What's old is new again

What's new again? Big juicy steaks, burgers, and prime rib. After years of eating less of the stuff, Americans have stopped beefing about health woes and started indulging again. Per-capita consumption of beef edged up for the third year in a row in 1996, to 64.7 lb.

And a lot of that activity is coming from restaurants, where patrons are forking up prime rib and porterhouse by the pound.

Both casual and upscale steakhouses have experienced traffic increases of 41.6% between 1993 and 1996, according to a study by NPD/CREST sponsored by the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, while industrywide sales of all beef items are up 12% since 1991. As these sizzling statistics indicate, beef has become a prime menu-item choice for operators in all segments who are looking to boost profits and increase customer satisfaction. And who isn't these days?

When carnivorous customers splurge on steaks they want to go all out. But why beef and why now? "I think excess is in again," says Patrick Vaccariello, executive chef of Maloney & Porcelli in Manhattan. "People are going out to enjoy themselves and 'be a little bad,' in a good way." Maloney & Porcelli—part of Alan Stillman's New York Restaurant Group—is certainly a product of the times. An instant success with New Yorkers, the year-old restaurant reflects what Vaccariello refers to as "quality-controlled excess." Adds Vaccariello, "Sure we want to be healthy, but we want to enjoy life as well."

The stunning increase in business at steakhouses has inspired many broad-menu restaurants to stake their claim on the booming trend. "Printing the ounce size on the menu is a steakhouse phenomenon that has been picked up by the nonsteak restaurants," says Jaime D'Oliveira, executive chef of the Chicago-based Capital Grille group. "Many upscale restaurants put a good steak on the menu so they can compete with the value offered by steakhouses."

Chef Kevin Kennedy of The Greenwood Inn in Beaverton, OR, thinks the present popularity of beef is an extension of the comfort food trend. "When I arrived at this restaurant, I wasn't very excited about having prime rib on the menu," admits Kennedy, a veteran of high-end resorts, "but out here people really want it—I couldn't take it off."

Is the big beef boom just a backlash to the cholesterol-count-obsessed '80s? David Bellesa, VP of marketing for Dallas-based Tony Roma's Famous for Ribs, thinks not. This April, Tony Roma's rolled out a new program in their 134 domestic outlets which pairs a new 6-oz. top sirloin steak with a choice of five top-selling entree items, such as grilled shrimp or ribs. "A lot of menu items run in some kind of cycle," explains Bellesa, "but as far as I'm concerned, steaks have always been popular. From a concept point of view, I think steaks are back and I think they will stay back."

Since adding high-priced premium cuts of steak to a restaurant's offerings has the potential to wreak havoc on the bottom line, a well-balanced menu mix is key to keeping food cost down. "It's not uncommon to run a steak at a higher food cost, hoping you can make it up with lower-cost items," according to Carlo deMarco, chef at Bridgette Foy's, an upscale bistro in Philadelphia. "Say I'm going to run a porterhouse that costs me $9 on the plate—I need to sell it for $27 to hit a 33% food cost. But that price might be a little high for the menu mix, so maybe we'll sell it at $24, which is a 42% food cost. Remember that you don't bank percentages, you bank money." Good beef sales translate into good money, no matter what the percentage, and deMarco's $8, 10-oz. hamburger is the single most popular menu item at lunch.

Even Red Lobster has added prime rib. Tim Rosendahl, VP of food and beverage for the Orlando-based chain, says customer requests were the impetus. "It's a powerful item for us, and is very popular with guests who are not in the mood for seafood." Red Lobster purchases USDA Choice beef and applies a dry rub of onion, red pepper, coriander, garlic, and salt and pepper before slow roasting, creating a signature product.

According to Bellesa of Tony Roma's, the new steak combos make business sense for several reasons. "It's always great from an advertising standpoint to talk about something new. It's good for the servers because they can upsell and increase their check average, and it's great from a kitchen standpoint because the new entrees are made of things we already do well, so it wasn't a real stretch for the kitchen."

