The question on everyone’s mind: When will the tough economy turn itself around? Pundits and experts aren’t sure, with estimates ranging from mid-2009 to as far away as 2012 before the economy recovers from the current recession. Yet, for those watching every move of the economic sector, there have been a few signs of hope.

Even foodservice operators have attempted to jump on the ship riding the tidal surge of hope for the nation in the face of the inauguration of President Barack Obama. An article titled “Buy Obama dog? Yes, you can!” published in the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, Jan. 20, 2009, described a special Obama hot dog at the Hank’s Haute Dogs restaurant in Honolulu. Owner Henry Adaniya created the faire hoping to benefit from the new president’s popularity and the positive vibes emanating from his entry into office.

In fact, according to the sales figures supplied by Information Resources Inc. (IRI) on the following pages, it appears that Adaniya has been in the right industry for the past year. Sausages and frankfurters in retail applications have shown steady overall sales growth through what has been a tough time for many.

Certainly, the figures haven’t skyrocketed, but given the nearly constant barrage of negative news hammering Wall Street and “Main Street” during the past few months, those processors in the hot dog and sausage sectors should be able to crack at least a bit of a smile over 2008 totals.

Innovation, both in the form of recipe innovation and new product development, has led this charge, at least in part. Odom’s Tennessee Pride, for example, launched a new all-natural, fresh roll sausage product in May of last year. Innovation will not be put on the backburner in 2009 for companies such as Tennessee Pride, either — in late 2008 the company launched an all-natural, fully cooked line of turkey sausage patties to complement the roll sausage product.

Frankfurter manufacturers would not be outdone in 2008 in the new-product realm either. Ball Park Franks did not stand on the sidelines, launching two new products in the spring/summer: Angus Beef Franks and Turkey Franks. Oscar Mayer, for its part, introduced Premium Beef Franks in three varieties: Premium Beef Franks, Premium Beef Jumbo Franks and Premium Beef Bun-Length Franks.

On the foodservice front, innovation — through both products and promotion — spurred along not only the breakfast sausage category, but also the breakfast daypart in general. For example, Johnsonville Foods Inc., among the leaders in most every sausage retail category, launched its Breakfast Skillet Sausage in 2008, designed for use in on-the-go operations, where consumers run in, grab their meal or snack, pay and go.

Foodservice operators are pushing hard to capture a wider, although pickier, breakfast audience. With the economy pressuring more consumers to make smarter choices, restaurants have been forced to focus on adding value and capturing the attention of potential customers.

A perfect example of the road ahead may have come in the form of Denny’s recent promotion tied into the Super Bowl and its Grand Slam breakfast. On Feb. 3, Denny’s offered anyone who came into one of its restaurants between 6 a.m. and 2 p.m. a free Grand Slam. Based on early indications, the promotion was executed without a hitch despite packed restaurants and lines through the parking lot in some locations. According to a report on the Reno News Web site, the company expected as many as two million people would take advantage of the promotion, and that each restaurant was prepared to dole out approximately 100 Grand Slams per hour during the promotion.

This type of aggressive promotion is likely to continue in the heavily saturated foodservice arena in 2009 — a good sign for sausage manufacturers, as it creates consumer demand. The retail side of the equation will need to respond to maintain its hold on the at-home chefs.

The upcoming year promises mostly uncertainty, but based on the sausage sector’s effective navigation through the rough waters in 2008, the industry could be well-positioned when the economy begins to climb out of the recession.