Barbecue, that very American way of flavoring and grilling meats, has its history in the Native American Indian populations. Spanish explorers observed the Cherokees and Creek Indians of the Carolinas using crude wooden racks to smoke or dry fish, birds and meats. As they grew accustomed to the idea, the Spanish added beef and pork as meat components.
BBQ in the U.S. has many regional variations and traditions. Traditionally, the flavor has been added by either the material burned in the fire (woods, charcoal, etc.) or by rubs or marinades placed on top of the food. The problem with all of these methods is the need to use large amounts of flavoring material or having to prepare the meat hours or even days ahead to get the flavor fully infused into the meat.
I. P. Callison & Sons, Lacey, Wash., is a family-owned supplier of botanical oils and flavors that has been responsible for putting the mint flavoring into chewing gum since 1903, but it had not had a consumer product before. Company officials rethought the barbecue process and the tools that are used and came up with the idea of putting the flavor into the skewer and letting it migrate from the inside of the food.
The company formed a new division, Callisons Fine Foods (www.seasonedskewers.com) in Seattle, and set out to create premium flavorings that also would be part of the cooking process and could clean up easily. The key was to leverage simple, no-fail cooking options that will still add unique flavor. The result is Seasoned Skewers.
Callisons makes six varieties of Seasoned Skewers: Thai Coconut Lime, Citrus Rosemary, Indian Mango Curry, Honey Bourbon, Mexican Fiesta and Garlic Herb. For this review, we focus on Garlic Herb.
Understanding the marketplace
Americans are cooking less, looking for meals with fewer steps and choosing convenient foods (not just simple to prepare, but also easy to clean up) that are healthy. Yet we still want to feel that we actually "prepared" a meal.
We also are a nation of immigrants. Our cuisine styles have become more varied, with Italian, Chinese and Mexican now considered the norm. Thai, Caribbean, South American, Soul Food and Cajun are trendy cuisine styles. We like flavor and want more. Any cooking method that adds flavor without adding calories or fat is a sure winner.
The seasonings, herbs and spices category has grown 1-2 percent a year between 2000 and 2005, generally following overall U.S. population growth, according to Mintel Intl., and has a market size of $2.15 billion. The big driver of this mature category is seasoning blends with more diverse ethnic flavors and spicy hot seasonings. Garlic and herb ingredients were the largest growth categories of seasonings in 2005.
This category breaks down into seasonings and seasonings and sauce mixes. Seasonings have just less than 80 percent of the market, with seasonings and sauce mixes having the other 20-plus percent. Seasonings grew 3 percent between 2003 and 2005 to $1.7 billion. Seasoning and sauce mixes decreased 3.4 percent in the same period to $400 million.
Private label growth has been substantial, so this mature category needs to become more value-added to drive overall margin growth. Seasonings and spices are pantry staples and have a 91 percent penetration rate, according to a Simmons National Consumer Survey in 2003. They are in danger of becoming commodities. At retail, consumers see McCormick, Morton, Lawry's, Tone Brothers, Best Foods and General Mills as key brands, along with private label.
Spices are used most often in scratch cooking by women and replaced when they run out. BBQ seasoning is more of a man's world.
So how to get barbecueing men to use a different seasoning than the traditional one that is drizzled on top? Callisons has taken an idea that is intuitively obvious, uniquely healthy and provides flavored foods in less time. The flavor is in the stick and so is easy to prepare, fits grilling behavior and is easy to clean up.
Callisons understands consumers need flavor that is easy to add. Marinades take hours, rubs take knowledge of how to use them, flavored burning materials take different know-how. What is simpler than sticking a flavor stick into the food, allowing it to sit in the refrigerator for 15 minutes and then throwing it on the grill, having the flavor migrate out from the inside of the food? The stick even can make the entrée a hand-held food. When the meal is done, the stick is easily thrown away.
Key ideas that can impact the category are convenience, flavor and healthfulness.
Convenience: Ease of cooking has always been a key focus. Grilling usually has been the province of men in most industrialized countries. The food tastes good, grilling can be fun (from the Weber out back to the George Forman in the kitchen) as it is very interactive. The key to grilling is its ability to range from simple to sophisticated. Increasingly expert grilling has been the focus for several decades. Making it simple has only returned in the past few years.
