Cattle production is at a low point, and with beef supply limited, it doesn’t look as if prices will moderate until 2017, according to USDA forecasts. Meanwhile, chefs are softening the blow by balancing the menu with less-expensive alternatives.
“We’ve been doing a lot of R&D with chicken and pork,” says Gabe Caliendo, corporate executive chef of Brea, Calif.-based Lazy Dog Restaurant & Bar. When beef reached a high in 2013, he rolled out Poblano Chicken for a Cinco de Mayo promotion. The popularity of the $14 entree has turned it into a permanent menu signature for the 16-unit casual-dining chain.
When asked what defines a Lazy Dog signature, Caliendo says “it’s a menu item you can’t get anywhere else.” In creating the dish, Caliendo blended several culinary styles with the aim of making it unique, without blurring flavors. The breast cooks in a smoky sauce made with charred poblanos; a “modernized” tamale cake—a riff on polenta—is a differentiator.
Guests are trading off steak [$5 to $10 higher] for the Poblano Chicken, says Caliendo. It’s a swap that pleases both budget-pinched patrons and management. “Food costs are sub-20 percent for the chicken dishes,” he says.
The Spicy Half Chicken is the least expensive item on the entree list at Chicago’s Travelle, where prices range from $26 to $42 (for the New York strip). The dish, inspired by a rotisserie bird Executive Chef Tim Graham tasted in Montreal, “gives me a chance to offer an entree at an approachable price point,” he says. The chicken also is a favorite of the chef’s—and the servers relay that fact to guests hesitant about ordering “something they make at home,” says Graham. Now it’s the No. 1 seller.
But it took a while to get there. When Travelle opened two years ago, the dish was called Piri Piri Chicken, a term customers weren’t familiar with at the time. Graham still marinates it in the same piri piri mixture, but changing the name “gave people entry into the dish,” he says. What distinguishes it from a home-cooked chicken, says Graham, is that he starts with an air-chilled bird from a Midwest farmer, salt brines it for two days and marinates it for three days. This TLC is part of the sell.
At Miller Union in Atlanta, Steven Satterfield, executive chef and co-owner, boosts chicken’s appeal to regulars by switching it up frequently. “We change our menu about six times a year, but chicken is a signature and always one of the 10 entrees, varying with the produce in season,” he says.
“We spend $4.50 to $5 a pound for our [pasture-raised] chickens, so profit margins are tight,” Satterfield says. The chicken currently on the menu, a griddled breast and braised leg with beets, toasted almond and quinoa salad, is priced at $26. But no matter how Satterfield prepares it, “We sell a lot,” he says. “Guests feel comfortable with chicken and it will always have a place on the menu.” It’s just more evidence that chicken can deliver when budgets are tight—and when they’re not.