The definition of value, in the minds of consumers at least, seems to be changing. As pointed out last fall in instore’s original research study What’s Driving Retail Foodservice Consumers?, freshness and quality are now just as, if not more, important than price.

That, according to Brandon Wolf, is becoming more and more evident when it comes to smoked meats. Wolf is the executive vice-president of sales and marketing for Old Hickory Smokehouse, a family business in Lewisburg, TN, that supplies smoked meats, prepared meats, sandwiches, meal kits and more, as well as packaged Wolf Family meats to supermarkets, retail and restaurants.

“Value is what’s going to drive sales, and value used to be ‘How cheap can I get this product?’ because whoever is walking through my grocery store wants to spend a dollar,” Wolf says. “Now, value is driven by ‘What is the quality of the product?’ People are willing to spend more money if they’re getting a better value, and we’re seeing that drive some changes in the industry.”

As an illustration, Wolf compares a 100-percent meat product that, theoretically, costs $1 more than a product that consists of half meat and half sauce. The initial consumer reaction may be that they don’t want to spend more. But the realization that the meat itself is the draw and might result in three meals instead of one can shift that way of thinking. Suddenly, the consumer looks at that dollar in a different way.

“The end costumer drives the growth of the industry,” he says. “And by educating the end customer on what’s-what, I think you’re going to have the grocery market catch up to the learning curve and have their consumers looking for that high-quality meat.”

What separates higher-quality meats from the rest? It’s simple: the beginning product and the cooking method. Old Hickory Smokehouse touts its proprietary cookers, designed by Wayne J. Wolf and Myron Mixon. With these cookers, the company smokes meat in small batches in its two-year-old, state-of-the-art facility that has UDSA, FDA, HACCP and GFSI SQF level 2 certifications. 

“It is one of the biggest differentiators we have,” Wolf says. “Prepared meat companies are not cooking in a small-batch environment, or in what we’d call an authentic, or old fashioned, or old school smoking process. Instead, they’re using stuff more like an Alkar oven and lots of steam, liquid smoke, wood chips — stuff like that, to get the claim that it’s a smoked product.”

While the use of an industrial oven can allow for cooking up to 50,000 pounds of meat at a time, a more slow-batch type approach brings that number down to around 2,000 pounds. And while that presents the challenge of producing enough product, the end result can be a boon for retailers.

“People find ways around regulations to market what they do,” Wolf says. “You can throw in a pile of wood chips at the very end of your cook cycle and claim it was smoked. Next thing you know, everybody assumes any smoked meat is the same smoked meat.

“Our stuff is higher priced most often, because the quality of what we’ve got is higher. It’s not pre-formed and we’re using whole muscles. We’re not adding a lot of things for a different flavor. When you eat it, you’re eating what we say is in the product.”

And that is part of what Wolf says is “bringing restaurant quality to retail,” a trend that is growing in mass grocery. Restaurants like Panera have paved the way with clean ingredients and a bump in quality, and it has already begun moving to retail foodservice. When smaller retailers begin having success with products like small-batch smoked meats, larger chains see the potential and begin working on providing their own line.

“There are consumers out there who now want something that isn’t just $3,” Wolf says. “They’ll pay $5 or $6 or even $9 if they know it’s good ingredients, better food and higher quality. It’s all a question of the value you can provide your end customer.”