BBQ season might be winding down, but Quaker Maid Meats - the firm behind the top-selling Steak-Umm brand - is on a mission to inject fresh excitement into some mature categories, its new VP of sales Mark Clausen tells Elaine Watson.
But record beef prices make life challenging for everyone in the category, says Clausen, who heads up a team selling frozen sandwich steaks, patties and meatballs under brands including Steak-umm Quaker Maid, Philly Gourmet, Mama Lucia, Gina Lina and Prima Familia.
Isn’t this a tough time to be selling beef products?
Overall our business is healthy and growing, but this is really an unprecedented time in the beef markets. Prices are as high as they’ve been for 40 years and supply is at the lowest.
Retailers know our costs have gone up, but they are competing for dollars going into foodservice, so they need to be competitive, so it’s a tough market right now.
How has the industry responded to higher prices for corn-fed beef?
Some companies have brought out products with more poultry mixed in, or brought out smaller pack sizes, but you’ve got to be careful if you go down that road. Consumers will notice.
We’re also seeing more grass-fed beef from Argentina and New Zealand which is getting more expensive.
What’s changed since you first started working in the food industry?
There was a big change in the 1990s when retailers centralized procurement and buying decisions were made at head office, not at a regional level. If you were a local broker, your world just went away. My company [Acosta Sales & Marketing] saw that manufacturers and retailers wanted to deal with national brokers and we were involved in some big mergers to create a national food brokerage company.
I launched the first dedicated national retail sales force for fresh perimeter-focused items such as meats and deli foods. So instead of Sara Lee and Tyson working with 25 or 30 brokers, they were working with us, they had one point of contact.
When I started at PMI [PMI-Eisenhart - which merged with Acosta in 1998], there were 3,500 [food] brokers nationwide. By the time I left there were three big firms and a couple of regionals.
But these trends are cyclical and I do see this actually starting to change, as when you have centralized procurement, you can lose your local touch, and a buyer from Northern California is not necessarily the best person to know what’s right for the Chicago market, say.
Quaker Maid specializes in frozen products, but do you think that the refrigerated prepared food market will ever be as big in the US as it is in the UK, for example?
I think a few years ago US retailers rushed to market with a lot of home meal replacement items and a lot of them failed, but I think that we’ll see the pendulum swing back and see more local refrigerated and frozen distribution centers popping up, because you can’t sell these products if they only have a few days of shelf-life left by the time they reach the store.
Retailers such as Walmart with its Retail Link system are also enabling vendors to get much more visibility [about where their products are in the supply chain, which helps them plan production more efficiently].
What are the challenges in the sandwich steak category?
Beef is a very mature category but we’ve seen growth from line extensions such as our new Steak-umm Chicken Breast Sandwich Steaks - frozen, ready-to-cook chicken slices that go from freezer to pan to plate in two minutes. We also have the advantage of being the only real national brand in this market.
But it’s a very promotionally driven category and shoppers are becoming trained to only buy what’s on offer. I’d like to see a more consumer-driven approach.
How would you characterize the frozen patty market?
The patties category is also very mature - and very seasonal, but there is a lot of innovation on the flavor side with onions, pepper, cheeses, specific beef varieties such as Angus beef and more premium products.
What’s happening in the world of meat balls?
There is a lot more going on in the meatball market, and this business is really booming for us. You’ve got regional differences as well. On the east coast it’s more about meatballs with red pasta sauce, whereas in the west it’s more beef stroganoff-type applications.
What are your ambitions as VP sales?
We’re big in the traditional supermarket channel and the mass channel, but we are looking at developing other channels such as foodservice.
Is Quaker Maid Meats on the acquisition trail?
There are opportunities out there, we’ve got a good reputation, and as we are privately held, we can move fast if the timing and fit are right.