We should be in for a cracking barbecue season, with the Met Office predicting a scorcher of a summer. Also, in case it has escaped your attention, there's a bit of a kickabout taking place in South Africa.
But while expectations are high, it's probably best to put the Champagne on ice for a while; we've been promised great things from summers past and from England's sporting prowess, and had both turn into washouts.
Take last year. The barbecue season started unexpectedly early in April with temperatures sizzling in the 70s across much of the UK. Then July turned out to be one of the wettest on record.
Thank heavens, then, that we can rely on Jamie, Heston, Delia, Nigella and the two Gordons Ramsay and Brown. Cash-conscious shoppers are still going out less, so entertaining at home is big business and the barbie is the perfect opportunity for consumers to show off their knowledge of world cuisine and sophisticated tastes and skills to their friends and neighbours.
Twenty years ago, the barbecue was a matter of men making fire and trying to burn a few burgers before the rain came down all you needed was burgers, buns and ketchup. Now, the barbecue is a family affair with the added spice of keeping up with the Joneses.
"It's not enough just to have ketchup any more," says Carine San-Juan of Premier Foods, which owns Branston. "Some 65% of the consumers at a barbecue are under 45 and they've been travelling and expanding their tastes they want a range of flavours and tastes. There's also an element of wanting to show off to friends that you've found something weird and wonderful. I've done it myself: 'Just look at this marinade!'."
It's a view echoed by Bev Taylor, senior brand manager at Mexican specialist Discovery Foods. "Consumers are looking for variety and inspiration," she says. "They are also becoming more adventurous and moving beyond the traditional chicken and sausages to steak and fish."
With shoppers entertaining at home more and opting to holiday in the UK rather than go abroad the number of barbecue occasions in the UK rose 6.2% year-on-year to 102 million [Kantar Worldpanel 52w/e August 2009].
And when it comes to what consumers are putting on the barbie, while men still love their classic steaks and kebabs, and children are happy with bangers and burgers, women appear to want something a bit different.
Kantar data suggests the appeal of barbecues is wearing thin for women aged between 35 and 64, with 3% to 4% fewer enjoying a barbecue than the previous year. Kantar suggests this group could be returned to the fold by offering them premium cuts of poultry and lamb.
Waitrose goes feminine
Presenting shoppers with food that is a little bit different is important to driving the market forward, says Neil Nugent, executive chef at Waitrose. Passionate about his subject, he owns seven barbecues. "My wife goes mad, all these machines making her beautiful garden ugly," he says. "I'm a barbecue geek. I'm trying to push the boundaries and get people turned on to indirect cooking where you get the really big flavours by roasting."
Two big sellers for Waitrose last summer were Szechuan Peppercorn Rub on pork ribs and Rosemary and Parmesan Burgers. "I thought the Parmesan and Rosemary Burgers offered a flavour that was, perhaps, a bit more feminine. Our buyer really wasn't sure that it would work, but it became our second or third bestseller."
Nugent is now looking at introducing flavoured spatchcocks and butterflied lamb to Waitrose this summer. He says marinades Waitrose is launching a pomegranate one and flavoured salts will be big this year. He is also trying to introduce ingredients with bigger flavours, such as smoked garlic. "You still need burgers and sausages on your barbecue. It's a bit criminal to do a barbecue without them," he says.
Sales bear that out, with figures from Kantar suggesting sausages were cooked on 54 million barbecues last year. This is seven million more than burgers.
But not just any old sausage will do.
"We have seen a trend for barbecue snobbery," says Debbie Keeble, founder of the Debbie & Andrew's brand. "It's now not good enough to take an own-brand or mainstream sausage. A true sausage fan will barbecue or take a brand that they buy into, in terms of provenance, taste, quality and brand values."
As they have with sauces and cuts of meat, consumer tastes in burgers and sausages are becoming more varied.
"We are seeing the British barbecue fan becoming more adventurous our Sicilian sausages are particularly strong in the summer," she says. "We're looking at new recipes for barbecue season as there is a strong demand for imaginative flavours. We are hoping to launch a Thai sausage with sweet chilli sauce after successfully trialing it at a variety of summer shows."
Porky Whites this month launched a roasted cumin and garlic sausage into Asda. "The flavour is aimed at the summer market, with the World Cup in mind," says managing director Chris Price. The brand is also revamping its packaging to celebrate its 75th anniversary, with new designs going into stores this month.
Sauces and marinades
The growing demand for exotic flavours is helping the marinades and sauces market perform particularly well. Sales of table sauces were up 13.8% last year [Nielsen 52w/e 3 October].
Oriental brand Blue Dragon says the summer barbecue season is a key time for its range of squeezy sauces, and it plans to unveil a top-down squeezy version of its Thai sweet chilli sauce later this year. The company is also launching three sweet chilli-based salad dressings.
"Consumers are becoming familiar with the flavours of Eastern cuisine and they want to be able to experiment by adding the flavours they enjoy to classic dishes," says consumer and trade marketing controller Tracy Hughes.
Reflecting consumer interest in adventure and travel, Enco Products has revamped its Encona chilli sauces under the new banner Taste Explorers, and is ramping up its promotional activity in the barbecue sector this summer.
"Traditionally, our sauces have peaked in the run-up to Christmas, but last year was the first time we'd really tried to sell speciality products to a wider audience as there's much more mainstream acceptance now," says Enco commercial director George Phillips.
"This year we're investing about £500,000, and possibly looking at festivals such as Glastonbury and Reading. People can be nervous about esoteric food. We want to make it easy for them," he says.
