Dinner Sausage Sizzles
The days of sausage as a breakfast-only item are over, as an increasing array of dinner varieties hit the market.
Move over, traditional brats. Stand back, Italian and Polish sausage. There’s a new dinner sausage on the block, and it’s making major inroads into what was once considered a somewhat pedestrian category.
Actually, make that a number of new dinner sausages — with one aspect in common — bold, spicy flavors. Think chorizos, andouille, and links with ingredients such as jalapeno peppers, Portobello mushrooms, feta cheese or Vidalia onions.  
“It’s not that consumers have finally discovered the dinner sausage, it’s that the dinner sausage has been reinvented,” says Marcia Mogelonsky, senior research analyst with Mintel. “More sophisticated flavors and presentations have conspired to make dinner sausage an upscale food. While it was once the dinner choice of last resort, it’s now a ‘go-to’ protein.”
Top 10 Dinner Sausage Brands*
  Dollar Sales ($ millions) Dollar Sales % Change Prior Year Dollar Share Unit Sales (millions) Unit Sales % Change Prior Year
1. Hillshire Farm 268.4 -2.3 17.3 89.9 -2.7
2. Johnsonville 248.5 3.9 16.0 60.1 6.3
3. Private Label 125.3 5.0 8.1 43.5 10.2
4. Eckrich 78.0 -18.3 5.0 27.0 -17.5
5. Premio 27.8 16.0 1.8 8.1 17.0
6. John Morrell 27.0 1.6 1.7 14.9 5.6
7. Aidells 26.3 11.8 1.7 4.4 10.6
8. Bar S 25.7 -6.1 1.7 7.0 -7.8
9. Johnsonville Beddar with Cheddar 23.3 19.8 1.5 7.0 22.4
10. Bryan 22.0 -18.5 1.4 7.8 -18.7
Total Category 1,553.8 -1.8 100 487.5 -1.5
*Total U.S. -F/D/MX (supermarkets, drug stores, and mass merchandisers (excluding Wal-Mart) for the 52 weeks ending July 16, 2006.
Source: Information Resources Inc.

Indeed, the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council reports that supermarket sales of dinner sausages reached $1.5 billion last year, up almost 17 percent from five years earlier and outpacing breakfast sausage.
Gains are being made in a number of arenas. While Hillshire Farms and Johnsonville Sausage Co. hold the top two spots in retail sales, private-label dinner sausage posted a 5.4 percent gain over the past year, according to data from Information Resources Inc. (IRI), boosting store-brand share to 8 percent and making it the third biggest seller.
Top 10 Refrigerated Frankfurter Brands*
  Dollar Sales ($ millions) Dollar Sales % Change Prior Year Dollar Share Unit Sales (millions) Unit Sales % Change Prior Year
1. Oscar Mayer 299.0 -3.4 19.1 114.4 -4.4
2. Ball Park 258.2 1.0 16.5 93.7 -0.4
3. Bar S 127.1 5.5 8.1 114.7 6.8
4. Private Label 93.6 -5.7 6.0 61.4 -5.1
5. Hebrew National 83.6 5.2 5.3 22.4 10.0
6. Nathan 76.9 7.7 4.9 19.9 4.9
7. Gwaltney 39.8 5.2 2.5 30.0 -2.4
8. Bryan 29.5 -10.9 1.9 15.3 -6.7
9. John Morrell 25.0 -11.0 1.6 23.6 -14.6
10. Eckrich 23.1 -16.5 1.5 13.7 -17.1
Total Category 1,566.8 -4.6 100 743.6 -6.7
*Total U.S. -F/D/MX (supermarkets, drug stores, and mass merchandisers (excluding Wal-Mart) for the 52 weeks ending July 16, 2006.
Source: Information Resources Inc.

According to Paul Reich, senior vice president of sales and marketing at Waelder, Texas-based J Bar B, private label owes its recent success to the quality of the products offered under store brands, as well as to retailer efforts to differentiate themselves from the competition with unique flavor profiles. “Retailers want something different than what everyone else has,” he said. “They want dinner-sausage options that set them apart.”
Bold flavors are proving so popular that J Bar B rolled out four new varieties earlier this spring: chili cheese and onion, garlic, jalapeno and cheese, and all-beef “hot.”
And Johnsonville introduced its Grilling Chorizo because mainstream consumers increasingly want south-of-the-border flavors. “The development of this product wasn’t part of a Hispanic strategy or a desire to appeal to Hispanics,” says Cory Bouck, Johnsonville senior brand manager. “This is a product for any American, regardless of ethnicity, who loves spices in meats.”
Dinner sausage also is not just for pork anymore. Chicken, veal, lamb and buffalo are all finding their way into the category. Mountain States Rosen, headquartered in Bronx, N.Y., and Greeley, Colo., introduced a veal and lamb sausage this year under the Cedar Springs name.
Another trend is the continuing shift from rope or ring sausage to links, usually sold in five- or six-count 1-lb. packages. “It’s just a different, even more convenient form of the same product,” says Reich. “It’s more like a hot dog, but is considered an upscale, grown-up alternative.”
Speaking of the hot dog, the former dominant “link” for sausages to dinner, it has had a rough go of it in retail sales, according to IRI data. The overall category, though reaching high above the $1 billion mark in sales in supermarkets, drug stores and mass merchandise outlets (excluding Wal-Mart), saw a 4.6 percent decline during the 52-week period ending July 16 of this year. Only half of the top 10 brands in the category posted retail sales gains during this period. No. 2 brand Ball Park posted only a 1 percent gain, while Bar-S, Hebrew National, Nathan, and Gwaltney all rose more than 5 percent each. The hot dog category may need to look to its sausage brethren for innovative, flavorful ideas to spark sales and get the hot dog growing again in retail.
Of course, dinner sausage’s growing popularity is due in large part to the convenience factor. With the average amount of time allocated to in-home meal preparation down to 15 minutes from 30 minutes, ease of preparation and versatility are increasingly important factors. “Families with two working parents want meals that are easy to put together,” says Mogelonsky. “They want a minimal amount of prep time. Dinner sausage provides that.”  
Packaging also helps. Dinner sausage is showing up increasingly in microwaveable heat-and-eat forms. Johnsonville introduced a Heat & Serve Italian sausage and bratwurst this year that is ready in about a minute in the microwave.
Although dinner sausage is growing in popularity on the home front, its progress as a dinner option on the foodservice front is slower, typically showing up as a pizza topping, a sandwich ingredient or a secondary protein in an entree.
Nevertheless, there is evidence that dinner sausage is beginning to flex its muscle in the foodservice arena, with family-dining chains, such as Old Country Buffet/Home Town Buffet, adding such items as barbecue smoked sausage, as well as sausage and sauerkraut to the menu. NP