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Touch Down on Tailgating

Creatively marketing and merchandising fresh produce items during tailgate season can result in a victory for supermarkets.
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chill in the air indicates more than the arrival of winter to football fanatics across the country. It also means that playoff season—and the big game—is nigh. With college bowl games, the NFL playoffs and the Super Bowl fast approaching, fans are getting ready to cheer on their favorite teams while being surrounded by family, friends and food. 

Food has always been a staple at tailgating events, but industry observers say consumers are getting more creative and experimental with game day menus. Gone are the days when firing up the grill and flipping a few burgers and hot dogs accompanied by a bowl of chips and dip sufficed for a game day celebration. 

“Fans are creating more sophisticated, outside-of-the-box recipes while still maintaining the tailgating festivities on a budget,” says Nikki Frisz, associate brand manager for Orange, Calif.-based MegaMex Foods, which makes Wholly Guacamole. “The classic hot dogs and hamburgers are turning into gourmet fare and being replaced with fancier sausages and short-rib sliders along with more unique toppings. Additionally, consumers are demanding cleaner, fresher, real foods made with natural ingredients.”  

As consumer preferences continue to shift toward clean, healthier foods, observers say fresh produce is becoming more popular for entertaining during sports events. In fact, it is not uncommon for salads, fruits, vegetables and salsas to be served alongside the standard tailgating fare like grilled meats and salty snacks, according to the 2016 grilling survey conducted by Acosta, a Jacksonville, Fla.-based sales and marketing agency. Half of consumers (51 percent) surveyed purchase vegetables/veggie trays and salads for game day, while 44 percent serve fruit/fruit trays. Nearly half (47 percent) dish up salsas. 

The increasing popularity of consumers serving up fresh options come game day, in addition to the versatility of produce, offers retailers a variety of opportunities to spark sales in the category as football season comes to a close. Retailers can turn to fresh produce suppliers for ideas on how to inspire tailgaters to incorporate fresh items into their celebrations, as well as support in marketing and merchandising the products.

For example, guacamole and hummus are very popular options for the big game, says Lori Castillo, brand manager for NatureSweet, based in San Antonio. “Playing upon their popularity, we’ve created a variety of recipes perfect for snacking throughout the game, including Sunbursts Guacamole, and Sunbursts and Hummus on Pita,” Castillo says. 

NatureSweet is also giving shoppers the chance to win groceries this season with its Snack with Sweetness Sweepstakes, which encourages fans to snap a photo of their favorite NatureSweet Sunbursts game day snack and upload it to Instagram with the hashtag #snacksweet for a chance to win. The promotion will be supported by a variety of marketing materials. “In addition to the sweepstakes, we are also offering $1 off two packages of NatureSweet SunBursts Tomatoes,” Castillo says. 

Potato dishes are also a fan favorite during tailgating season, says Jamie Bowen, marketing manager for the Idaho Potato Commission (IPC), based in Eagle, Idaho. “From the traditional Idaho Potato Skins and Bacon Blitz Idaho Potato skewer to Miso Idaho Potato Stuffed Balsamic Mushrooms, there are a million ways to incorporate potatoes into a successful tailgate party,” Bowen says. IPC has a recipe section on its website, idahopotato.com, dedicated to tailgating, which features recipes for Idaho Potato Chips with Asian BBQ Mix or Loaded Crab Poutine. 

IPC is providing an easy way to share these recipe ideas and more with consumers through its Potato Lover’s Month retail contest, which will be in full swing during the Super Bowl, Bowen adds. The contest encourages retailers to come up with creative Idaho potatoes displays to help heat up winter potato sales.

When it comes to tailgating and football parties, the chicken wing still reigns supreme, says Camille Balfanz, brand manager for Litehouse, based in Sandpoint, Idaho. Nearly half of consumers (45 percent) will serve chicken wings for a tailgate party, according to Acosta’s grilling survey. “Beyond the rivalries on the field, there is a healthy competition for the favorite wing dip, and Blue Cheese and Ranch dominate the competition,” Balfanz says. “Combining a platter of spicy chicken wings, celery and complementary dips, is the ultimate trifecta for entertaining during any sporting event.” 

​Litehouse offers Blue Cheese or Homestyle Ranch dressings, which can be served with a tray of veggies, tossed in a salad or as a complement to chicken wings. “Litehouse Blue Cheese or Homestyle Ranch are the perfect game day entertaining partner,” Balfanz says. “While Blue Cheese sales peak in February during the Super Bowl, selling 20 percent more than any other month, we know consumers love their ranch too.” 

Ranch and blue cheese are among a few dips that more than half of tailgaters will serve this season. Terri Gibson, director of marketing and customer relations for Peri & Sons Farms, based in Yerington, Nev., says low-fat dips will also find a place at the table. 

“There are lots of low-fat dips such as our favorite, Sweetie Onion Dip, which is made with heart-healthy yogurt instead of mayonnaise,” Gibson says. “We have hundreds or recipes on our website, periandsons.com, including game day delights such as Chicken Drumsticks with Orange and Onions, Cheesy Sweet Onion Dip, and of course, our special BBQ Bloomer Onion. We look to create recipes that ‘score big’ on taste, are easy to prepare and are sure you want to share.”

