Meat is usually a restaurant’s priciest food purchase.
But even with wholesale food costs skyrocketing over the past year, the current news isn’t all dismal at the center of the plate. Red meats haven’t been hit as hard as wheat, eggs and dairy products. Yet.
"The supply of beef and pork is ample to excessive right now,” says Bill Lapp, president of Advanced Economic Solutions, a commodity analysis company in Omaha, Nebraska. “Although there’s been a dramatic increase in feed costs, producers haven’t responded yet with significant price increases.”
With hog and cattle farmers in a tight spot, there’s been an ongoing effort to reduce inventory, but the effects probably won’t be seen until 2009. These lower supplies and continued high prices for feed lead Lapp to expect meat prices to be the issue next year. To minimize sticker shock, operators and meat experts offer buying strategies you can put into practice right now.
What operators are doing
Scoping out the unusual
Charleston, South Carolina
It takes a bit of legwork to find lamb neck and grass-fed beef, but Sean Brock, executive chef at the high-end McCrady’s, feels the effort is worth it. “It’s easy to get prime cuts, but I spend lots of time on the phone sourcing underutilized parts of the animal and locally raised meats,” Brock contends.
Currently, he’s buying lamb neck from Niman Ranch; he braises it in olive oil for 36 hours then picks off the meat and rolls it into a cylinder to roast and serve with a double-bone chop. “This is not only more economical than plating a whole rack of lamb, it’s more unique for the customer.”
Grass-fed beef is sourced from a South Carolina producer, “but it’s a problem storing the whole cow,” Brock notes. His solution: share the meat with other restaurants and figure out ways to use the rest of the animal to make it more cost-effective. He has started a charcuterie program to utilize extra beef, lamb and pork; his pigs currently come from a local farmer and lambs from Jamison Farms. But Brock’s interest in the whole animal has led to a plan to raise his own on the restaurant’s vegetable farm. He’s starting with chickens and pigs and will move on to lamb. “One reason I started our farm was to have everything at my fingertips and spend less time dealing with suppliers,” he says.
Stretching for profits
Tinley Park, Illinois
Al’s first place opened in tougher economic times—the 1930s. From the beginning, the kitchen figured out how to create a generous sandwich without breaking the bank. Al’s #1 Italian Beef, the concept’s signature sandwich, is still made the same way, according to Dave Howey, president of Chicago Franchise Systems, the current parent company.
“We dry-roast the beef, using the top butt cut, then slice it very thin and marinate it in the roasting juices for a flavorful, au jus sandwich,” he says. “The method is designed to stretch the beef.” He adds that top butts are more difficult to trim and slice, but it’s worth the effort.
In the last year, Howey has had to raise the price of the sandwich twice due to higher food costs. But the increases were modest—just 10 cents each time. Al’s #1 Italian Beef now goes for $4.69-$4.95, depending on location. “We’ve never skimped on the meat or changed the sandwich in any way—our customers wouldn’t stand for it.”
Burgers with a pedigree
Rogue Distillery and Public House
When Jack Joyce introduced a more extensive menu about five years ago, his goal was to offer world-class fare at reasonable prices; food that would complement his microbrew beers without upstaging them. So he jumped on the gastropub trend—a restaurant style he discovered at New York City’s Spotted Pig that focuses on upscale ingredients plated in a casual format.
Joyce started with Rogue’s burger selections, adding a version featuring American Kobe beef. This burger lists for $11.95—50 percent higher than the regular burger, but with a food cost of just 30 percent. Joyce found that his customers were willing to pay more for a branded burger with better taste and higher quality. “We then decided to build our menu around American Kobe beef, offering other items at affordable prices,” he says.
Rogue sources Snake River Farms products through its distributor and now menus about 20 selections. These include American Kobe Beef Haute Dogs, Steak Tartare, Flat Iron Steak and Kobe Bleu Balls. The latter are meatballs Joyce cooked up at home, put on the menu as a joke and is now one of his top-selling appetizers. Using the same upgrading strategy, Rogue began offering Kurobuta Pork Tacos around eight months ago.
Be your own butcher
Tre Dici Steak
New York City
Chef-owner Giuseppe Fanelli opened Tre Dici Steak in the space above his popular Italian restaurant, Tre Dici. This way, he can serve premium veal chops and filet mignons upstairs and send the trimmings downstairs for veal ragu and steak tartare.
“I do all the butchering myself, so I can eyeball the yield for uniform portion size and minimum waste,” he says. Fanelli purchases from one supplier, LaFrieda Meats, building up a relationship that works to his advantage for locking in prices. To keep menu prices down to neighborhood levels without sacrificing flavor, he sources Black Angus beef, a grade that falls between prime and choice. “My guests want a good-sized portion of very good quality beef, not a small portion of super-high quality,” he explains.
Q & A with John DaLoia
Director of culinary and corporate executive chef
Stampede Meat is a supplier of custom and value-added beef and pork products.
What trends are you seeing?