San-Juan agrees sauces are flourishing. "There's a high level of NPD. The sector's quite fragmented as there is an array of smaller brands doing marinades and sauces, many coming and going quickly, so there is constant activity," she says.
Branston, in a nod to the World Cup, is launching two South African-inspired sauces: Peri-Peri mayonnaise and Chakalaka relish, as well as a pesto mayonnaise.
Jack Daniel's, which is hosting the 22nd World Invitational Barbecue Championship at its distillery in Tennessee, is also in buoyant mood.
"We ran a successful promotion during barbecue season in 2009. This will be repeated in 2010, to win a trip to Tennessee linking our sauces barbecue, steak and EZ Marinaders with the barbecue heritage of the whiskey brand," says brand manager Karen Christie.
However, consumer demand for exciting sauces and premium products is meaningless if they can't get their hands on the stuff. And, with summer weather about as predictable as Lady Gaga's choice of evening wear, how do retailers avoid a feast-or-famine situation?
"Retailers have been caught trying to shift stock for the past three years," says Richard Cullen, research and insight manager of the Agricultural and Horticulture Development Board. "June is the most predictable month, weather-wise, otherwise people tend to shop on the day for barbecues."
Waitrose prepares all its barbecue products fresh to order, which presents challenges, says Waitrose lamb and barbecue buyer Tom Richardson. "We use meat, poultry and fish from our primary supply chains, so we have fully traceable meat from farms we know and trust. This presents challenges when reacting to volumes but we have experienced suppliers, and the key to this is careful planning to ensure we can react usually within three to four days.
"With the English weather, we need to be prepared for surprises and overcome these. We ensure our products and packaging are ready to launch for the start of April so if there is some early hot weather we can react. Space is always a challenge so starting earlier also presents issues, which we try to overcome with our planners and branches."
Waitrose can turn around sausages in two to three days, adds Anna Lloyd, the retailer's pork, bacon and sausage buyer. "If we get a forecast for a great weekend on a Thursday we can override the system, but that creates its own problems it can mess up the whole demand forecast. But we can react quickly and, for example, we might reduce roast chickens in order to accommodate extra steaks."
While retailers battle to get stock into stores in time, the fleeting sunshine can cause problems for consumers' food planning too.
"The added benefit of using frozen food is that it limits food wastage, so if the weather is poor, the food can be kept and used another time," says Nisha George, brand manager for red meat at Birds Eye. "According to YouGov, 82% of consumers believe 'waste not, want not' is an increasingly important concept and that's where our frozen burgers come in."
Birds Eye is also spicing things up, launching Reggae Reggae-monikered Beef Quarter Pounders infused with red peppers and Reggae Reggae seasoning (see p52). The company believes the product has appeal beyond barbecue and is hoping to capitalise on families eating together while watching the World Cup. "Half the people who buy frozen barbecue products don't even cook them on the barbecue," adds George.
McCain has addressed demand for more exciting frozen foods by offering its Wedges potato products in a range of flavours.
"Consumers are becoming more adventurous. We've tapped into this trend with a range of different Wedges recipes and this summer we're bringing back our most successful summer recipe, Shallot and Lime Wedges," says Alan Castle, head of customer marketing at McCain.
"Barbecue season is a good time to introduce new products and flavours as it is an opportunity to earn loyalty. Frozen food is increasing its role in barbecue meals as it allows people to stock up in readiness, add that something different and cater for everyone's needs."
Dips producer Kavli, which makes Primula, is also addressing consumer concerns over waste.
Marketing director Craig Brooks believes it is important to offer a longer shelf life and reduce waste. "Our resealable packaging means Primula dips last for up to seven days once opened, reducing food waste for customers and adding value when every penny counts," he says. Value sales of Primula grew by 17%, while the dips market grew 8.8% last year [Nielsen 52w/e 27 December].
Continuing the trend, The English Provender Company has launched Singles, packs of six ambient and low-fat single-serve salad dressing sachets, with the aim of reducing waste and offering choice.
Bread and salad
Of course, you can't have a barbecue without burger baps, and convenience is the key here. Kingsmill recently launched its 50/50 sliced rolls in a 12-pack, which offer consumers resealable packaging along with a 'less mess' roll.
Half of barbecue occasions also feature salads, and Florette commercial director Sandy Sewell says the barbecue season is massive for the company: 50% of its sales come between May and August.
"We don't wait for the weather to break; instead we work hard to drive sales as early and regularly as we can," says Sewell.
"Our 2010 television campaign broke at the end of February and ran into mid-March, and we have a further burst in May, all designed to build momentum ahead of the season by attracting new users to the category as well as building loyalty with light users."
Florette aims to drive sales through a 25%-extra-free promotion on its Crispy and Mixed ranges, with the resulting 350g 'family-sized' packs designed for alfresco entertaining.
The World Cup
Manufacturers and retailers are also hoping for great things from the England football team this summer. The last World Cup coincided with the best summer we've had in years and sales went through the roof. "I was barbecue buyer at Sainbury's at that time," says Waitrose's Lloyd "and the combination of hot weather and the football was a marriage made in heaven."
Warburtons increased sales of its packs of 12 sliced sandwich rolls by 19% during that World Cup and this time around, retailers are expecting sales of barbecue products to as much as double during the weeks England are on pitch. If the lads play well and the weather is kind, perhaps we finally will have that sizzling barbecue summer we all dream about.
"Sales volumes of barbecues increased by 50% in 2009," says Waitrose's Richardson. "I hope that with good weather and the World Cup this summer, we can beat that figure."
All together now: "Eng-errr-lund, Eng-err-lund, Eng-err-lund!"
Focus On Barbecue