Flavors: It is expected that as the U.S. population becomes more ethnically diverse, there will be an increase in flavor experimentation. The issue is how to leverage this without creating too many SKUs. What is clear is, with our fast paced lifestyles, we search out familiar flavors as the norm and then will experiment with more diverse flavors. Easy-to-use flavor blends give an appearance of knowing how to cook without actually being an expert.
Healthfulness: Seasonings can deliver flavor and health or its halo. Consumers, who are trying to cut back on fat, sugar and salt intake, already know seasonings fit these healthier diets. Some seasonings (garlic, onion, etc.) have health benefits or associations with them. Most seasoning forms use the outside of the food to adhere to, and then fall off during cooking or eating. Adding seasoning inside the food gives more flavor.
Callisons Seasoned Skewers-Garlic Herb are available in packages of 10 sticks for $7.99. One immediate drawback is, once the package is opened there is no inherent way to reclose it. If all the sticks are not used immediately, they may roll all over the storage drawer or need to be repacked.
The label has the logo and the flavor variety called out with a specific background color. The speed of flavoring is called out in a "15-minute flavor" burst at the bottom of the package. The package also suggests all the foods, not just meats, that could be flavored with this product: "chicken, shrimp, halibut, zucchini, mushroom, tiny red potatoes"; elsewhere it also mentions fruit, shrimp and turkey. The "100 percent natural" claim can't hurt.
The stick/skewer form makes it easy to figure out how to use this marinade. The instructions tell you to skewer your food, let it sit for 10-15 minutes and then cook as normal. The food (in this case we tried pounded strips of chicken) is lightly flavored from the inside out. While most BBQ meat has a crispy (caramelized sugar) coating, this meat has a delicate mix of garlic and herbs. It tasted great.
Flavor, freshness and size of piece are the attributes normally used to judge seasoning quality. Seasoned Skewers do not fit these comparisons. The flavoring process is not understood until the skewer is used and the food is tasted. This is one you have to experience to get it.
This product surprises. The flavor is in the center of the food and radiates out. The meat actually becomes infused with the seasoning, transforming its flavor.
Does the product deliver?
Callisons is not a universally known manufacturer of flavors or seasonings like McCormick, which has 50 percent of the market. So brand familiarity is not there.
The product is convenient. It allows consumers to create new food ideas simply by choice of what flavor stick to insert into your familiar meat. This idea imparts gourmet, ease of use and fun at the same time. The product fits American and guy behaviors and lifestyles and is unique in its ability to season from the inside out.
With the interesting variety of flavor options, even inexperienced cooks can give guests such seemingly complex tastes as Thai coconut line and Indian mango curry - with no special effort on the cook's part.
How to make the idea bigger
Innovation always requires product developers to consider how the product fits current behavior or enhances behavior. A new product should not require too much change in behavior too quickly. While Seasoned Skewers' flavoring process is novel, it's easily understandable. And while skewers are not in daily use in the kitchen, they're not unfamiliar.
Actually, the kitchen is one place to which this product is not being marketed. In past discussions, company officials told Food Processing editors these skewers could just as readily be used in the oven or broiler. But no such suggestion is on the packaging, which could limit sales to summertime months only.
After addressing traditional flavoring needs, what other benefits can be delivered by this stick? Can moisture be added, ensuring a flavorful and moist meat? How about adding healthy ingredients or meeting other dietary needs? The options are diverse and large. The packaging could be upgraded to have a closure for smaller families who will not use all the skewers - although repacking into one's own zip bag is not difficult.
Rating: Callisons' Seasoned Skewers does deliver in enhancing consumer behaviors both in cooking and simplicity. The biggest issue is what flavor blends and where to store this.
Market Potential: Good fit to behavior, good for the category. Great innovation example of looking at what everyone else looks at, looking at it differently and finding a way to create a new flavor delivery system.
Hollis Ashman is chief strategist and Jacqueline Beckley is president of the Understanding & Insight Group, a strategy, business and product development firm that connects with consumers using qualitative and quantitative approaches. For more information, see www.theuandigroup.com.