As temperatures finally climb towards late-spring norms, consumers across Western Europe are set to dig out their barbecue grill and celebrate the summery weather with an outdoor roast with family and friends. But while barbecues have traditionally centered around meat, there has been a momentous shift in consumer attitudes towards vegetarian foods over the past few years. Indeed, the rise of flexitarians – occasional vegetarians who reduce their meat consumption because of health, environmental issues and/or a compassion for animals – is not only fuelling demand for novel protein sources, but also opening new opportunities for the cheese sector. In Europe, over a third of German cheese consumers, for example, eat cheese as an alternative to meat. Barbecuing – a popular pastime in the German-speaking region – is also impacted by consumers’ changing attitudes toward diets. As consumers grow increasingly hungry for sophisticated foods which cater to their individual health and lifestyle needs, barbecue product innovation has been spreading across categories, including grill cheese. While grill cheese accounted for just 2% of total cheese introductions in Europe, the launch penetration was highest by some distance in German-speaking markets. Austria alone accounted for one in 10 grill cheese launches between 2014 and 2015, followed by Switzerland (7%), and Germany (5%). When it comes to dominant grill cheese players in the region, Germany’s Hochland, Käserei Champignon and Alpenhain, as well as Austria’s Concept Fresh and Switzerland’s Züger Frischkäse are the main competitors. While having been active in the grill cheese segment for years, these companies are increasingly gearing up their offerings, focusing on vegetarian lifestyles, convenience, as well as taste and texture credentials. For the 2016 summer season, Hochland has renamed its sausage-shaped “cheese grillers” to “vegetarian cheese sausages”, while at the same time promoting a better taste and consistency experience: “crispy on the outside, juicy on the inside”. The company has also launched “vegetarian grill cheese”, claimed to be “crispy on the outside, creamy on the inside”, hence not resulting in a sticky mess on grill and plates. Convenience and added ingredients are key However, as cheese is facing competition from other meat alternatives, grill cheese needs to step up its game with convenient and sophisticated offerings. Many grill cheese products are now offered in convenient aluminium trays which allow for clean and easy preparation. Through convenient solutions such as the tray packaging, grill cheese is slowly transforming from an accompaniment to a stand-alone dish. Moreover, to create distinctive new products, brands increasingly play with added ingredients such as marinades, spices, and vegetables. Käserei Champignon’s Rougette brand offers grill cheese with diverse marinades, while Patros’ feta grill cheese is topped with herbs and vegetables, such as layers of pepper/chilli and tomato/basil. A new range by Rücker makes a further step towards “meal” status: the GlutGut Fix & Pfännchen (Ready & Pan) range comes with a vegetable “side dish”. Today’s snacking culture, meanwhile, is being fully embraced by Concept Fresh’s Gusteria brand with its growing range of pre-cooked “mini cheese snacks” as well as Züger Frischkäse’s prepared cheese and vegetable/dried fruit grill skewers. Beyond meal and snack offerings, brands can take inspiration from more sophisticated versions of cheese accompaniments, such as burger slices, which have emerged in a number of countries. In the UK, for example, M&S offers a number of “Posh Dog” cheddar slices with spicy relish, while Arla’s Castello Blue Cheese slices, which have been introduced to several markets, promote their sophisticated taste and are said to be perfect for creating a special, flavourful burger experience. Overall, grill cheese can offer a valuable barbecue alternative not only for dedicated cheese lovers but also the growing flexitarian population, as innovation focuses on creative and convenient stand-alone snacks or meal offerings. The sector also needs to build its appeal as a more sophisticated accompaniment or topping for meat products which are likewise being reinvented to meet today’s growing demand for gourmet convenience. Julia Büch is a Food and Drink Analyst at Mintel. She specialises in delivering insights on issues affecting the German food and drink market, providing analysis across a range of food and drink categories. Previously Trend & Innovation Consultant at Mintel, Julia was responsible for providing tailored product innovation analysis and client support primarily to Mintel’s German speaking clients. You might also be interested in: Vegan cheese spreads offer potential in Germany Cheese consumers seek sustainability commitments from brands Innovative flavours pep up the dry pasta market in Germany Are chocolate and cheese the new go-to for athletes?