The Meat & Livestock Commission conservatively estimates the total retail market for barbecue foods at £200m, a measurement based on Mintel figures. "It's grown by over a third in the past five years," says retail trade manager Maurice McCartney. "Barbecuing has become a way of life in the summer, with the season now extending from Easter to September and beyond if the weather stays warm." Growth is being driven by many influences. Gardening programmes and celebrity gardeners like Alan Titmarsh have had a major impact, popularising decking areas with barbecues and outdoor entertaining in general. And the recent availability of affordable outdoor heaters ­ both the gas-powered lamp post variety and wood burning stoves ­ has made sitting outside on cooler evenings an attractive proposition. More widespread travel to destinations such as Australia and the US, where barbecuing is commonplace, is also influencing the growth of the UK's barbecue culture. Young families who have been brought up to cook outside have led the growth, with barbecue ownership running at almost 60% among this group. "Last year around 9.5 million households whipped out the barbie at least 7.5 times, equal to 71 million barbecuing occasions, an impressive number," says MLC's McCartney. Men have traditionally taken charge of barbecue cooking, but Brian George, md of BMI Brand Marketing Group and organiser of the National BBQ Week says this is changing. "From our researches and observations in the last year, women are starting to grab the tongs and do the cooking. At the same time, barbecuing is becoming a more sophisticated event, with tastes becoming more adventurous and experimental, with a growing demand for premium products in all areas." This view is borne out by Rectella International, supplier of Bar-Be-Quick equipment. "Consumers have graduated to the next stage in the barbecue culture," says national account executive Shelly Webb. "They're trying smoked food, prepared on vertical and horizontal smokers that leave food moist and tender and can be flavoured with hickory and mesquite wood chunks. Speciality barbecues are also starting to catch on, such as our Nipoor Tandoori which cooks food Indian style on skewers, sealing in the flavours. Indian cuisine is the most popular takeaway and this is starting to spill over into people's summer leisure pursuits." Consumers are also spending more on conventional equipment, says Webb. "In the past, they were happy with a basic 22-inch kettle barbecue, paying no more than £50. Nowadays, they look for upgrades each summer. This has had a knock-on effect on the instant barbecue which is seeing sales rise for use at picnics and away from home events, while the more expensive gas-powered version is left at home for planned occasions." The increased spend on the barbecue is also apparent in meat of all kinds. "The big trend is to premium ­ beef, lamb and pork, as well as sausages and burgers ­ which we've been encouraging in the last few years," says McCartney. "This year our main focus is on pork as we want to improve its image. There's so much that can be done with it as a barbecue product, from steaks, spare ribs and meaty ribs to whole muscle kebabs. This year the dominant flavour glazes will be Chinese, bbq and hot & spicy." To boost pork's image, MLC introduced a Quality Standard Mark for pork sausages last year which manufacturers are starting to apply, among them Cranswick Country Foods for its Lazenby's brand. It's also published a guide to innovative and versatile pork cuts for butchers and is promoting the potential for premium pork products within the burger market. Product development manager Keith Fisher says: "In the same way the sausage market has developed from basic pork or beef sausages to offer everything from chili to leek & Stilton sausages, so we are looking to do something similar in the burger market. "We see an opportunity to grow the market by moving consumers away from ordinary burgers." One of its early successes is Dalepak's award-winning Cumberland style Pork Quarter Pounder ­ the company's first pork burger product ­ developed with the help of British Meat. Dalepak marketing director Richard Holt says consumers prefer larger portion burgers and a wider choice of tastes and flavours for the barbecue than they would for conventional meals. "Our Mega range has been developed to meet these requirements." For vegetarians and meat reducers it has Vegetable Grills, recently extending the range with a curry flavour variant. Also serving the same audience are Wicken Fen, which is introducing a barbecue pack of chilled vegetarian sausages and burgers in June, and Goodlife which has revamped its vegetarian burgers, grills and snacks with new packaging and improved recipes. Burgers, especially the premium variety, have become one of the most popular barbecue foods, but sales during the season are largely impulse driven by the weather which makes maintaining stocks a challenge for retailers. Birds Eye Wall's trading director Neil Jones says a quarter of all burger buyers only buy in the season. "With this in mind, it is vital that retailers, particularly convenience operators to whom impromptu shoppers are likely to turn ­ are ready to respond quickly. This can be done by stocking and promoting a core range of branded products that people in a rush will quickly recognise, trust and purchase." This summer it is launching a new burger for the season and has promotions planned on its Original Burgers and Quarter Pounders in June. Kitchen Range, a leading own label supplier of beef and vegetable burgers, says out of stocks was a big issue with retailers last summer. "Demand was so great for barbecue products, that many retailers got caught out by not ensuring they had a range of appealing products available in time," says the company. Mixed meat packs are becoming popular, says own label supplier Perkins Foods, which introduced a combination pack of sausages, burgers, pork ribs and coated chicken drumsticks in various marinade flavours last summer. Kebabs are also gaining ground, with retailers extending their ranges to increase choice, according to Cranswick Country Foods, which is creating new pork and turkey ranges for the Co-operative Group, and a pork range for Sainsbury. Sausages are a main component of the barbecue, a fifth of all purchases are put on the outdoor grill, according to Hazlewood Foods. Category marketing manager Robin Norton says value growth has been driven mainly by premium sausages and larger packs. Its developments for Asda include two 16-packs of thick pork and Irish recipe sausages for larger events, and an Extra Special range. Nestlé's Herta chilled frankfurter range enjoys a big sales uplift during the barbecue season, says the company. Fish features more prominently since manufacturers like Marr Foods are developing chilled and frozen products for barbecuing. "Consumers are looking to fish as a low fat, healthier option," says trade marketing manager Kelly Colrein. {{FOCUS SPECIALS }}