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Where There's Smoke ...

Byline: Natalie Hammer Noblitt

There are also sauces, rubs and marinades

Some barbecue lovers like to take things slow, imparting flavor to their favorite meats by smoking them gently over a wood fire. But many who love the tang, spice and rich smoky taste won't wait that long. Luckily, grillers and home cooks can get a flavor assist from spices, rubs, marinades and sauces, whether they take the longer path or need to bang out a meal quickly.

Barbecue and grilling, a popular category with specialty shoppers, continues to expand. An IBISWorld industry report on barbecue sauce production, published in August, shows the category growing at a steady pace between 2016 and 2021. Revenue for barbecue sauce makers is expected to rise each year, with 3 percent growth projected for 2017.

America's love of grilling and barbecue continues to grow. According to a 2015 study by the Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association (HPBA), nearly three-quarters of all adults in the United States own a grill or smoker and use it to cook for both everyday meals and celebrations. The report also found that 61 percent of grill owners use it year-round, and 31 percent indicated that they planned to grill more in 2016 than they did the previous year.

Sauces & Rubs

With her store's location in the heart of one of the nation's top barbecue regions -- Kansas City -- Mindy Lindeman, owner of Olive Tree in Overland Park, Kan., says sauces and rubs remain popular, but salts, spices and even smoked balsamic vinegar help impart the barbecue flavor consumers love. Among the barbecue sauces and rubs she sells, local products attract the most attention, including Kansas City producers FireBug BBQ and Burnt Finger BBQ. Another line of spices and rubs, from Spokane, Wash.-based Spiceologist, also does well, she notes.

"We see sales of sauces and rubs all year long," says Lindeman. "We created a barbecue gift box for the holidays but find that people are grilling in every season and still want those flavors. We also see a lot of people making their own marinades using the olive oils and vinegars."

Local tie-ins also do well for Chicago retailer Goddess and Grocer. "We put a huge emphasis on stocking local products on our shelves, so with the popular Lillie's Q restaurant just around the corner from our flagship Bucktown location, carrying the Lillie's Q brand of barbeque sauces is a no brainer. And it sells extremely well for us," says Andrew Hilsberg, marketing manager for Goddess and Grocer.

"The major driving force for sales of sauces is simply conversations with customers. Particularly in the summertime when so many of our customers are grilling outside on their porches, our staff receives a lot of questions about items we recommend," says Hilsberg.

Paying closer attention to specialty spice rubs and sauces is a natural trend, says Lindeman of Olive Tree, considering many home cooks are now much savvier about sophisticated grilling techniques. "Barbecue for many of our customers doesn't mean hamburgers and hotdogs, it's cooking in a very specific style, watching barbecue competition shows on TV, using high-end smokers and wanting to take things to the next level."

Veggie lovers also season and dip produce with grilling sauces and rubs, says Lindeman, noting that these shoppers care about quality ingredients and look to specialty brands. Her observations are backed by what IBISWorld saw in its 2016 report: Demand for barbecue-style products like sauces and rubs continues to flourish even though healthy eating trends are on the rise, including a choice by many consumers to eat less meat per person each year.

Plenty of carnivores love to take their time and achieve authentic barbecue results, but another category of shoppers want to grill and get great flavor without the time commitment.

"Many people think barbecue means 12 or more hours of slow cooking on a smoker or 24 hours of meat prep and marinating," says Christina Sleeper, COO of Sleeper's Gourmet in Los Angeles, which makes a line of Magic Rubs for meat and veggies. "However, the correct selection of seasonings and cooking technique can remove most, if not all, of the prep, stress and time involved, making for a fantastic mid-week barbecue feast that can be ready in just about an hour."

Spices that Sizzle

Rubs remain a workhorse when it comes to layering in barbecue flavor. They seal in the flavor of meat, provide a nice crust to the surface and enhance its color and flavor, says Brent Fuss, brand director for spice producer Pereg Natural Foods in Clifton, N.J. Most importantly, rubs pull moisture from the air while drawing juices from the inside of the meat, he notes.

A punch of flavor can easily be achieved with carefully blended rubs and spice blends from gourmet producers. Sleeper contends that even smoky flavor can be found using the right seasonings. Rubs can also be sprinkled on vegetables in a variety of cooking styles to add instant flavor.

"My husband loves barbecue's smoky flavor, so one of my favorite ways to satisfy his craving mid-week is to use our Pure Paleo Seasoning blended with a bit of our Super Smoky gourmet salt, which is created with selected real woods not artificial flavors," she says. "We then sprinkle the blend over easy-grilling meats like steaks, burgers, chicken breasts or salmon filets, light the grill, and dinner will be served quick and deliciously."

Fuss of Pereg Natural Foods finds that grilling and barbecuing change seasonally, just as most home cooking trends do. "In the fall and winter, spices like cinnamon, nutmeg and allspice become popular in baking, coffee drinks and a variety of other foods. In terms of barbecue, winter opens up some new opportunities to bring seasonal flavor into the meat like some cumin and cinnamon or a coffee and allspice rub."

Focus on Ingredients

A focus on natural ingredients provides an opportunity to teach consumers, says Fire & Flavor co-founder and cookbook author Gena Knox, who is based in Athens, Ga. She also finds the days of fat- or sugar-laden sauces and marinades are in decline and grilling and cooking with basic, natural ingredients, such as salt, spice and hardwood, are on the rise.

