Food; every place, any place

May 4, 2012
by WLJ

To bring this story alive, let’s start with two personal anecdotes.

First Steve’s story: In 1998, I remember the talk of Wal-Mart opening their first Supercenter with plans to have over 200 Supercenters throughout the U.S. by 1995. To think that Wal- Mart Supercenters could go from zero to 200 stores in such a short period of time, especially considering the need for such an intense focus and learning curve on the extremely important perishables category, surprised food experts. Consumers at that point were skeptical that the Wal-Mart that they were familiar with could provide their needs like supermarkets had done for years, but traditional retailers were concerned. Today, there are nearly 3,000 Wal-Mart Supercenters and they are one of the top sellers of beef in the world.

Now John’s story: Some years back I asked a younger, single friend if she thought the peaches had been “good this year.” She responded that she had “missed the season,” and really hadn’t been in a grocery store while they were merchandising peaches. I noted that the peach season “lasted three to four months,” and she noted, “that would be about right, I really haven’t shopped for groceries much in three to four months.” Further discussion made me realize that she planned her life around activities, and then would find food that happened to be close by.

The point of these two stories is to spotlight why food distribution will continuously evolve. New players will enter the game. And consumers, at certain points in their lives, will adopt new strategies for getting the food they want.

Case Study #1 – Braum’s Dairy Stores. Brahm’s is headquartered in Oklahoma and started as an ice cream and dairy store. Braum’s Dairy Stores has since transformed itself into a multi-purpose store, still a destination for ice cream and milk, but now also a place to sit down for lunch and dinner, or to buy groceries, frozen items, bakery products, fresh produce and fresh meats.

Author’s Crystal Ball. We have all seen convenience stores and gas stations that sell hot items, with “roller grill” sausages and wrapped items being a common sight. In the gas station industry, the items in the store now drive the bottom line, so we should expect to see an ever-expanding repertoire of food sold.

Case Study #2 – Walgreen’s. Buy your sushi at Walgreen’s? Find a fresh meat case in their stores? Sounds improbable, but on Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2012, a flagship Walgreen’s in Chicago began to offer deli items, gourmet wine, a juice bar and fresh baked goods in addition to sushi, and, yes, fresh meat. Oh yes, there is also a hair salon on the second floor, but this is a story about food. Author’s Crystal Ball: Consider the fact that Wal green’s has over 7,800 drugstores and you can quickly get a sense for the potential this organization has to become a force in the world of food. And what player could do a better job of bringing together the worlds of food and nutrition?

Case Study #3 – Food Trucks. One other phenomenon that is currently taking the culinary world by storm is food trucks. In the past, these would mainly be seen at construction sites and their various nicknames didn’t really encourage the appetite. Today, however, there are thousands of these foods trucks serving casual to gourmet breakfasts, lunches and dinners to people throughout the U.S. Virtually every day part and every cuisine are represented by these enterprising operators and chefs.

Beef certainly plays a role in these operations. Author’s Crystal Ball: Traffic can be very unpredictable in these locations, so quick prep solutions will be invaluable. Space, of course, is at a premium. In light of this, one developmental chef recently told us that a small microwaveable roast would be an ideal raw material allowing the food truck operator to quickly respond profitably to higher traffic than expected.

Case Study #4 – Sit- Down Eating in Grocery Stores—Let’s have lunch. Whole Foods? Costco? Barnes & Noble? Consider the fact that total retail foodservice is estimated by Technomics at over $35 billion, which represents 6.6 percent of total food and non-alcoholic beverage sales, and you can conclude, that’s a lot of lunch. Author’s Crystal Ball: Every retail foodservice outlet wants to be known for offering high quality food. In fact, great food then becomes part of the pull to bring customers into the store for their primary goods. We expect the quality and diversity of food offerings to increase as more and more players seek that signature set of food offerings.

These four case studies are highly visible, but in no way cover all of the changes in food distribution occurring today. Starbucks is highly visible in the breakfast food category and now wants to extend their food offerings into other day parts. Takeout food now exceeds the volume of food eaten at the table in restaurants. Food delivery services are up and running in many major metro markets. The casual restaurant segment continues to grow and morph. It all spells change.

Change forces change

As food distribution continues to evolve, so must beef. And as an industry, we must feed the innovation pipeline. Here is a summary of new thinking, new processes and evolving technologies that will help us better serve current and new food distribution players.

New packaging technology. Extended shelf life packaging will be important in some of these new venues, with slower turns than the two to three days that grocery stores realize.

Package size variety. Many of these new venues have small footprints. And stores in many markets are increasingly selling to smaller households. In fact, 62 percent of households in America today have one to two people. Small retail and housing footprints drive the need for smaller offerings.

Quick prep. Time windows for food preparation are shrinking, both inhome and in the foodservice world. That is why sous vide and microwaveable solutions will continue to find new customers.

Product mix. Having the right “Product” mix is a key. For example, a typical consumer going to the drugstore may be rushed, or carrying a minimal grocery shopping list. You might not want to merchandise a seven-bone pot roast that takes more extensive meal planning.

More likely, you would want to merchandise quick, staple items such as, ground beef, sirloin steak and beef strips. All of these can be quick and very versatile.

To truly meet the needs of customers and consumers, a solutions-based approach will likely be the best. The Beef Innovations Group, funded by the beef checkoff, is working on a program called Convenient Fresh Beef (CFB). This program provides quick and simple solutions for beef meals in less than 30 minutes. CFB uses a combination of technology, chef tricks, and seasoning packets to achieve fantastic results. One example is a microwaveable Sirloin tritip that can be ready in as little as 15 minutes. Microwave and beef are typically two words that are not used in the same sentence, however, this is one of those products where the old adage of “try it, you’ll like it” comes into play. Special self-venting microwave packaging cooks the beef “to order” and it actually browns as it cooks. This is one example among several where innovation from both technical and food science approaches are blended to provide products for today. Applications for these items may be found in-home or elsewhere in the food distribution landscape.


Like Wal-Mart becoming one of the largest sellers of beef in the world today, things that sound inconceivable today might be reality tomorrow. Beef must position itself to be part of this expected change. Innovation in product design, raw materials and technology will be some of the keys to make sure beef is part of this ever-changing dynamic of where consumers buy and will buy their food. — Steve Wald, Executive Director, Beef Innovations, and John Lundeen, Senior Executive Director, Consumer Marketing