Just as the steak experts are diversifying menus to appeal to a wider clientele, chefs with broader menus are looking to express the flavors and sensibility of their cuisine by playing with porterhouse and sirloins with the fervor they used to reserve for filet mignon and tenderloin.

"Porterhouses are not on our regular menu," says Bridgette Foy's deMarco, "but I feature them on the weekends. It's a nice, high-ticket item. If I run a porterhouse special, it will usually outsell the other beef dishes on the menu." DeMarco's Cowboy Steak is a 24-28-oz. porterhouse that sells for $28 and is served with tempura fried onion rings, grilled asparagus, and an onion relish made of red, Vidalia, and Spanish onions, cut in big fat slices and grilled slowly until they caramelize. He adds grilled leeks and finishes the redolent mixture with chives, fresh thyme, olive oil, and a little maple syrup.

Sometimes necessity is the mother of menu-concept invention. Mitch Gerow, chef of The Good Life, a trendy eatery in Boston, turned a problem into a selling tool when he couldn't get the gigantic meat grinder out of the basement of the restaurant during renovations. "I couldn't get it upstairs and out of the restaurant, so I decided to rebuild it and now we use it to grind fresh meat everyday." The grinder inspired Gerow and his partners to add a specialty burger section to their menu, with such signatures as a Grilled Pineapple & Swiss Burger and a BBQ Burger topped with double smoked bacon and jack cheese. Menu copy touts the fact that burgers are ground fresh daily, hand-formed, grilled to order, and "flipped only once." Now burger sales constitute 30% of the sales mix.

Kennedy has added several beef items to the menu at The Greenwood Inn since he arrived there two and a half years ago. "In general I like to buy really high-quality meats and not mess with the product, but I wasn't happy offering just plain prime rib." Kennedy uses a Choice cut and rubs it with cracked pepper, olive oil, salt, and toasted coriander and slowly smoke-roasts the item over apple wood ($16.95/10 oz.). He also runs a popular 12-oz. New York tenderloin, served with Oregon blue cheese, cracked pepper butter, and smashed potatoes that goes for $17.50.

Quality control is crucial when dealing with a high-cost item such as Prime or Choice beef. Before adding expensive premium cuts to their menus, operators must make key decisions about purchasing, storage, and cutting to ensure optimum quality and minimum waste. Productionwise, there are also logistical difficulties that need to be thought through before adding steak to a menu, because steaks are not only cooked to order, but cooked to temperature.

"We have a very busy restaurant with a very small kitchen," says deMarco. "On Saturday nights I have six people behind the line. When I had ribeyes on the menu, they would really flare up on the grill because of the high fat content. If we had 10 cooking, there were flames everywhere. It was a production nightmare—you couldn't grill fish near the meat because it would catch on fire." To solve this problem deMarco switched to sirloin, which has much less fat, minimizing flare-ups.

Although steak doesn't usually lend itself to precooking, busy operations like Maloney & Porcelli have to do whatever they can to keep up with the demanding lunch crowd. On hectic lunch days, the crew marks off a few steaks ahead of time, cooking about four filet mignons, ribeyes, and sirloins each to rare, and finishing them off while customers are eating the appetizer. "The smallest steak we have is 16 oz. and the biggest is 25 oz.," explains Vaccariello, "so we can't cook medium and medium well steaks to order and satisfy the time constraints of a business lunch. It's not what I want to do, but it's an absolute must to get them in and out quickly."

But at huge grill operations such as The Good Life, nothing is cooked ahead of time. "The burgers get tense and tough if you precook them, and you lose a lot of juice and tenderness," says Gerow. "That's just the kind of restaurant we are—one guy just stands at the grill all night turning hamburgers."

Whether the resurgence of big beef dishes is indicative of a nationwide desire to return to the comfort foods of the past, or simply another manifestation of the dining-as-diversion decade we live in, the fact remains that Americans eat beef 76 million times a day. By merchandising high-quality specialty burgers, steaks, and other premium beef cuts operators can appeal to the increasingly sophisticated tastes of their guests, and render juicy profits in the bargain.

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