Here’s the Beef
Throughout America, beef is still what’s for dinner—and lunch, and sometimes even breakfast.
Whether grilling, stir-frying, pot roasting, broiling, frying or braising, beef continues to find its way on menus all across the country.
“This is beef country,” says Eric Webb, the director of dining services at the University of Wyoming. “Beef is a staple to the Wyoming diet and as popular as it always has been.”
Webb says that beef is equally popular among male and female students, who are mostly from Wyoming and Northern Colorado.
“Our big push is for more local goods,” he says. “One recent shift has us purchasing fresh beef patties from a local company instead of frozen. We are killing two birds with one stone. We now have better quality burgers and we’re buying locally.”
Webb has also moved to fresh roasting and hand carving as opposed to using a slicer.
“We have grab-and-go deli sandwiches, Impinger and panini deli sandwiches and sandwiches on fresh focaccia bread,” he says. “We serve a Bleu Beef on ciabatta that is really popular; it has that artisan kind of feel.
“At our Mongolian Grill, students can pick their own choice of protein, veggies or noodles and rice,” Webb says. “We offer beef, chicken, pork and sometimes shrimp, and they get a three- to four-ounce serving as opposed to eight ounces. Beef is the No. 1 seller at the Mongolian Grill.”
Sometimes buying power affects what operators can offer customers.
“We have found that buying in larger quantities has afforded us the opportunity to offer a better cut of meat,” says Bo Cleveland, executive chef at Middlebury College in Vermont. “We now get a boneless strip loin, which is a better cut of beef than what we were used to. We play the market just like everybody else. Instead of a slab of meat they don’t know, students know what a strip loin is and it sparks their interest.”
Cleveland says they do burgers infrequently, but when they are offered it’s a big hit.
“The popularity of beef has not waned,” he says. “It winds up pretty regularly on the menu from stews to roasts to breakfast steaks. We do gourmet baked baguette sandwiches with roast beef and goat cheese, marinated tomatoes and balsamic vinaigrette. And though we have tried to introduce more variety with events like theme food nights, the comfort foods still remain the most popular. When you offer good quality food, the students know it and they appreciate it.”
Following the research: Norbert Bomm, corporate executive chef, R&D, for Morrison Management Specialists, quotes U.S. Department of Agriculture research about beef consumption in the U.S. that shows the average American, even in these hard economic times, eats 67 pounds of beef annually, with ground beef being the leader.
“Feedback, both from our Health Care and Senior Living divisions, confirms the USDA research,” Bomm says. “As beef prices continue to escalate, we’ve looked at and implemented secondary cuts of beef, like the chuck flap meat, which is very reasonable in price but provides a cut of beef with extreme marbling. It looks like and has the characteristics of a boneless short rib and it’s braised like a short rib.”
Bomm combines the cut with fresh vegetables and whole grains, creating an entrée option that focuses on nutrition as well as value.
“That same product can be easily utilized as a lunch option on a whole-grain flatbread. As part of Conscious Cuisine (a healthy eating program developed by Cary Neff, vice president of culinary services at Morrison), we accompany this with a cup of slow-roasted tomato soup, which adds an additional serving of vegetables,” he says.
Regarding secondary cuts, Morrison is exploring and testing hanging tenderloin steaks.
“This has been used for decades in the French bistros for steak frites,” Bomm says. “When marinated and grilled, it gives us a rich favorable taste and great plate presentation. Beef cab strip medallions, cut from the back strap of the sirloin, produce a highly marbled steak that looks like filet mignon and tastes like a strip steak.”
What’s for school lunch: Beef is still a staple item on school lunch menus.
At the Garden City (N.Y.) School District, Food Service Director Diana Intintoli has developed a menu that gives her customers the option to add seasoned beef to theme bars such as the baked potato bar, pasta bar and a made-to-order salad station.
“Our customers are always looking for new things,” she says. “They have gotten pretty tired of chicken, so we’ve added beef to our menu in the form of pasta Bolognese, cheeseburger flatbreads and Southern barbecue meatloaf on a Kaiser roll. They seem pretty excited.”
