OPINIONFood

Beef is still what's for dinner

Nancy Kruse: RB's menu trends columnist writes about the continued popularity of beef, and how restaurant brands have been expanding and upgrading their beef offerings.
Texas Roadhouse
Texas Roadhouse is the "Wingstop of beef.| | Photo courtesy of Texas Roadhouse.

State of the Plate

Americans really, really like beef. In fact, this year we are expected to enjoy it to the tune of about 58 pounds per capita, as Technomic reports that 70% of consumers eat beef each week. This is a very strong endorsement, especially given the ups and downs of the beef supply chain and its resulting price fluctuations.

Now, it’s true that we’ve been eating substantially more chicken, buoyed by the apparently unstoppable sandwiches-and-wings juggernauts. The National Chicken Council predicts that domestic chicken consumption will top 100 pounds per person in 2024, and scarcely a week goes by without a new competitor emerging in the crowded segment, invariably frying up product that’s spiked with Nashville heat.

All this cluck-clucking competition notwithstanding, however, beef holds a trump card.

Protein power. Technomic’s Ignite Consumer data cites health perceptions, specifically its high protein content, as the primary driver of increased beef consumption frequency.

This protein connection looms large with nutritionally befuddled consumers, who have been educated to view fat, one of three essential macronutrients, as a dietary demon and to see carbohydrates, a second requisite nutrient, as a veritable Gordian knot of simple vs. complex and good vs. bad.

This leaves protein as the dietary good guy, and beef is viewed by many diners as its preferred delivery vehicle.

Cava

Cava's Steak + Feta Pita and Steak Mezze Salad.| Photo by Anisha Sisodia

Chain upgrades. Competitive pressure and patron demand have encouraged operators across segments to beef up their menus.

In late 2018, McDonald’s began the switch from frozen to fresh beef patties for its Quarter Pounders, a move that required logistical support more common to a major military operation. At the same time and with considerably less fanfare, the chain also removed artificial flavors, colors and preservatives from its burgers.

Meanwhile, Arby’s, which has the meats but hasn’t had the burgers, stepped up with an unexpected, and unexpectedly premium, Wagyu Steakhouse Burger in mid-2022. Since the stores are grill-less, the culinary team opted for a beef patty cooked sous vide, then fried and finished in store at the time of order.

Positive results of this initial burger foray have led to Arby’s encores like the current Deluxe Burger and Big Cheesy Bacon Burgers.  

Casual dining chains have taken the steer by the horns, too, as at Red Robin, which underwent a major menu revamp late last year that included the installation of flat-top grills. New burger patties are 20% bigger, toppings like mushrooms and onions are grilled to order and limited-time offers include unexpected options like the BBQ Burnt Ends ‘N Bacon Burger.

Chili’s has also enhanced its long-running Big Mouth Burger line while simultaneously firing a competitive salvo at McDonald’s. The new Big Smasher Burger replicates many elements of the Big Mac, but parts company with the original with its nearly half-pound patty.

By the way, the smashed-ness of many of these new items is worth noting. It’s the burger descriptor du jour and illustrates the importance of bite and texture. It implies a grilling expertise that is an alluring value add and delivers a competitive swipe at fast-casual brands like Smashburger or Five Guys.

Promotional opportunities. Given beef’s ready merchandisability, operators have employed a range of marketing tactics to set themselves apart in a crowded marketplace.

Some leverage the brand and/or the breed of the beef they use. Capriotti’s Sandwich Shops does both with its American Wagyu beef that comes from highly respected, Idaho-based Snake River Farms.

Other sandwich makers have offered uptown specials at popular prices, like Arby’s Steakhouse Ribeye Sandwich or Firehouse Subs’ Prime Rib Steak Sandwich limited-time offers.

Then there’s Texas Roadhouse, a virtual wrecking-crew of a casual-dining brand. With its steady upward trajectory of both sales and traffic, the brand is like the Wingstop of beef. Or vice versa.  Either way, the beef on offer here is fresh, never frozen, and hand-cut inhouse by a staff of real, live butchers.

sweetgreen

Sweetgreen's Caramelized Garlic Steak has proven popular. | Photo courtesy of Sweetgreen.

Better beef? Arguably the biggest contemporary newsmaker in the category has been the widespread appearance of grass-fed product. It represents the growing influence of regenerative agriculture and has been enthusiastically embraced by higher-end operations.

The recent past has also seen its emergence in the broader market, as with Taco Bell’s announcement in 2023 of an initiative in support of regenerative cattle grazing. Most of the activity, however, is in the fast-casual segment.

Last fall, Hopdoddy Burger Bar in Austin, Texas, ditched plant-based meat analogs in favor of regenerative meat for its burgers, which it touts as ethically sourced.

Cava has launched Mediterranean-inflected, grass-finished grilled steak to positive guest reception. It stars in the Steak & Feta Pita and Steak Mezze Salad, and carnivores can add it to any of custom bowl or pita.

Salad specialist Sweetgreen made headlines when it rolled out its caramelized garlic steak systemwide in three dishes, including the Steakhouse Chopped Bowl.

At the time of introduction, the brand proclaimed its “dedication to regenerative agriculture that promotes environmental benefits.” This merited quick clapback from The New York Times, which called into question how the chain planned to meet its stated climate goals, given that beef is seen as a major contributor to climate change.

This last will surely be a bone of contention going forward. As with many agricultural practices, regenerative farming has been a lightning rod for both praise and criticism and a generator of information, misinformation and disinformation.

 As the name suggests, its aim is to restore the health of the agricultural ecosystem, and it starts with the soil. It goes beyond organic and sustainable farming practices, and its proponents maintain that not only is it better for the environment, a critical issue when it comes to cattle ranching, but also that it produces nutritionally superior beef. However, a study called “Grazed and Confused” published by the University of Oxford in England strongly refuted such claims as “misplaced.”

Patron perspectives. It’s a sure bet that diners will respond positively to claims of regeneration and carbon neutrality, just as they do to promises of organically and sustainably grown. We love to feel virtuous, especially when consuming something we really like anyway.

It’s an equally sure bet that consumers have little-to-no idea of what any of this means. Research into our understanding of terms like organic reveals that we’re woefully uninformed on these subjects.

And the surest bet of all is that diners will ultimately make their choices based on taste and value, which will continue to take precedence over other purchase criteria including environmental claims and will separate the menu winners from menu losers.

 

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