Here are some innovative ways operators are handling the center of the plate.
Burgers with a pedigree
Rogue Distillery and Public House
When Jack Joyce introduced a more extensive menu to his brewpubs about five years ago, his goal was to offer world-class fare at reasonable prices; food that would complement his well-regarded 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. What Joyce discovered is 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, Chili and Kobe Bleu Balls. The latter are meatballs Joyce cooked up in his home kitchen, put on the menu as a joke and now count as one of his top-selling appetizers. Using the same upgrading strategy, Rogue began offering Kurobuta Pork Tacos around eight months ago.
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.”
Be your own butcher
Tre Dici Steak
New York City
Chef-owner Giuseppe Fanelli opened Tre Dici Steak in the space above his popular neighborhood Italian restaurant, Tre Dici. This way, he can serve premium veal chops and filet mignons upstairs and transform the trimmings into veal ragu and steak tartare for the downstairs menu.
“I do all the butchering myself, so I can eyeball the yield for uniform portion size and minimum waste,” he says. “But whatever scraps I have go into another menu item.”
Fanelli purchases all his meat 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 customers want a good-sized portion of very good quality beef, not a small portion of super-high quality,” he explains.