It's not just beef sales that can be boosted through the great British barbie. Chicken, fish and veggie burgers are also hot, says Lucy Bray. The burger has had a tough year thanks to the BSE scare. With the barbecue season approaching, however, a prime opportunity exists for manufacturers to claw back some of those lost sales. Birds Eye, the UK number one in frozen burgers, has taken the bull by the horns with the launch of its Mega Burger under the company's Commitment to Quality assurance programme. Due for release at the end of the month, the product is stamped with the firm's pledge that the goods are offal free and made with "only select cuts of prime young British beef under 30 months". Karen Davies, general marketing manager, says: "We felt that although a lot of assurance work had been done on fresh cuts of beef, a lot of which had been put into place by the retailers themselves, there hadn't been any initiatives in the frozen burger market. With burgers a key publicity area for BSE, we felt there was an opportunity with the barbecue season approaching to reassure people about quality." Burger sales fell by nearly 50% at times last year compared to 1995, with the worst period being during May and June, the time immediately after the BSE crisis when consumer concern was at its highest. Taylor Nelson AGB Superpanel puts the beefburger and grill market's current value at £86.2m, compared to £149.2m in March 1996. "The relatively poor summer didn't help, although we did start to see people come back towards the end of the year," says Davies. Premium burgers are particularly strong in barbecue, and suffered the least because of their quality guarantee, she says. "Some people only buy burgers once a year ­ for the barbecue ­ and those people tend to go for the premium products. Consumers have heard all the arguments about BSE, and now they want reassurance. "The Mega Burger is our opportunity to stop apologising for the fact that it's a beefburger, and celebrate the fact that it is." Dalepak Frozen Foods, second largest player to Birds Eye according to Taylor Nelson AGB Superpanel, is operating along similar lines. Two new products under the Dalepak Gold banner, carrying the Taste the Difference strap line, are beefburgers and grills, "made with 100% prime Scottish beef specially selected by the Scottish Quality Beef and Lamb Association, under the farm quality assurance schemes", says sales and marketing director Tim Shears. "Dalepak aims to restore confidence and will launch a national media campaign in May." Beefburgers may be traditional UK barbie fodder, but a raft of other products has developed ­ marinated chicken pieces, fish steaks and veggie burgers, to name but a few. One company wising up is Fisher Seafoods, of Gosforth, Tyne & Wear, which launches five new fish products this week ­ a tuna burger, salmon burger, tuna steak, salmon portion and gem fish steak. They all feature a picture of a barbecue on the packs. Says sales and marketing director Jan Romer: "Fewer than 2% of the UK population experiments with fish on barbecues, so there is a clear opportunity." Vegetarian lines continue to reap the benefits of the shift towards meat-free foods. Tivall has introduced its Vegetarian Steak product as well as a pizza-top burger. "The variety of vegetarian products has got wider and wider," says Greg Kopacz, vice president for marketing in Europe, who foresees a continuing shift towards alternative lines such as sausages. The multiples are stocking more coated and marinated products during the season and promoting them as barbecue lines, as well as featuring more of the hardware. Brian Kilkenny, trade marketing manager at the MLC, reckons there will be more "in vogue" flavoured meats, such as Jamaican Jerk, Thai and Cajun cuisine. But could the supermarkets do more to promote barbecue as a fixture in its own right? "We have felt that the UK barbecue market has been undervalued and underexploited by the trade," says Brian George at Brand Marketing International. "This is particularly true if you look at the multiples' barbecue fixtures last year, where one major featured tomato ketchup as its main barbecue sauce line." The company has launched Bar-B-Bar, which George describes as "a one-stop shop for retailers with barbecue products merchandised under one marketing umbrella". The fixture currently comprises barbecue sauces, marinades, spices, gift packs and accessories, but George sees it developing into a bigger concern. "This concept makes life a lot easier for the retailer, as it has the convenience of having the ordering, marketing and merchandising programme handled by us, and also for the consumer who can shop the fixture without having to dart around the store for all the bits and pieces." Turning to hardware, David Eventhall, group sales director at Rectella, which produces the Bar-Be-Quick range of instant barbecues and lighting charcoal, reckons each season sees the multiples getting "better and better" at merchandising. "Promotional activity increases each year and the involvement of the food side of the business in barbecue product has meant better acceptance by the food manufacturers of joint promotions with the non-food products. The multiples' professionalism has pushed them ahead of the forecourts in every aspect. "Their own forecourts offer barbecue products with great confidence, as they are very aware from supermarket sales of the potential of the sector." New for this year is a reusable barbecue stand for the company's standard size instant barbecue, retailing at £7.99 and listed in most of the major multiples and DIY stores. "The weather does seem to be getting warmer in the UK which helps the market," adds Eventhall, "but also manufacturers of barbecue and charcoal products have woken up to the need to mirror the promotional activities of the large, non-seasonal brands that share shelf space in the major multiples."{{FOCUS SPECIALS}}