below £1 is deemed a non-thoughtful purchase" and at 99p the Puréety sachets fits that niche, "hitting the impulse purchase". Pearson is also offering 10% on sales of mixed packs of four if butchers provide a link through to his website.

"The market isn't exactly bland, but there's nothing in the restaurant style," says Pearson, ex-chef of Michelin-starred Northcote, referring to the flavours of his products. "People like to be a bit adventurous." Hence, Pearson has brought out soy, ginger and garlic; smoked red chilli and blossom honey, lemon piri piri and hickory barbecue flavours.

Amid talk of exotic and World Cup sauces, it is worth remembering that sausages are still consumed at over half of all barbecues (Kantar Worldpanel, November 2009) and that consumers are more conservative than marketing paraphernalia would have us believe. The flavour of the moment admittedly is piri piri, but it is "coming on top by a million miles," according to Manchester Rusk Company (MRC) marketing executive Ruth Bradshaw, with few other competitors apart from their smoky barbecue line. She puts the mega-sales of this variant down to "the Nando's effect" the popularisation of South African-style flavours by the growing casual dining chain. So before stocking a vast range of unusual flavours remember that, as Chester butcher Stuart Bebbington says: "Simple is often best. My stir-fry has been a best seller for all the years I've been here and I opened in 1993."

The stir-fry option is also less dependent on the weather for its success. As David Brennand of Cheshire-based Witwood Meat Ingredients says: "Clearly another summer with limited dry, sunny weather will mean lower-than-expected demand for BBQ glazes and marinades, so it's important that retail butchers have indoor options too. That makes stroganoff and goulash important glazes, as they are suited to stir-frying rather than grilling." These form part of the Witwood range for 2010, along with 'Hickory BBQ', 'Mint' and 'Garlic butter' among others.

Another way of circumventing the 'will it, won't it rain?' knee-trembler is to extend sauce and barbecue-related buying beyond the common two-month rush. "As soon as there's a bit of warmth, people go mental," says John Childs, UK sales manager at Verstegen. "We need to educate consumers and butchers about the benefits of adding flavours in winter." Pearson is set to add a cranberry-based sauce to his Puréety line at the end of the year, but he's one of the few looking beyond the warmer season. "You're not going to avoid the jump in summer sales," says Bebbington, who has up to 15 skewers of kebabs in the counter in high barbecue season. But there's a good reason why Bebbington also puts out one or two kebabs in winter, even if they do not sell as quickly. Bebbington is located in a market hall in Chester, competing against three other butchers in the development. "Once the summer comes round, people know where they've seen the skewers and they come to us. It's just a bit of investment, and we find it pays off."n




Ten steps to a great barbecue


1. Plan it getting the exact amount of meat is nearly impossible when you first start. Over-ordering is inevitable, but better than running out, and you'll soon master the right amounts.

2. Promote let customers in your shop know, as you have free advertising space!

3. Positioning make sure your barbecue or hog roast is in a prominent position at the event.

4. Kit companies like Cinders Barbecues and Steven Cullen Hog Roast Machines will rent out equipment to you. A full hog roaster costs nearly £4,000, so don't splash out on one before you've established a name for outside events.

5. Shelter make sure you have a marquee, not just to stop you getting soaked, but to protect the food as well. Around £1,000 gives you an industrial gazebo that covers the chef and cooking equipment.

6. Meat choose larger cuts of pork, beef and lamb and cook them whole, then portion for serving.

7. On the side supply lots of good-quality bread, salt, pepper, sauces and salads.

8. Use the shop keep your retail arm open so that business isn't interrupted, and have someone working during your event to send over more supplies if needed.

9. Cooking make sure the barbecue is large enough and has a lid for larger cuts. Place your pieces of meat over indirect heat.

10. Staffing make sure you're in charge, running the event and cooking, and bring in staff from outside agencies. Once you're established, bring in waiting and bar staff on the books for greater reliability, and sign them up on summer contracts.


l BPEX has a Hog Roast DVD and BBQ booklet at www.porkforcaterers.com




The Piri Piri craze


Otherwise known as Peri Peri, this is the sauce of the moment, with most marinade manufacturers reporting major sales. The name literally means 'Chily Chily' in Swahili, referring to the birds-eye chilli, but it is now used for the whole sauce in which chilli is a part. That's thanks to Portuguese traders taking it from Africa to Europe and adding other ingredients along the way as well: Piri Piri sauce mixes chilli with olive oil, vinegar, garlic, paprika, lemon, salt and a green herb, usually parsley. You can make it yourself, and it tastes even better if you leave the sauce in a sealed jar for a week.