One-on-one With Eric Leblanc

Eric LeBlanc joined Tyson Foods in July 2002 as Category Manager, Hospitality in Foodservice Marketing. In May of 2003 he assumed leadership of Tyson's marketing efforts for Deli, Prepared Foods. LeBlanc's background includes marketing meat products in both foodservice and retail channels, and years of management experience in retail store operations and restaurant operations.
Q: What is the genesis of Tyson Deli Specialties as a business?
A: Little more than a year ago this sprang from a pretty elemental insight: if consumers are willing to buy hot chicken from the deli, is there any reason they would not be willing to buy hot pork or hot beef from the deli? We didn’t see anybody really concentrating on inventing deli specific products in beef and pork. There was an unmet demand out there, if all we have to offer is chicken in the deli. There aren’t that many restaurants that build their menus around one protein. So the question was, what good reason was there that beef and pork not to be among deli proteins? The timing was right because every Tyson business unit was challenged to find a way to think across our new capability as a company after the IBP acquisition. We were looking to integrate beef and pork in part of the same chicken channel. At the same time our deli-marketing group consolidated for the first time.
Q: What specifically inspired the Tyson Deli Specialties concept?
A: Today the world is saying we must have the stuff in our delis, and we think it will take time. Rotisserie chicken did not become what it is overnight, it took time to grow with people pioneering and working at it. There was no real compelling reason why chicken in rotisserie ovens and cooking birds in your deli made a ton of sense. We are convinced that the same thing will happen here. At Tyson we are very convinced that there is an opportunity for deli to create a new dining channel. And that is what deli can be. Deli Specialties is just our first opening salvo in working toward that end because we think that there is a real need. If you look at people going for fast casual, they are going for quality, variety, and freshness — deli can deliver on all of these.
Q: What were the steps in the deli product development odyssey?
A: First this is in incubation. In a year we went from zero to 11 products. We have retail-ready party pack featuring wings and meatballs. We asked Andrew [Andrew Dismore, developmental chef with Noble Associates, The Food Marketing Agency in Springfield, MO] for some beef and pork items, within a certain price range and production costs, and specific flavor profiles. We wanted an ethnic feel. Having a chef personally prepare 23 dishes was incredible. He was not trying to do flashy dishes, but rather things that would execute at deli. They were all fabulous. Then we started looking at them in terms of what was executable. We wanted to come up with a line of 10 to 12 products. We started with concepts that included a name and a description. We picked out 24 or so that performed well on the concept screening. Then based on how applicable they were for deli and how well they performed, we pared the list to 12, with one being eliminated due to capacity issues. The thing that makes Andrew a good chef is not just his food talent, which you expect but he is also very business savvy. He can do wonderful things for restaurants, and he understands that is not deli. His culinary inspiration worked with Tyson’s R&D expertise under Tim Ray, project leader for deli R&D with six other members, who translated everything into production terms. That is how we came up with this collection of products — only one beef product in this particular mix with the rest being pork products — ranging from the very close in comfort food (pork loin, pork chop) and starting to step up with a nice half rack of barbeque pork ribs then marching on a bit with Cajun pork chop, Asian barbecue rib, and Carnita meat. Our thought was, you gotta walk before you run, so once we get folks out there to wrap their heads around beef and pork, and the consumer to begin thinking about this, then we can bring diversity out further.
Q: What is the mission of Tyson Deli Specialties?
A: We developed these products specifically for retailers. We wanted to come up with a range of products that made some sense — now we are trying to help retailers understand that they need to think in terms of meal occasions, because they are not restaurateurs. It is not enough to drop Asian spareribs into your deli, you have to determine what will go with it. Will it be coleslaw? Probably not, but if you offer the center-of-the-plate protein, you ought to offer the things that would go with it. Why not beans with barbecue spareribs, for example? There will be operational issues to resolve. We have designed these products to fit re-thermal methods available in deli and to withstand the special operating conditions of being held under a heat lamp for three hours. Also anyplace that doesn’t have a checkout register in the deli department is making a mistake.
Q: Is the retail segment open to the Deli Specialties concept?
A: The real issue in my mind is that at retail, supermarket delis have QSR [quick service restaurant] envy — they always want to link up with what is happening at QSR. We think that is completely misguided. They need to look at the to-go service offered at restaurants. That’s where they need to hit. They need to put their pricing courage on it. Nobody is saying $3.99 for a whole cooked chicken is a lot of money. People can’t believe how cheap that is. Why not charge $6.99? Not doing so is missing the mark because people will eat QSR food on only so many different meal occasions. It is true that it is difficult to be more convenient than QSR, which will be a hard game to win. They are structured for volume on limited menu, but that is not the attraction. People perceive that QSR offers higher quality, better taste, and better eating experience. People are moving away from classic QSR establishments toward fast-casual dining experiences. Food sophistication in terms of desirability is rising, but it does not spillover into home cooking. Consumers are saying ‘I’m smart about food and I know the difference between QSR and fine dining. I like fine dining, but can’t afford it all the time. I want to eat at home and I want to eat well, but I don’t have the equipment.’ Who is in a position to meet this need? Deli. Casual dining is in a position to capture that segment. We are saying to supermarkets, this is the opportunity you have been waiting for. No matter who you are, that big national retailer or whether you are trying to compete with them, there are places where you can play in here.
Q: Are there special challenges related to convincing retailers of the benefits of Deli Specialties?
A: You have to make the deli a focal point. Retailers must be prepared to give the same type of support to these types of programs that they do for rotisserie chicken. The ring on a prime rib is much higher than on a rotisserie chicken. If only one in four shoppers is stopping at the deli, you should not count too heavily on your foot traffic. We offer merchandising solutions to help support the deli format. Traditionally a retailer worries about shrinkage, so we have ideas on how to repurpose what doesn’t sell. Today’s rotisserie chicken that doesn’t sell can go into tomorrow’s casserole. Now it is an ingredient, so where is the waste? We can’t take away all the waste, but there are ways to repurpose some things. Every restaurant on the planet does that. Our deli retailers are not restaurateurs, so they are not necessarily thinking that way. We are here to help them. That is our foodservice expertise.