"We continue to focus on educating consumers on the benefits of brining and using natural charcoals and starters for grilling," she says. "We get excited when we help get folks cooking more at home, especially as it relates to everyday proteins such as chicken breasts and pork chops. During the holidays, folks take more time to cook and slow down to experiment with new methods for flavoring foods."

Two new products from Fire & Flavor speak to these trends, including a dry brine for chicken and a new Cajun Turkey Perfect Brine kit that follows a request from shoppers for robust flavors. "At-home cooks continue to look for bold flavors inspired by international cuisine," Knox says. "At-home prep meal boxes are also all the rage, indicating to our team that consumers prefer to eat at-home. We see this as an opportunity to get consumers more interested in cooking more, even without the help of pre-portioned food options."

Showing shoppers different ways to use rubs that aren't tied solely to meat can be important for generating sales. Sleeper of Sleeper's Gourmet finds showing how flavors mix together works well to pique consumer interest. "We sample our seasonings, salts and jams at retail locations blended with partner company products, such as sour creams and cheeses served on crackers, to show customers the versatility we offer," she says. "It shows them how to go from wet to dry in so many vehicles including dairy, oils, vinegars, wine, spirits and more to achieve the taste (they) crave in barbecue, grilling and beyond."

Specialty Sauces Abound

Diverse flavors now dominate the offerings in the barbecue sauce category. While sauces used to follow regional lines -- like tomato-based Kansas City, vinegar-heavy or mustard-style sauces from the Carolinas or smoke-and mesquite-forward styles from Texas -- now flavor inspiration comes from around the globe. Sauces do make up the majority of the barbecue condiment category, as IBISWorld reports that rubs make up only a little more than 16 percent of total sales, with numbers staying steady.

Among barbecue sauces, however, specialty sauces make up nearly 39 percent of the category sales in the IBISWorld study. Other sales come from what report producers call "original sauces," usually made by large manufacturers and sold widely at larger grocers.

"From our research, home cooks and foodie customers are looking for bold, often ethnic flavors, with spice or heat, and a sauce that is versatile and easy to use," says Kaitlin Chamblin, a Kentucky native who now operates Rootz Sauces in Los Angeles. "We also see a trend toward ingredient transparency in condiments and sauces. Barbecue sauces are especially notorious for an overload of artificial ingredients, refined sugar, colorant or dyes. Now customers are looking for more products with organic ingredients, natural preservatives, and void of artificial ingredients."

Geoffrey Swetz, co-owner of online retailer, which sells a wide variety of gourmet sauces, sees several flavors that shoppers gravitate toward for grilling and barbecue, including Mediterranean, Korean, Cajun, Thai and those with spicy peppers. One of the best sellers on his site continues to be Roasted Pineapple Habanero Sauce from Terrapin Ridge Farms of Clearwater, Fla. Rubs just aren't a focus for Spoonabilities, says Swetz.

"I always look for the different trends, and rubs never show up on my radar," he says. "I believe any kind of sauces with an uncommon combination of fruit plus spicy is what people are looking for when it comes to grilling and barbecue. Spicy plus peach or pineapple, or pairing raspberry and jalapenos."

Phyllis Petrilli, retail director at Chicago's Goddess and Grocer, also says rubs don't sell as well for their locations because the stores' clientele tends to be "on-the-go" shoppers. "They are for quick and delicious solutions versus spending hours in the kitchen or even taking time to use a rub. We have tailored our offerings to meet that need. Demand for sauces remains pretty steady throughout the year," she says.

Research on sales trends from IBISWorld show sauces and rubs tend to sell better when temperatures warm up across the country and follow the traditional summer grilling holidays. But the data also shows that retailers can influence sales through education about other ways to use the products as seasonings or for oven cooking. This is good news for specialty stores, which can use signage, demos and staff to spark demand any time of year.

New Products

Poultry Brining Blends

Fire & Flavor offers Dry Brines for Chicken and a Cajun Turkey Perfect Brine Kit to help home cooks tenderize and add Cajun flavor to poultry Both products are created with high-quality spices and chilies. To use, consumers need only to sprinkle on the outside of the bird and brine for one hour per pound. One- and 16.6-ounce sizes. SRP: $4.99--$11.99.

Fire & Flavor, Athens, Ga., 866-728-8332,

California Spice Rubs

Magic Rub Spice Blends from Sleeper's Gourmet come in Original, Paisano, Fowl and Pure Paleo. All are made in small batches. The Original variety is made from a trio of sun-ripened peppers along with California garlic, onion, kosher salt and pure cane sugar SRP: $10 for 2.5 ounces.

Sleeper's Gourmet, Los Angeles, 310-614-6683,

Fusion Flavor BBQ Sauces

The creator of Rootz Sauce combined her Southern background with the flavors of her new home on the West Coast to produce Sweet + Spicy Table Sauce and Pineapple BBQ Sauce. The sauces are generously spiced and balanced with sweetness. They are non-GMO and paleo friendly. SRP: $12 for 16 ounces.

Rootz Sauces, Los Angeles, 310-801-6781,
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Author:Noblitt, Natalie Hammer
Publication:Gourmet Retailer
Geographic Code:1U9CA
Date:Dec 1, 2016
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