Gas, electric and wood-fired smokers offer a way for supermarkets to reduce shrink and connect with customers around the world’s oldest cooking method.

Since the beginning of time, humans have found joy and deliciousness by adding an element of heat to food and drink. And where there’s heat, there comes the beneficial byproduct of smoke. Exposing food or drink to smoke is a reliable way to add a depth to almost anything from meat, bones, fish, cheese, nuts and tea to even water.

Unlike grilling, which exposes product to direct heat, smoking allows an item to cook next to, not over, a fire. Smoking’s low heat method necessitates patience with temperatures of 225 to 275F. Ideally between 225 and 250F, according to Steven Raichlen, author and journalist of more than 31 books about grilling, smoke and barbecue and founder of Barbecue University in Colorado.

Barbecue continues to be one of the most popular applications of smoking for its seemingly magical ability to impart flavor and tenderness through the processes of browning, cooking and preserving. Fall-off-the-bone tender meats and smoky sides are some of the many reasons why barbecue continues to rank as a perennial favorite. Plus, no two people smoke the same.

According to the What’s Hot 2018 culinary forecast, 27% of chefs labeled barbecue a hot trend. When choosing what to smoke, chefs and pitmasters continue to focus on brisket, pork shoulder, pork ribs, pulled pork and pulled beef. But over the last year more have branched out, using shoulder tender, oyster steak, Vegas Strip Steak and Merlot cut.

Defining good barbecue often depends on where you’ve lived and what you’ve eaten. While opinions of the best barbecue abound, chefs and foodservice are taking a more inclusive viewpoint, fusing different regional styles with ethnic cuisines. Some of these mashups are even finding a place on the breakfast menus of foodservice providers.


Retailers get in the game

San Antonio-based HEB’s True Texas Tacos restaurant serves breakfast and specialty tacos. From 6 a.m. to 2 p.m., customers can hit the drive-thru for breakfast. Menu items include chopped Texas brisket, barbacoa, carne guisada and beef and chicken fajita tacos. The grocer’s other restaurants (3 Double-0 Nine, Café Mueller, Oaks Crossing, Table 620 and True Texas BBQ) offer smoked in-house meats on the menu with fresh, ready-to-go options at the Flaming Bird, South Flo Pizza and True Texas Boil House.

Convenience has always been in demand, but the ability to pop through a drive-thru or swing in for ready, grab-n-go items is critical for today’s time-crunched shopper. A whopping 65% of Americans report not knowing what’s for dinner two hours before mealtime, according to a Food Marketing Institute report. The need for quick turnaround and even faster decision making can become remarkably easy under the sensory influence of smoking meat.

Luring customers in with smokehouse scents is nothing new. The smokehouse tradition of Coborn’s, St. Cloud, Minnesota, goes back to 1921. The company offers private label Signature Smokehouse meats, a line of locally made smoked and fresh ground meats and sausages along with its Four Brother brand of bacon. Formulations are based on recipes from the original Coborn’s smokehouse in Sauk Rapids, Minnesota.

In towns big and small, supermarket chains are adding freshly smoked meats to their store offerings. In August, Brookshire Brothers, Lufkin, Texas, added Brookshire Brothers smoked in-house barbecue to the store’s renovated location in Huntsville, Texas. The offerings of freshly smoked brisket, ribs and sausage a perfect accompaniment to the store’s updated bakery and deli offerings.

And some smoked meats warrant a road tour. This was the case with Todds BBQ at Mariano’s, a banner of Cincinnati-based Kroger. The recently wrapped Smoker Road Tour took Todds BBQ to select Mariano’s locations from October to January. During the tour, barbecue groupies could sample and purchase smoked sausage, baby back and St. Louis ribs, smoked beef brisket and smoked pulled pork specials.

In-house, Mariano’s is expanding its collaboration with Pork & Mindy’s, a “creative BBQ joint powered by music, art and community.” The partnership began in 2015 with the retailer being the first to carry Pork & Mindy’s bottled sauces. The restaurant chain, with locations in Chicago, Denver and Minneapolis, will offer grab-n-go specialty items exclusive to Mariano’s. These include bacon-wrapped spare ribs and smoked honey mustard meatloaf along with sandwiches, pit bowls and Totty’s, meat served over a bed of tater tots.

For grocery stores contemplating entry into the smoking business, Jared Robertson, president, Southern Pride, Alamo, Tennessee, offers some encouraging advice.

“Operators can reduce shrink by smoking near-expired product and sell it for more, instead of having to discount or discard it,” Robertson says. “The quality of the smoked products will keep happy customers coming back for more.”


Zero-waste drives category growth

Keeping customers happy is never easy considering rising food prices, consumer-led sustainability crusades and the ongoing need to reduce shrink. Yet it’s a reality for foodservice providers throughout the nation. Chefs surveyed by the National Restaurant Association agreed, voting zero-waste cooking No. 3 on the list of 2019’s overall trends.

“Zero-waste cooking is a sign of the times,” says Hudson Riehle, the Association’s senior vice president of research. “Millennial and Gen Z customers, in particular, expect the restaurants they patronize to be more eco-friendly, so sustainability is high on their list. It’s also good for business. Not only is food waste reduction more cost effective, it creates brand loyalty and helps protect the planet. It’s a big win for everyone.”

Increased consumer awareness coupled with USDA’s statistic of 30 to 40% of food produced in the U.S. ending up in the trash makes out-of-the-box or out-of-the-smoker solutions even more appealing.

For retailers ready to take things to the next level, Southern Pride offers smoker equipment in ten different options. One of Southern Pride’s most popular is the SRG-400, a 400-pound capacity stationary rack smoker. About the size of a residential refrigerator, the gas smoker only requires two to three logs per cook cycle. By choosing the right smoker and using quality product, retailers don’t necessarily need an experienced pitmaster to create mouthwatering barbecue, according to Robertson.

A desire to create better smoked foods in the backyard was the original fuel for Cookshack founder Gene Ellis. 50 years later, the Ponca City, Oklahoma-based company produces smokers and related equipment for pitmasters, chefs, caterers and backyard cooks. In 2003, Cookshack joined forces with Ed “Fast Eddy” Maurin for the Fast Eddy’s line of pellet-fired smokers. Maurin is a retired Kansas City, Missouri, firefighter and American Royal World Series of Barbecue alum. Cookshack offers 12 commercial products including electric smokers, pellet smoker ovens, rotisserie smokers, charbroilers and a wood-fired pizza oven.

Beyond great flavor, smokers are also a way to connect with customers. To create an experience worthy of the consumer, supermarkets need to think about what they’re providing and how they are providing this to the consumer, according to Eric Richard, education coordinator, IDDBA, Madison, Wisconsin.

“Experience is important,” Richard says. “Consumers want to know the story behind a product. This is especially true with local products. Supermarkets should make these attributes known. It is also a way to create a sense of community, benefit local producers and create an educational experience for the consumer.”

A friendly approach and a knowledgeable attitude regarding origin and ingredients is very important in an environment that rewards locality. IDDBA recommends using digital messaging, social media and samplings and tasting events to solidify the supermarket as a destination for all meal occasions. 

“People are smoking everything these days, not just barbecue,” Robertson concludes. “The creativity is endless. You can smoke ingredients that go into recipes to impart a smoky flavor. We’ve heard of people smoking water and then freezing it in ice cube trays for smoky bourbon. One customer even smokes bones for dog treats. Smoke has become artisanal.”