What's your beef?

It’s a tough time for meat lovers. Top quality beef is scarcer and very expensive and cash-strapped customers are trading down from steak and chops to burgers. “People would rather spend $7 to $9 at the supermarket than $25 at a restaurant,” says Mark Solasz, partner in New York City’s Master Purveyors. That coupled with low supply is making it challenging for restaurants to purchase meat and turn it into profitable center-of-the-plate items—without raising menu prices.

Solasz explains the conundrum: When the economy took a downturn in 2008, demand for red meat, especially beef, took a nosedive too.

So the cattle industry cut back on production by about 100 head a week and prices went up. Demand is starting to inch up again, as is supply, but it takes 20 months to raise beef cattle and get it to market. In the meantime, vendors are helping foodservice customers zero in on underutilized, less costly cuts and beef alternatives. And restaurants are looking beyond pricey steaks to create signatures, doing their own butchering, purchasing value-added products and exploring different serving and sourcing options.

Genghis Grill, Dallas
Texas-based, 46 locations

Patrons create their own stir-fry bowls at this healthy Asian concept, starting with a selection of proteins, including sliced beef, marinated steak, pork, ham and chicken. To keep a lid on labor costs and maintain consistency across locations, COO Nik Bhakta partnered with Tyson to spec ready-to-use meats. The steak is trimmed, cut into ¾-inch cubes and marinated in a natural beef base to keep it moist. The cubes of pork are the same size, but they’re packed in natural juices instead of a marinade; both come frozen. Although Genghis Grill locations don’t have freezers, products arrive three times a week and the thawing process begins upon delivery. “We worked closely with Tyson to come up with these proprietary products and unique flavor profiles,” says Bhakta.

For just $8.99—and $3 more to make unlimited trips—customers at Genghis Grill can load up their bowls with meat and skimp on less expensive vegetables, which cuts into profit margins. “Meat has taken a hike, so we try to lock in prices for six to 12 months,” explains Bhakta. “We’ve also switched distributors, as we’ve quickly grown from 20 stores to 46. Sysco couldn’t keep up with that growth and still offer good prices, so we now buy from Friedman’s Meats. Our other challenge was transportation into smaller markets, and Friedman’s has come through.” Instead of passing price increases on to customers or cheapening the concept with deep discounts, Genghis Grill tightened up operations and asked vendors to help shave costs. “These steps have boosted sales and maintained our image as a value and quality driven chain,” claims Bhakta

Brother Jimmy’s
New York City, 7 locations

It’s no surprise that this BBQ concept is a big purchaser of red meat. Each week, about 80 cases of pork butt, 150 cases of pork ribs, 20 cases of beef brisket and smaller quantities of top round come into the central commissary, spread over six days of deliveries. “All the meat comes in sub-primals that we break down ourselves,” says Eva Pesantez, corporate executive chef. “The full ribs are divided into St. Louis ribs and the scraps become rib tips—one of our top sellers. The whole brisket is separated into fat and lean and the top round is portioned for our country fried steak.” The ribs, brisket and pork butt (which is turned into pulled pork) are also seasoned and smoked at the commissary before being sent out to individual locations. All the butchering and 90 percent of the prep is centralized, which facilitates inventory management, keeps menu items consistent and saves money on labor, Pesantez adds.

Brother Jimmy’s works with three meat suppliers, all of whom deliver on their own. “It’s good to have several vendors so cuts can be delivered as needed to meet demand and the seasonality of the slaughterhouses,” Pesantez explains. “We might be finding local meat vendors as we expand outside of New York City.” With the concept’s growth, Sysco recently became a distributor partner for certain items, offering locked-in prices that smaller suppliers couldn’t meet.

Every so often, Pesantez introduces new meats to the menu; she recently added a pork chop and skirt steak. But “it’s hard to get long-time followers to try new things. Pulled pork is still our number one item.”

Lucky Devils

Hollywood, California, 1 location

Purchasing “clean protein” is the goal for Lucky Vanous, owner of this casual gastro-pub. “My challenge is to find the highest quality at the best price with a focus on hormone- and antibiotic-free meat, local if possible,” he says. That makes it difficult to do one-stop shopping, he adds. So Lucky Devils sources from several purveyors, including Snake River Farms for its Kobe beef burger and Tallgrass for the bestselling 100 percent grass-fed beef burger; the former is purchased through Newport Meats and the latter through First Class Foods. “We’ve chosen to go with companies that meet our quality standards and fit with our growth structure as we expand,” he explains.

Lucky Devils’ strategy now is to build relationships with suppliers instead of signing contracts; this allows Vanous to get a heads up when price increases are coming. “It’s been a challenge, especially the last year and a half,” he acknowledges. “We’ve kept our prices as reasonable as possible, splitting increases between raising menu items by 25 to 50 cents and absorbing the costs ourselves.” Now that the economy is improving, Vanous is in the process of selecting a prime sirloin steak; it will be plated with an arugula salad and priced at $22.95.

Pera Mediterranean Brasserie
New York City, 1 location

Lamb is a major draw at this polished casual restaurant, especially on weekends when executive chef Jason Avery roasts the whole animal for a full-fledged Greek-style feast. “It’s a takeoff on the pig roasts that chefs are doing now, but since we’re mainly a lamb restaurant, we use a 30 to 35 pound lamb,” he says. “I marinate it in garlic and rosemary, roast it whole and serve it family-style.” The $39.95 per person feast starts with a peasant salad, then progresses to warm hummus with smoked lamb bacon (made from the lamb belly) and then roast lamb with mint gastrique, sided by vanilla whipped potatoes, braised kale and roasted cauliflower.

Weekdays also see plenty of lamb on the menu. Avery purchases fresh whole lambs from a farm in Pennsylvania and his Turkish staff butcher, Sezai Celikbas, cuts them up in-house. Leg of lamb, boneless saddle, loin, tenderloin, lamb minute steaks and lamb ribs appear in various appetizers and entrees. “One of our most popular is Adana Kebab, where we chop up scraps from different parts of the lamb and hand-marble the mixture with the lamb fat, then blend it with seasonings and cook it on skewers. It’s very cost-effective because we use parts of the animal other restaurants throw away.”

Lamb prices jump in the spring, Avery says. But Pera’s judicious use of every scrap and morsel helps control costs.

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