Reinventing the Lamb
By Sam Gazdziak, Senior Editor
Having already created innovative products for the butcher’s case, Mountain States Rosen is taking cooked lamb and vealproducts into the fresh and frozen food aisles.
Think of lamb and the first food items that typically come to mind are lamb chops and leg of lamb. If Mountain States Rosen (MSR), Bronx, NY and Greely, CO, has its way, meatballs, sausage, and barbecue ribs will soon be added to the list.
This month, MSR is offering its line of Cedar Springs microwaveable pre-cooked lamb and veal products. The new products, which include lamb meatballs, veal patties, lamb and veal sausage, and baby-back lamb ribs — cooked or raw — further solidifies the company’s reputation as an innovator in the lamb market, says Bruce Rosen, president.
“Any new lamb cut over the last fifteen years, we’ve developed first,” he says. “Whether it’s been our block-ready loin to our E-Z Cut loin or butterflied leg, the rest of the industry has copied after that.”
Rosen has been continuously expanding lamb beyond chops and racks for several years. Among its biggest sellers are a butterflied leg and a four-rib frenched rack, which have simplified the consumers’ preparation process and made it easier for a family to have lamb for dinner. The products are also pre-cut and pre-packaged, with cooking instructions on the label, making it easier for butchers to move the product.
“Conceptually, we have the theme of making it consumer friendly and decreasing shrink,” says David Gage, MSR vice president. Whereas a fresh store-cut leg of lamb may only have a three-day shelf life, Rosen’s packaged portions can last for 21 days or longer, depending on the type of cut.
“The average supermarket is trained to fill their meat case by volume,” says Joe DiBenedetto, sales and marketing. “The last items they’re going to fill, because it’s such a small percentage of their sales, is lamb and veal. But if you get items that they can take out of the box, put in the case, and have an extended shelf life, they’ll put it in the case.”
The right raw material
Mountain States Rosen has only existed since 2003, but it has a strong background. It began when B. Rosen & Sons, a three-generation lamb processor from Bronx, NY, sold an interest in the company to Mountain States Lamb & Wool Cooperative, a group of more than 100 producers located in more than 10 states. The new company, Mountain States Rosen, became the only vertically integrated lamb processor in the country.
“We merged with them for a few reasons,” Gage says. “To have a consistent supply of lambs, to have price stabilization as best as one could have, and to have producers with an interest in the marketing side of the business. There was a disconnect between producers who worked very hard at producing a very nice lamb and the marketers and fabricators like ourselves. There were too many middle men.”
The merger gave Rosen a steady supply of quality lambs, enough to fill its two processing plants in New York and Greeley, CO. The company further increased the quality of its meat supply in 2004 when it joined with Premier Veal, a New York-based producer and owner of Formula #1 fed calves. “So we have probably tripled our production in calves, and now we have the right calves, also,” Gage says. About 20 butchers from the Premier facility have been integrated into the Rosen production lines, making for a smooth transition. MSR, for its part has successfully applied some of its theories from lamb processing into the veal processing.
The company’s customers also benefited from having a single source supply both lamb and veal. “In a lot of supermarkets, the lamb buyer and the veal buyer are the same person,” says David Bernstein, vice president, sales.
Mark Hirschorn, a former executive at Premier and now a sales executive for MSR, says both companies have benefited from the merger. “Their distribution is pretty national, while at Premier we worked within the tri-state area,” he says. “By tapping into some of their resources and distribution across the country, it has helped expand sales. We just felt that to move forward and remain in the industry, this was the best move for us.”
Doing their homework
The Cedar Springs cooked items have been in development for more than a year and were formally introduced at this year’s American Meat Institute Annual Meat Conference in Orlando, FL. DiBenedetto, who worked in the grocery industry for almost 50 years prior to joining MSR, says, “I’ve seen a lot of programs developed haphazardly, and they never really matured into anything. But a lot of background study went into these items. It really was done the right way.”
One of MSR’s initial steps was to commission a report detailing the lamb-eating reports of consumers. The report, which Gage says is the largest in the industry, helped to identify the reasons why consumers do not eat lamb, and it noted several areas where the consumer was looking for lamb products. One of the key areas was sausage. “It’s a $31 billion industry that nobody [in the lamb industry] had tapped into,” Gage notes. “We took a look at this and helped formulize our plans on what direction we were going.”
The study noted that 25 percent of the respondents said they would be more likely to purchase lamb if it had a recognizable brand name, which led to the Cedar Springs name on both the cooked and case-ready items.
Once the initial concept was created, specific products were developed. Interest in producing cooked products rose within the company when the first meatballs and sausages were produced. “When we started to develop a taste profile for the items, I think that’s when the interest really started to peak within our own organization,” DiBenedetto says. “That’s when we really started to see — or taste — the capabilities of the item.”