Observers say retailers will score big with consumers by offering products that are easy to prepare. According to Acosta, tailgaters get warmed up for the big game by menu planning and base their food selection on several factors, including personal preference/tastes; the amount of effort to prepare the food; and the amount of time to prepare the food.  

“Tailgaters want ease,” says Jacob Shafer, marketing and communications specialist for Mann Packing, Co., based in Salinas, Calif. “Getting back to the game and other festivities as fast as possible has never mattered more, and one of the biggest reasons for a consumer to be unsatisfied with a product is the amount of effort they have to put into it.” 

Mann’s focuses bringing ultimate convenience and freshness to consumers, Shafer adds. The company’s Snacking Favorites Vegetable Trays product line is ideal for on-the-go consumers. The line includes Veggie Ranch, Veggies 4 Kidz, Cheddar Trail, Veggie Hummus, Organic Veggies, Cheddar Pretzel and Honey Turkey Cheddar. 

Del Monte also offers a variety of ready-to-eat fresh-cut products, available in convenient packaging, which can serve large crowds, says Dionysios Christou, vice president of the Coral Gables, Fla.-based company. “Tailgaters love these products because they can easily be carried to an event and do not require additional containers or serving platters,” Christou says. 

For this year’s Super Bowl, Del Monte plans to focus on fan favorites such as its fresh-cut products, Fresh Guac and Fresh Avocado. The company will run various ads, set up relevant in-store promotions with retailers, and promote grilling and fresh-cut use on social media. 

Grilling fresh fruit is popular for side dishes and appetizers, observers say. “While traditional favorites like grilled pineapple are a staple of tailgates, grilled bananas are increasingly popular,” says Bil Goldfield, director, corporate communications for Dole Food Co. and Dole Fresh Fruit, based in Westlake Village, Calif. “Dole was an early leader in promoting grilled produce with our Bananas After Dark campaign a few years ago. This unique campaign promoted fun grilled recipes that highlighted the possibilities of bananas beyond being a breakfast or lunch staple.” 

While bananas may not be the first fruit to come to mind for a game day affair, Mayra Velazquez de Leon, president and CEO of Organics Unlimited, based in San Diego, has other suggestions on how fans can incorporate the fruit in their celebrations. “Everyone loves bananas. Why not add Organics Unlimited’s organic bananas to a fruit tray, or slice them up and serve with peanut butter or dipped in chocolate?” she says. “Fruit kabobs make a great addition to a tailgate party, as they can easily be eaten while standing or conversing. And baked plantain chips are a healthier alternative to fried potatoes.” 

Velazquez de Leon suggests that retailers consider creative displays that incorporate Organics Unlimited’s organic products. The company will offer merchandising ideas for the tailgate season, as well as recipes on its blog at organicsunlimited.com

Besides sharing recipe ideas from suppliers with consumers in-store, online and through social media outlets, retailers can create healthy destination categories. Shafer suggests a place where consumers can conveniently find fresh vegetables, snacking trays and specialty items. “Destination categories help consumers find new and innovative products, and a healthy snacking section in produce makes it easy for consumers to try healthy snack alternatives for their tailgate parties,” Shafer says. 

Since the grill is the focal point of most tailgate parties, merchandising displays that emphasize the grilling possibilities of fruits and vegetables can be key to successful tailgating promotion, Goldfield says. “These displays don’t need to be in the produce section,” he adds. “A secondary display placed next to traditional barbecue items can stimulate sales of tailgate-worthy fruits and vegetables outside of the produce section.”   

Beefing Up the Bowl  

Beef. It is usually what’s for dinner—or the main protein—during tailgate season. 

Nearly half of consumers (46 percent) firing up the grill for the big game will flip hamburgers at their tailgates, according to the 2016 grilling survey conducted by Acosta, a Jacksonville, Fla.-based sales and marketing agency. While burgers and hot dogs remain popular dishes among football fans, industry observers say sophisticated consumers are using beef in other ways during the season. 

“We see a further up-scaling of hearty comfort food as a trend for Super Bowl entertaining,” says Jay Theiler, executive director of marketing forAgri Beef,based in Boise, Idaho. “We see this uniquely American tradition blending with another uniquely American tradition: barbecue. So it be won’t be tenderloin or prime rib in a traditional holiday sense at the Super Bowl, but items increasingly popular to barbecue specialty beef items like tri-tip, brisket and flank, as well as upscale versions of things like frankfurters and hamburgers.” 

Agri Beef is encouraging retailers to recognize this trend, Theiler says, and promote the Super Bowl as the opportunity for a “tailgate inside.” The company will be working with its retail partners to feature premium Double R Ranch USDA Choice BBQ cuts, as well Snake River Farms items like American Kobe beef hamburgers and frankfurters, as the “ultimate” Super Bowl protein items. 

“With these key items at the center of the plate, retailers can build a strong market basket of sales around all the support items,” Theiler says. 

        

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