Michele Carroll, director of dining services in the Edison (N.J.) School District, transforms beef into spicy strombolis by mixing the meat with herbs, spices and cheese and folding it up in soft pizza dough. It’s then brushed with seasoned oil, seasoned with garlic and herbs and baked to a golden brown.
She notes, however, that her department is well aware of the need to provide students with healthy reimbursable meals. “Bundling with vegetables helps us offer a reimbursable meal,” Carroll says. “The kids like potatoes the best, so we bundle our burgers with baked potato wedges. We also transform our spicy beef nachos into a reimbursable meal by including a garden salad or chunky tomato salsa.”
Carroll points out that beef tacos and nachos are by far the most popular items on the menu, which shows that the demand for beef is definitely not waning. Karen Dittrich, national marketing director for Chartwells School Dining Services, agrees. Dittrich maintains that while the popularity of chicken has grown, beef has held its own during the past two years.
“While roast beef may be offered on occasion as a deli option for cold sandwiches, ground beef is used in many menu items such as tacos, lasagna and meatloaf,” says Dittrich. “Prepared beef shows up on the menus in such forms as meatballs, hamburgers, wafer steaks and barbecue ribbies.”
According to Dawn Mathews, foodservice director for Camdenton RIII School District in Missouri, beef rivals chicken for student acceptability.
“Beef is a staple, beef and chicken,” she says. “Students know beef and they are very accepting. It [sells] well and I don’t see that changing.”
From burgers, taco bars, nacho supreme, spaghetti and lasagna, beef is everywhere.
“We use smoked brisket for barbecue sandwiches. We do French dip and Philly cheese sandwiches and beef Stroganoff with a shaved steak product. The Stroganoff is not too difficult and it goes over well. We used to use ground beef in it but shaved steak works better.”
The Port Arthur Independent School District in Texas is proud of buying all fully cooked beef, eliminating many of the problems regarding food safety, according to Stephanie Turkel, child nutrition director.
“Starting with Head Start through grade 12, we like to provide our students and staff with high-quality products and dishes that are popular,” Turkel says. “We have chicken fried steaks, charbroiled patties and ground beef for spaghetti, tacos and stew. We have steak fingers and shaved steak for Philly cheese sandwiches. Beef is a solid part of
our menu. It’s what students expect to see and it has its place in a well-balanced diet.”
Ellen Hardy, food buyer for the University of Nebraska, says she prefers to buy all her beef frozen.
“We used to buy beef frozen, then we tried getting it fresh, but the staff wound up putting it in the freezer anyway,” Hardy says. “Due to forecasting our menus, we now have our beef frozen at the factory or the plant. They fast-freeze it so it’s a better quality.”
Beyond the holiday season prime rib, which Hardy buys and freezes in September because of lower prices, the university offers much of the same fare as anywhere, like burgers, ribs and pot roast.
“We try to offer a variety,” she says. “Beef is probably as popular as always, but it’s not so much the meat as what you do with it. The students love strip steak for sandwiches and stir fry is always a hit. Grandma’s meatloaf is not a popular item.”
Sue Ellen Codding, foodservice director at the McComb (Miss.) School District, says beef is a common meal component.
“We buy 80/20 ground beef, though we’d like it leaner. We use it in everything like spaghetti sauce, lasagna, tacos, vegetable beef soup, taco soup, chili, chili burgers and sloppy joes,” she says. “We also buy frozen patties for burgers. We feed about 650 kids and give them two choices per day for hot meals. If we pair the burger with a chicken dish, we’ll probably sell 300 burgers. However, if we pair the burger with gumbo, we won’t sell as many; gumbo is more popular.”
Codding also states that she’d like to steer the menu away from beef a little more.
“We’re not using as much as we used to,” she says. “We’re probably using chicken and chicken products more than beef because it’s part of the more healthful eating habits we’d like to see.”Angela May, director of Nutrition Services for the University of Arkansas Medical Sciences, says she doesn’t see any decrease in the popularity of beef.
“We do pot roast, flank steak, meatloaf and hamburgers. In our lobby café we have a roast beef sandwich on jalapeño corn bread with garlic aïoli or other sauces and cheeses,” May says. “We do Reuben sandwiches and, of course, we’ll do a corned beef dish for St. Patrick’s Day.”