Each taste profile was developed internally and fine-tuned through feedback from chefs, MSR’s growers, and internal tastings. “The profiles have changed a dozen times for each item until we reached a general consensus,” DiBenedetto notes. “It was a very tough process.”
With all the work that went into to developing the product, MSR made certain that the packaging surrounding it was just as good. The company invested significantly in the development of the packaging as well, down to the blue color. The packaging also includes cooking information and references the company’s Web site, www.usalamb.com, which contains lamb recipes and other information.
DiBenedetto says one of the exciting things about the Cedar Springs brand is that it is an extension to the lamb category. “No one in the market produces anything like this. They were developed for a family that does not eat lamb currently, whether it’s due to a lack of knowledge of cooking or time constraints,” he says. “These items are unique to the marketplace.
“Being a past retailer myself, these are the type of items you would look to develop,” he adds. “Number one, there is no shrink factor. Number two, there’s an extended shelf life. Number three, it’s quality-added.”
“This is going to be the next generation of products out of the lamb and veal category,” Gage says. “It took a big investment to put this together, but we feel this is going to be our future. No one else is moving forward. There are more people doing the traditional cuts, but why not a lamb sausage?”
Consumer- and retailer-friendly
The Cedar Springs cooked products are produced by an outside company, using MSR’s meat and its packaging. The company’s other products are processed in its two plants.
MSR processes about 12,000 lambs and 950 calves per week. The Greeley plant, which is 70,000 square feet in size, does the bulk of the lamb processing, and the Bronx plant, at more than 31,000 square feet, does some lamb and all of the veal processing. That facility more than doubled in size to accommodate the Premier veal processing.
While the Cedar Springs cooked items are the company’s newest product offerings, MSR is still focusing on its case-ready items as well.
The lamb and veal markets have many similarities, as both are considered a high-end meat market. They make up a relatively small section of a typical meat case, however. Bernstein estimates that by the time a grocer has stocked the poultry, beef, and pork, there may be as little as two percent left for lamb and veal. MSR, as a result, also helps its customers to sell the meat, not just supply it.
When the New York plant expanded last year to accommodate veal production, the company also added a tray-pack, low-ox, and high-ox packaging line. It then introduced the E-Z Cut line of pre-cut portions, which includes the popular four-rib frenched rack and E-Z Cut loin of veal and lamb. Gage notes that due to labor problems, there are not as many supermarket butchers who know how to produce a good lamb cut. Once MSR developed the E-Z cut loin of lamb and veal, retailers could offer their consumers an item that extends the shelf life of the product to 21 days as opposed to three or four days, with a cost difference of about a dollar a pound less then a tray pack item. Along with taking the burden off the retailer, it also makes for more convenient products for consumers.
One customer was cutting and traying his loin chops, and he was dealing with 15 to 20 percent shrink. Once MSR introduced the E-Z Cut lamb and veal loins and provided cooking instructions and recipe help on the label, the shrink was reduced to about five percent. “So at the same costs, he’s picked up ten percent on an expensive item,” Gage says.
MSR has also invested in making its packaging more attractive, and has in the past included recipes and $1 coupons on its labels. “From a marketing standpoint, we try everything that we think will help increase the sales of lamb for both us and our customers,” Gage says.
The company understands that shrink for lamb is generally higher for other meat products, which can hinder attempts to broaden the lamb section of a meat case. “A grocer thinks ‘I threw away twenty-five percent of the lamb, which is an expensive item, so I’m going to order less,’” says Gage. “Sooner or later, he’ll have nothing in his case. But if we give him something that can sit in his case for two weeks, he’s comfortable and is back ordering it.”
“The items are really ideal for today’s supermarket and today’s consumer,” DiBenedetto adds. “What the consumer looks for is an item that is quality and has a minimal amount of time for preparation. It’s something you’re going to get repeat sales on.”
Along with the cooked and case-ready products for the retail market, MSR also sells about 30 percent of its product to restaurants. It also supplies fresh meats to supermarkets and delis in the tri-state area. One new area that has strong growth potential is the company’s Shepherd’s Pride line of no-hormone, no-antibiotic lamb, which is source verified. “It’s a category that, when we made the merger with the Mountain States Lamb & Wool Co-op, we put on our priority list,” Gage says. “We’ve had a lot of interest in it.”
If the Cedar Springs line does as well as anticipated, Mountain States Rosen will add to its reputation as a leader of the lamb industry. “We’ve always been the first to change with the industry, to become case-ready, to move into a plant like this and invest the money,” Rosen says. “We’ve always been the front-runner in the industry on what the consumer’s looking for.” NP