British Bonanza

As Aprils go, last year’s was an absolute corker. The barometer rose, the sun and barbecues came out and barely had the Easter eggs been swallowed, than a swelter of bunting and flag-waving broke out, along with collective national swooning over Kate’s dress and Pippa’s bottom.

The Royal Wedding, held over the May Bank Holiday weekend, was the single biggest barbecue day of the year, with around 7.5m people firing up the coals on 29 April and a further 3.5m holding a barbecue over the rest of the weekend. Statistics gathered by the National Barbecue Association put the total number of barbecues last year at around 120m, and it is hoping to top that figure this year.

“The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee will be the big one this year,” says Brian George, president of the National Barbecue Association, “but it’s quite a full-on summer, with Uefa Euro 2012 followed by the Olympics.”  

Obviously, the weather plays a huge part in the success of barbecues, but if patriotism, sporting events and barbecues go hand-in-hand, this bodes extremely well for the summer.  The season starts with National Barbecue Week (28 May–3 June) and flag-waving over the Jubilee weekend, and is followed by nearly two months of sport, kicking off with England’s first-round Uefa match on 10 June, and culminating in the Olympics and Paralympics Games in early August.

So how can butchers make the most of this summer of celebration?

Scott Dixon, brand manager at MRC – The Flava People, says: “We’re finding that some of the most successful butchers are realising that the key to great sales during the barbecue season is an exciting offering, and the secret behind this is versatility. Obviously, sausage and burger mixes are popular during the summer months, and this will always continue to be the case, but it’s the sheer versatility of added-value products such as marinades and glazes that can add real value to a butcher’s offering to the consumer.”

A willingness to react quickly to changing weather and to communicate with your customers is also important. With the Jubilee now barely a month away, Tony Goodger, foodservice trade manager at Bpex, advises catering butchers to talk to their chefs as soon as possible.

“Events will be marketed in advance, so they have less opportunity to react quickly,” he says. “A butcher can look out and see if it is nice weather, but foodservice has to plan ahead. Butchers therefore need to plan to make sure they can satisfy demand — they need to be talking to chefs now about barbecue plans, so they can plan extra demand into their businesses.”

Barbecues have always been popular in pubs, but increasingly other foodservice markets see them as a great way to extend sales. Goodger notes that universities and workplace caterers, in particular, see the summer period as a great time to ‘celebrate’ the weekend at Friday lunchtime with a barbecue.

However, it is not just catering butchers or those supplying foodservice who need to be prepared. According to Keith Fisher, butchery and product development manager at Bpex, there are a whole host of things that an independent can do to strike a unique point of difference from the multiple retailers, in terms of service as well as the quantity of meat.

“Advise consumers about how to plan their barbecue,” he says. He suggests butchers could offer consumers a check-list to help them get themselves prepared, including what they need to think about, how many guests are coming, what they are going to need, whether there is a theme — the Jubilee being the obvious one.

He also says a selection of services will help consumers make the most of the event. “Offer party platters,” he says, “so if they have 12 people coming, you could provide 12 grill steaks, 12 burgers, 12 mini steaks, or 12 mini chops, medallions or kebabs. Offer services such as marinades, so they can marinate meat themselves, or do it for them.”

Cleanliness and hygiene are hugely important, so Fisher suggests offering to pack products into polystyrene, with an ice-pack to supply a party for 12 or 20. That way, the meat is accessible and on standby, but protected from the sun.

“The other point is to think about the different cuts and joints that can be put on to the barbecue,” he says. Traditionally, barbecues have been dominated by sausages and burgers, but Brian George is convinced they have undergone a “sausages to swordfish and burger to brochette revolution”, which provides a great opportunity for butchers to capitalise on.

“Although life is tough for many people, and people are being very careful about what they spend their money on, people are now treating outdoor living as very much part of a Mediterranean lifestyle,” says George. He points out that two in three British households now own a barbecue and that the average number of barbecues held per year has increased to nine from just two 10 years ago. “Paradoxically, it is seen as a treat, so the opportunity to get people to trade up is quite significant,” he says.

Steak is currently the fastest-growing category, along with other beef cuts, lamb chops and fish, while sausages and burgers, although still perennial favourites and present at around 37% and 35% of barbecues respectively, have waned slightly in popularity as people become more adventurous.  

Brian points out that by offering imaginative and adventurous cuts, butchers can position themselves as barbecue experts, which is simply not an option open to the large multiples.

UK Barbecue Champion and butcher Andy Annat agrees, arguing that the best way to maximise returns is to add extra value, particularly using cuts that would otherwise be put into the mixer, such as beef short ribs from the forequarter, shin or chuck.  

