Chicago has always been a red meat kind of town, from its storied South Side stockyards to its ever-popular steakhouses. Even today, the city continues to make news for its innovations in beef processing and merchandising.

One recent case in point is the reinvention – or at least, the re-launch – of the basic frozen-burger patty, courtesy of an iconic Chicago brand. After its debut in the early 1970s, the Glenmark name was practically synonymous in the city, region and later, other parts of the nation, with frozen, ready-to-cook burgers. Today, as Glenmark marks its 40th anniversary, those behind the brand are looking to rebuild its equity, through a combination of new products and a new company direction.

In December 2011, the Glenmark brand was officially acquired by Best Chicago Meat Co. LLC, a company with its own legacy that can be traced to the 1950s in the heart of Chicago’s Stockyards district. Best Chicago Meat offers products under the JemmBurgers and David’s Kosher brands.

The relationship between Best Chicago Meat and the Glenmark brand is not new, but it is now decidedly different. In 1999, Best Chicago Meat entered into a licensing agreement with Aurora, Ill.-based processor OSI, which originally owned and oversaw the Glenmark brand. That agreement worked well until Best Chicago Meat’s leaders recently assessed the Glenmark line, its potential and its fit with their own organization.

“This past year, we looked at it and said there is still an opportunity with this brand,” recalls David Van Kampen, president and COO for Best Chicago Meat, who knows a thing or two about the brand, since he had worked on the Glenmark burger line in a previous role at OSI. Through that acquisition, spearheaded by Van Kampen, Best Chicago Meat is now the leading producer of frozen burgers in the Midwest.

Tastes change

Just as the consumer marketplace has changed in the 40 years since Glenmark burgers were introduced, so too have consumers’ eating habits and food preferences. That is reflected in Glenmark’s current product line and in Best Chicago Meat’s plans for expansion and promotion.

According to Van Kampen, they will strive to maintain the traditions that have worked, while innovating on other fronts. “We have saved what we call our Glenmark Classics: the original three varieties in beige, red and yellow boxes. But we had a premium burger under our JemmBurger brand, and said, ‘Let’s re-align it.’ So, what we’ve done, along with the Classic line, is to offer this great Glenmark premier brand,” he explains.

Under the new Glenmark Black Label line, premium burgers are merchandised in sleek black boxes. All burgers are individually quick-frozen (IQF) and meant to be cooked directly from the freezer.

Befitting today’s marketplace that is defined by discerning consumers who want a variety of products, the Glenmark Black Label line includes several burger varieties, such as larger one-third-lb. Angus Beef Chuck Burgers and 2-oz. Angus Mini Burgers. “Portion size has increased, and the standard now for many burgers is one-third lb.,” notes Van Kampen, adding that the Mini Burgers, in turn, appeal to those looking for smaller portions, from seniors cutting back their consumption to those looking for a quick snack or appetizer.

According to Van Kampen, Best Chicago Meat also opted to appeal to diet-and-health-conscious consumers with a new, all-white meat turkey patty in its Black Label portfolio, a third-pound burger with 6 percent fat.

Meanwhile, the Classic portfolio remains at the heart of Glenmark’s brand legacy. That line includes a quarter-lb., restaurant-style Steak Eater Burger and a traditional one-third lb. Cookout Burger, along with a value-priced Great Grillsby Burger, made with one-quarter lb. of beef, soy and a mild seasoning.

Category expansion

Having several options for customers is a must in today’s climate, says Van Kampen. “We are offering more products and I think we are a better value as we’ve expanded the category. We have everything from the Great Grillsby value product with soy and seasoning to the premier burgers,” he points out, adding “Across the category, we meet every consumer’s needs.”

However, that doesn’t mean that the R&D department is quiet right now in Chicago. “In several areas, the burger market is becoming more diverse. Now you’re seeing flavor profiles with infusions and hotter, spicier products,” says Van Kampen, who closely follows consumer trends and preferences with his colleagues. Among other items, the Glenmark team has been pondering a seasoned burger (perhaps with jalapeños) and a fully cooked burger.

“Also, fresh is a growing market and we’re keeping an eye on that. You may see us in the fresh case some day,” he adds.

Product line additions aren’t the only tweak to Glenmark’s offerings. ”This year, we changed the packaging from a 3-lb. box to a 2-lb. box. The consumer benefits from that, because they can buy smaller quantities,” Van Kampen says, citing ongoing price sensitivity among shoppers.

Beyond product variety and packaging, Glenmark has improved and expanded its processing capabilities. For one thing, not all patties are created equal. The Cookout Burger, for example, has a natural patty shape and a coarse grind, while the Angus Beef Chuck sliders and burgers are produced in different sizes and grinds.

Operationally, the company has invested for the current and future market. In 2007, demand for then-licensed Glenmark products and other products spurred Best Chicago Meat to open a new state-of-the-art neighborhood manufacturing facility in Chicago, with strict energy conservation and waste reduction policies. They also added new carton equipment and other small improvements, like a new fat analysis system, to bolster efficiencies.

For Van Kampen, restoring the Glenmark brand has been somewhat of a personal mission. “I have an emotional attachment going back to when I first entered the meat industry. Now that we own Glenmark, I want to get it back to where it belongs,” he says.

Lynn Petrak is a contributing editor based in the Chicago area.