DES MOINES, Iowa — When consumers are ready to return to their favorite restaurant, the bacon — and sausage and ham — will be ready for them.
“There’s this pent-up demand to really go out to restaurants,” said Neil Hull, director of channel marketing at the National Pork Board.
While consumers were largely held back from their favorite fast-food dining spots due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Hull and others at National Pork Board were working with national restaurant and retail chains to increase the profile of different pork products and add pork to the menus and meat cases of restaurants, convenience stores and retail grocery chains.
Hull said the new offerings and the reopening of restaurants and venues is an encouraging sign for domestic pork demand going forward.
“We are excited about what’s happening in the retail channel,” Hull said. “We are excited that foodservice is starting to gain momentum and coming back.”
The National Pork Board started working with IHOP, formerly known as International House of Pancakes, in 2019. In May 2021, IHOP launched its “Bacon Obsession” menu, which Hull said is “bigger than bacon.” That menu also features bigger bacon.
“They have a new bacon that is five times thicker than traditional bacon,” Hull said.
The “Bacon Obsession” menu takes bacon beyond the breakfast table with items like the Steakhouse Premium Bacon Burger and a Maple Bacon Milkshake and Candied Bacon Pancakes.
Jay Johns, IHOP president, said that more than 50% of IHOP customers order bacon. The additional bacon items beyond the breakfast menu also are a win for the Pork Checkoff, as the blue Pork Board logo is featured throughout the promotional materials for the “Bacon Obsession” menu and menu items, Hull said.
“We, for a long time, have owned the breakfast segment with bacon, but really the awesome part with what IHOP is doing is they are taking bacon beyond just breakfast and adding it to the other day menus,” Hull said.
EG America operates over 1,700 convenience stores in 31 states. The EG America brand family includes Kwik Shop, Loaf ‘n Jug, Cumberland Farms, Turkey Hill, Tom Thumb, Quik Stop, Minit Mart, Fastrac and Certified Oil.
Late in 2020, EG America launched “The Big Pig,” a new limited-time breakfast sandwich.
“The exciting part about that sandwich is it has 9 ounces of pork on it, between bacon, sausage and ham,” Hull said.
The other exciting part is that the sandwich was so popular that the company made it a full-time menu offering.
In addition, EG America added two new breakfast pizzas that include bacon and sausage to their menu lineup.
“What you are seeing with convenience stores is the ones that are being successful are moving more and more toward foodservice. They are not making as much money selling cigarettes and gas as they used to, so they are focused on food,” Hull said.
Convenience stores also saw their food business help out the bottom line during pandemic quarantines.
“That easy grab ‘n go, during the pandemic, was really a sweet spot for the convenience store segment because as people were looking for variety in their meal routines, it was really easy to pop into a convenience store,” Hull said.
What do you do when you can’t offer the samples for which your stores are famous? You use your smarts — smartphone technology, that is.
When the pandemic changed how shopping clubs, like Sam’s Club, promoted new products and products on special, with their traditional and popular in-store samples, the nationwide shopping club helped shoppers choose products another way. Hull said a promotion in January 2021 with Kinder’s Seasonings showed the value of digital technology for pork consumers.
“They converted to a digital demo program where the shopper would go in, there was a display with a QR code, you would scan that display with your smartphone and it would come up with a real simple recipe, for example for boneless chops, then you could add those items to your cart,” Hull said.
While the process might sound complicated, Sam’s Club shoppers took to it with enthusiasm.
“Sixty-one percent of the consumers that were purchasing had not purchased boneless chops at Sam’s Club the prior four months. They saw a 42% growth in sales in both volume and dollars compared to the prior four-week average. As people had cooking fatigue, we were trying to make pork more approachable, so they could take it home and prepare a really delicious meal,” Hull said.
The Smiling Pig should make U.S. pig farmers happy. The new menu item at Quizno’s, set to roll out later this year, is a sandwich that will include smoked pork loin, ham and bacon.
“We are really excited about what that offering will bring to their stores nationwide,” Hull said.
Promoting pork at the retail level is about more than the product itself. It’s also about educating consumers on how to properly prepare different cuts of pork to have a delicious eating experience — and make a return trip to buy more.
To that end, new product offerings in Target stores aim to help consumers cook their pork properly.
“There will be four new fresh pork chop items launched at Target. The best news for us and for producers is they will be the first items at Target in the fresh pork case that have proper cook temperature messaging. On the back of the labels it clearly states ‘cook to 145 degrees Fahrenheit with a three minute rest,’ which is really where we spend a lot of time with our retail partners on that consumer education side,” Hull said.
Pork Board officials said that, to the best of their knowledge, the Target pork products are part of Tyson’s “Chairman’s Reserve” premium line, which are produced in Council Bluffs.