“Through the summer, butchers find it hard to sell,” he says, “but if you keep it whole and cook it correctly on the barbecue, you can get the full value from it.”

Long, slow cook

Catering butchers or those supplying into foodservice have the greatest opportunity to use cuts that can be cooked long and slow, reflecting a strong US influence on British barbecuing. This can either be done on a hooded grill, or cooked sous-vide and then finished on the barbecue. Slow-cooked sticky ribs and pulled pork lend themselves to this treatment, but it can be tricky on home barbecues. Not only does it fly in the face of the laid-back and spontaneous reputation of barbecuing, but also requires greater planning, as people are having more post-work, mid-week barbecues at relatively short notice.  

However, where foodservice leads, retail tends to follow, as Goodger points out: “Consumers want to see different products to those they can cook at home.”

Out of the home, chefs are increasingly extended barbecue menus to include ribs, belly slices and blocks and collar steaks, which is good news for butchers who buy whole sides. “General trade will provide a market for the legs and loins, while barbecue business helps with carcase balance by utilising the belly and shoulder/collar steaks,” points out Goodger.

Pork belly is also a popular choice for butchers, requiring very little preparation other than cutting and marinating — the intercostal fat adds moisture and virtually self-bastes the meat as it cooks, overcoming the biggest problem with home barbecues, in that people often end up with a poor eating experience as they overcook the meat.  

Goodger also advises butchers not to overlook the great flavour-carrying ability of pork mince, particularly as the additional fat adds flavour and prevents the meat drying out. “It is ideal either formed in burgers or around a satay stick, kofta style, and can be mixed with flavours such as chilli and lime or Caribbean jerk,” he says.

East meets West

Caribbean flavours are expected to be big this year, as trends in flavour profiles move towards new, world influences and demand grows for regional variations, with east meeting west. Andy Annat says that the traditional US barbecue-style is coming to the UK, with strong US flavours coming through of creole, Cajun, and South American ‘churrasco’ cooking, with its Portuguese and Spanish influence. The popularity of piri-piri also looks likely to migrate from chicken to other meats.

Piers Robert, commercial manager at Jardox, feels the trend is moving towards more authentic barbecue products. “British consumers’ tolerance to hotter and spicier products is growing year on year,” he says, “and there is increasing demand for experiencing more authentic regional variations.”

Jardox’s new flavours reflect these trends, with a Jamaican Reggae sausage mix, a Mexican-inspired Devilishly hot mix, and sticky honey with smoked paprika and chipotle.

Verstegen has also revamped its entire marinade range, with the addition of several new varieties, a brand new consumer range, and the five most popular varieties of its World Grills under the Verstegen Pure label — marinades with reduced salt levels and no MSG, phosphates or declarable allergens.

However, it isn’t just international flavours, as the Jubilee shifts the focus on to traditional British flavours, as well as gourmet styles. Lucas Ingredients has a range of classic traditional recipes, such as Scottish Lorne sausage and Welsh Dragon, as well as a range of gourmet burger flavours, including cracked black pepper, steak and stilton or lamb burgers with sun-dried tomatoes and olives. Lucas’ sales development manager Steve Derrick says this brings the burger range more upmarket, following in the footsteps of gourmet sausages.

Scott Dixon at MRC says butchers should be encouraged to offer an exciting array of flavours, because barbecuing has moved beyond the charred sausages and chicken legs of previous years, and into a new wave of gastro-grilling and slow-cooked meats. People are becoming more sophisticated in their cooking methods, understanding it more and wanting to please their friends and family.

Fisher points out that barbecues themselves have also evolved. “Some of these barbecues coming onto the market are some of the most sophisticated outdoor kitchens you could come across,” he says. “Many come with side-burners for cooking beans and other bits and pieces, or even deep trays to cook up curries and chilli.”

Gas barbecues, which are more popular than ever, are also more controllable, he points out, and allow for both direct and indirect heat, giving the opportunity for larger joints that require longer cooking times, but don’t need to be watched like a hawk in the same way as smaller pieces. “Go out and have a look at what’s available,” says Keith. “A butcher is better placed to provide suitable products if he knows what type of barbecue the meat will be cooked on.”

This summer looks set to be festival of patriotism and sport, giving lots of reasons for people to barbecue, regardless of the weather, which is promising for butchers up and down the country. As Scott Dixon says, there’s no reason to be afraid of the rain.

“While sunny weekends and Bank Holidays almost always equal better sales,” he says, “we’re finding that, perhaps surprisingly, the great British weather doesn’t seem to dampen our enthusiasm for barbecues and alfresco eating as much as you might think. With better weather protection, canopies and patio heaters, the appetite for Chinese kebabs and beefy burgers continues, come rain or shine.”

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