A Time for Change
By Lynn Petrak, Special Projects Editor
Large processors and specialty makers alike expand demand for breakfast and dinner sausages.
For a mature product, sausage certainly is not showing its age. Still a popular protein of choice throughout the day, this centuries-old food has contemporary comfort-food appeal as well as gourmet cache and global influence.
The combined sausage category remains a strong one, racking up more than $2.5 billion in year in retail sales on a scannable weight basis alone. The biggest news, if one had to pinpoint a headline story for breakfast and dinner sausage, is that these are categories that are dynamic in product development. For all dayparts, new items are entering the market seemingly every month, made from different species and incorporating a virtual kitchen of flavors.
Morning rush
Today’s trends are evident in the very beginning of the market, so to speak. Breakfast sausage includes a greater range of products than in the past, when chubs and links with fairly limited seasonings were the primary form at the retail level.
“Some of the flavored sausages, the maple sausage links and sage links, have penetrated the top fifteen [sellers],” says Karen Boillot, director of retail marketing for the Des Moines, IA-based National Pork Board.
On one hand, breakfast sausages marketed by major brands represent a departure from past varieties because of their flavor profiles. Links, patties, and clubs infused with ingredients like sage, syrup, apples, berries, and peppers, just to name a few, are now on the product roster of many leading players.
Flavored sausages open the door to stronger sales, relays Nancy Cowen, director of marketing for Columbus, OH-based Bob Evans Farms. “Sage has been a growth item for sausage for us,” she reports.
Over the past 12 months, various large processors have rolled out intensely flavored sausages for breakfast. The Jimmy Dean brand from Cincinnati, OH-based Sara Lee Foods, for example, now includes new Jimmy Dean Bold Country Premium pork sausage with a bolder and hotter flavor.
When Sheboygan, WI-based Johnsonville Foods debuted a new line of precooked breakfast sausage in 2004, the company included a Vermont Maple Syrup variety to complement its Original flavor.
Meanwhile, formats for breakfast sausages unveiled by the nation’s leading brands are changing, as well. Sausage is an ingredient in more breakfast meal solutions these days. Sara Lee Foods, for instance, recently developed new Jimmy Dean Frozen Wraps with a Sausage, Egg, and Cheese variety.
In addition, the Aunt Jemima line of frozen breakfast foods from Mountain Lakes, NJ-based Pinnacle Foods Corporation now features Griddlecake Frozen Breakfast Sandwiches with Sausage and Frozen French Toast Sandwiches with Sausage. Another traditional pancake manufacturer, Spartanburg, SC-based Mama Mary’s, recently developed a pancake sandwich with sausage. And Murrys Inc., Upper Marlboro, MD, has begun selling its Frozen French Toast Sticks in the same package as its pork sausage patties.
Another hotbed of activity over the past several years among the big brands has been the addition of pre-cooked products. Swift and Company, Greeley, CO, soon will launch a line of six new cooked sausage patties and links to go along with its new fresh breakfast sausages. “Regarding dayparts, breakfast continues to be used more traditionally with one exception — the fully cooked category is much more convenience, on-the-go driven,” says Scott Eckert, vice president of marketing. “We believe that this will help expand usage beyond traditional breakfast occasions.”
Not to be outdone by major processing companies are gourmet and ethnic sausage companies, who are trying to tap into the demand for flavorful and convenient morning sausages. Among its other new gourmet chicken sausage offerings, Empire Kosher, Mifflintown, PA recently rolled out a new Sweet Apple and Cinnamon variety. Another well-known gourmet maker, Aidells Sausage Company, San Leandro, CA, puts a spin on tradition with breakfast products like Mango Breakfast Links and Maple and Smoked Bacon Breakfast links and Chicken and Apple “minis.”
Chicago-based Sausages by Amy also has broadened its line of gourmet pork and chicken breakfast sausage, which includes SKUs like Apple and Gouda Cheese, Apple, Maple and Sage, Cranberry and Cognac chicken sausages, and Sugarhouse Maple, Sweet Cranberry, and Orange pork sausages.
Amy Kurzawski, owner, chief executive officer,  and creator, says consumer research is pivotal. “We are constantly adding flavors to our various lines of products. In addition, our existing flavors are always evolving and improving to meet the demands of today’s more discerning customer,” she notes.
Ethnic sausages can be used for breakfast dining as well. Latin flavors like Chorizo and pepper-laced sausages are served alongside breakfast meals or incorporated into breakfast dishes like frittatas and omelets. Even Greek sausages flavored with spinach and feta make for popular breakfast dishes, too.
Sausage suppers
Sausages may be perennial breakfast partners, but they are really heating up the dinner daypart. Figures from Information Resources Inc. of Chicago relay that sales of branded dinner sausages topped $1.5 billion over the past year, a 4.4 percent increase. At least eight markets showed an increase in dollar sales.
The surge within the dinner sausage segment largely can be traced to product innovation. “Overall, dinner sausage has been a growth market due to flavors and variations offered, including gourmet and ethnic,” points out Ayoka Blandford, manager of public affairs for the Washington, DC-based National Hot Dog and Sausage Council, a project of the American Meat Association.