Everyone’s trying to contain costs. Our customers are requesting reduced portion sizes, choice grade meats instead of prime and more pork products. They’re also trading down to less expensive beef cuts—going from a sirloin steak to a Ranch Cut [from the chuck], for example.
How can you help operators make more cost-effective purchases?
Some of our value-added meats have 5 to 10 percent more marination. Increasing the marinade not only can boost the meat’s weight by 15 percent, it results in a juicier product. We’re also steering them toward bone-in instead of boneless cuts to provide more plate coverage. Plus, we can build custom products that conform to a restaurant’s food costs—whether that’s $2.50 or $5 for a center-of-the-plate serving.
Are you working on other cost-saving measures?
We’re experimenting with cuts that have recently been identified by the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association. For example, we’re working with boneless country-style beef chuck ribs since the price of short ribs keeps rising. We’re also improving cook yield and fat trim.
What’s the key to center-of-the-plate purchasing in this economy?
Educate yourself to become a smarter buyer, using your supplier as a resource for new ideas, product cuttings, custom solutions and cost-saving measures.
Sourcing smart, cooking right
When Adam Greenberg came to Steak Frites, the New York City bistro was buying Australian beef for some of its entrees. The meat’s flavor and tenderness was unacceptable to this executive chef, so he switched suppliers to source American steaks. His signature Steak Frites features the classic hanger steak, a cut that “hangs” between the rib and the loin. To preserve its juiciness, Greenberg holds the meat at room temperature for 5 minutes before grilling. It is then sliced and served with a side salad, crisp fries and a choice of three sauces for $19.50.
“This is the least expensive steak on our menu and offers the highest profit margin,” he claims. “Keeping the price reasonable is very important for
a neighborhood restaurant like ours.”
New cuts to cut costs
Traditional cuts like the inside skirt steak and flank steak are good buys now, according to the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, but for the long term, operators should take a look at the chuck. “There are new cuts that are terrific values right now: the New Delmonico Steak, Boneless Country-style Beef Ribs and a roast that performs well with dry-cooking methods—all cut from the chuck eye roll [IMPS 116D],” says Jane Gibson, executive director of foodservice marketing for NCBA. “In addition, the Denver Steak is available, cut from the chuck roll underblade serratus ventralis [116E]. Like the Flat Iron, Petite Tender and Ranch steaks that were introduced in 2001-2002, these new cuts can help improve margins without compromise.”
The new cuts resulted from ongoing muscle profiling research by the NCBA. Packers are beginning to roll them out and testing by chefs and R&D teams is showing that they perform well and provide good value. When braised, the beef ribs are similar in taste and texture to costlier short ribs and the steaks can sub for more expensive loins or ribeyes.
To keep up with the competition, the National Pork Board has been doing its own muscle profiling studies, fabricating cuts from the leg and shoulder as opposed to the pricier loin. A cut from the shoulder that’s making headway is the boneless pork breast, labeled by some packers as the Pork Flat Iron Steak, reports Paul Perfilio, national foodservice marketing manager for the NPB. It can stand in for boneless loin pork chops in entrees.
Another new item comes from the leg; it’s a flap of meat that looks like a mini flank steak. “We’re calling it a Cap Steak,” says Perfilio. “Most operators are cutting it into strips to use in stir-fries and fajitas.” A third muscle—also extracted from the leg—has been named the Pocket Roast. It cooks up well on the rotisserie and the cooked meat can be sliced for Cubans and other sandwiches.
“We looked at underutilized muscles to extract, changing the way the pig was fabricated in the past,” Perfilio explains. “We whittled down the choices from 21 to three, all of which turned out to be very flavorful and lower in cost.”
Although the American Lamb Board is not fabricating new muscles, they are promoting the tremendous potential and flavor of the leg. “Rather than cook a whole leg, we are suggesting that operators take apart the lamb leg and look at its quality cuts,” says marketing director Megan Wortman. These include the top round, sirloin and hind shank plus meat that can be ground for burgers or cubed for kebabs.
Jennifer Jasinski, chef at Rioja Restaurant in Denver, buys whole Colorado lamb legs that she breaks down to use in several menu items—from a roast lamb entree to housemade lamb chorizo for a pizza appetizer. “I use lamb legs because I fabricate them differently than any of the meat packers I know and it is the most efficient way to buy and menu lamb,” she notes.
With veal cutlets going for $13 per pound and rack for $17, the veal industry is making a big push to bring more affordable cuts to foodservice. Economical breasts, ribs, cubed steak, sausages and ground veal have been available for some time, but four “new” muscles have recently been introduced.
They include a Bone-in Tuscan Chop, a Double Bone Rib Chop, Osso Buco for Two (a larger shank portion) and Boneless Osso Buco from the square cut chuck—all from the inside portion of the veal shoulder. They were “discovered” as the result of a veal optimization study by the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association.
“We’re trying to market the whole animal so we can have veal available at a price per serving that’s affordable to casual dining,” says Dean Conklin, executive director of veal marketing for NCBA. Some new cuts come in at $3/serving food cost.