Dispatch: Building a Better Wiener
A few years ago, Arlington-based Brigham’s Ice Cream attempted an expansion of its own by positioning itself as a premium product. And yet what set Brigham’s apart from other brands was never clear to consumers, and the failed gambit hastened the company’s descent toward bankruptcy, prompting its sale to HP Hood. To avoid such a fate, Kayem will work to persuade consumers that its Old Tyme Natural-Casing Frank harkens a return to an authentic hot dog experience. "If you are going to expand in new markets, it becomes a challenge," says Kayem CEO Ralph Smith. "A ‘challenge’ usually translates into a lot of expense."
The average supermarket carries about 35,000 products, but it chooses what to stock from a pool three times that size. Between advertising to store buyers and paying the fees that supermarkets charge to put a new product on their shelves, a company like Kayem can spend $2 million on a national rollout—all before a shopper even tosses the first package of hot dogs into his cart. Then the real test comes: The merchandise has to move. As many as 80 percent of new grocery products fail within a year.
Matt Monkiewicz is optimistic about his new hot dog’s chances. He’s already secured distribution to BJ’s Wholesale Clubs down the East Coast, and established a beachhead up in Albany, New York, where the Old Tyme franks are currently on sale. At a recent tasting panel Kayem hosted in Pittsburgh, one person said it was the best frank he’d ever had. And while the economy is crippling most businesses these days, it isn’t such a bad time to be in Kayem’s game: Hot dogs are among the few foods that do better in a down economy (another is Spam). Kayem’s sales were up, in fact, 20 percent in the most recent quarter.
The day after our visit to the grocery store in Saugus, Monkiewicz flew to North Carolina to film Kayem’s new television commercials. Set in a backyard, with a grill in the foreground and a lawn sprinkler in the back, the ads are designed to evoke Anywhere, U.S.A. Eschewing Oscar Mayer’s approach, there’s no funny jingle, and the shot of Kayem’s newly redesigned logo shows a horse-drawn wagon, not a Wienermobile.
One thing the ad won’t get into, though, is exactly what makes the natural-casing dog so different. "It’s a tough thing to talk about," Monkiewicz admits. "We’ll show a curved frank on the grill and try to be understated."
Staff writer FRANCIS STORRS ate 15 hot dogs while researching this story.