Much of the flavor and variations in dinner sausage come from specialty sausage companies, which began shaking things up nearly a decade ago with new pre-cooked, highly-seasoned gourmet products, many of them poultry based.
“Distinct flavors are much more mainstream now, compared to five years ago,” observes Kurzawski, adding that gourmet dinner sausages are ultimately appealing because of the marriage of flavor, convenience, and versatility. “For example, our flavor profiles are being incorporated into mainstream dishes now, such as pasta dishes and soups.” Among its dinner sausage offerings, the company sells gourmet flavors like Sun Dried Tomato and Basil.
Empire Kosher also developed a Sun Dried Tomato Basil flavor for its new gourmet chicken sausage line, along with a Wild Mushroom Garlic variety. Meanwhile, as with its breakfast line, Aidells is known for blending unusual ingredients into its inner sausages, which include out-of-the-box flavors like Whiskey Fennel, Bier, Artichoke and Garlic, and Portobello, to name a few.
Gourmet products, to a smaller extent, also include organic and all-natural profiles. Such products can command more in price and are usually merchandised in organic sections of the supermarket or sold at specialty and organic shops. Smaller, regional processors like Bilinski Sausage Mfg. Co, Cohoes, NY, are increasingly marketing sausages made from organically-fed animals raised without the use of antibiotics, hormones, or growth stimulants. Bilinski recently introduced Certified Organic Chicken Sausage in Sweet Italian, Spinach and Garlic, and Apple-Mango varieties.
Some of the most notable action in the dinner sausage category has focused on ethnic varieties. Kurzawski says that Sausages by Amy does well with its ethnically-inspired flavors like Andouille, Gourmet Chorizo, Bravo Italiano, and Chipotle Pepper. A review of the Aidells roster also turns up several globally-derived flavors, such as Burmese Curry, Cajun Style Andouille, Cuban with Black Bean, Habanero and Green Chile, Hot Creole, New Mexico, and Thai.
There has been particular interest in Cajun-style dinner sausages in recent years. Manda Fine Meats, Baton Rouge, LA, for its part, has been making the same recipe for years but has experienced more consumer demand for Cajun flavors.
“It’s no longer a craze — it’s grown into something that is permanent,” reports Chief Executive Officer Robert Yarborough, who points to the all-important factor of taste as a reason. “The appealing part is the flavor.”
Flavor also has been often cited by users of Falls River, MA-based Sardhinas Sausages, which are made with Portuguese seasonsings. “It’s the pepper and garlic for the most part, and we use a lot of paprika,” explains company president Ed Sardhina, who links interest in ethnic flavors to consumer exposure to more cuisines. “You see the trend going that way — people are more open to trying new things."
While Cajun, Latin, and to a smaller extent, Asian-style flavors are showing up in more sausages blends, Italian-seasoned sausages have become practically ubiquitous. Even companies specializing in traditional varieties are capitalizing on Americans’ penchant for Italian flavors.
Cher-Make Sausage, Manitowoc, WI, is one example of such a company. Among its new offerings, the company recently unveiled a Smoked Italian Sausage with Wisconsin Mozzarella cheese.
“From the late 1960s when pizza took off, Italian is now mainstream,” remarks John Grosser, director of sales and marketing. “Consumers expect Italian product have that flavor profile they are familiar with now.”
Cher-Make also has focused on ethnic flavors for its new line of gourmet chicken sausages, with items like Italian Sausage with Sun-Dried Tomatoes, Italian Sausage with Romano Cheese, and Lemon-Pepper Sausage with Mozzarella Cheese.
Meanwhile, as regional and specialty take aim at gourmet and ethnic options, the nation’s top brands also are investing in new product development. Sara Lee Foods, for example, kicked things up a notch by co-branding with famed chef Emeril Lagasse to unveil a line of Emeril’s gourmet turkey and chicken smoked sausages, including flavors like Habanero and Green Chile and Kicked Up Smoked, among others.
Johnsonville, which has posted impressive sales gains over the past year, also has expanded its product line to attract consumers. Among some of its newer SKUs: Honey and Garlic bratwurst, Irish-O-Garlic links, New Orleans Smoked Sausage, and heat-and-serve bratwurst and Italian sausages now sold in resealable, stand-up pouches.
Bob Evans Farms, after offering more precooked options over the past few years, has delved into sausage-based meal solutions for the dinner segment.
“We’ve introduced a refrigerated sausage chili,” reports Cowen, who lists several reasons for the launch. “We keep seeing convenience growing and sausage fits into that perfectly.” The twin-packs of the sausage chili, which were previously available in the frozen section, are now sold in the refrigerated section of the supermarket with other meal solutions, according to Cowen.
Finally, while creativity is heralded and sausages are available in more varieties than ever before, there is a limit to the possibilities — and to American palates.
“You can get some funky flavors,” cautions Boillot. Adds Grosser: “You have to be careful not to go too far.”