Save the beef

Operators adjust portions, increase grains and try other tricks to keep beef costs down.

Lindsey Ramsey, Contributing Editor

beef pho university of texas

Beef may be “what’s for dinner,” but can we even afford it anymore? That’s the question non-commercial operators have to ask themselves as wholesale prices for choice-grade beef—the main variety consumed in the U.S.—surged 11% from May 2013 to May 2014, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Instead of banishing beef, operators are employing a variety of strategies to keep things beefy.

“The cut of beef we use is important,” says Matthew Cervay, executive chef at Grandview Medical Center, in Dayton, Ohio. “Flank steak, skirt steak, blade steak, tri-tip, all these cuts of meat have a great inherent flavor and will usually cost less than the top-end cuts. I think braising the meat and coaxing out the flavors is a great way to utilize tougher cuts. Plus, thinly slicing meat and using innovative presentation is a great way to increase the perceived value.”

Adjusting the portion size also makes a big difference with beef dishes, he says. Cervay makes a Latin-style flank steak salad with lime vinaigrette, which uses only a 3-ounce portion of beef. For that dish, Cervay marinates the steak in a mixture of olive oil, adobo sauce and lime juice. The salad features greens, plantain chips, jalapeños, cheese, wild rice and a corn pico de gallo.

“In the short term, operators need to save now, while still providing the ‘wow’ factor to customers,” Cervay says. “My approach to this situation is to not only shrink beef portions but also add whole grains, beans and legumes, making a meal more rounded and cost-efficient. This in turn provides all the protein, nutrients and amino acids, while ultimately using smaller portions of meat.”

One example of this grain-heavy approach is Moroccan Beef Tagine. Seasoned (paprika, cinnamon, ginger, cumin) beef tips are seared on the flattop and combined with Israeli couscous. That is topped with a sauce made with olive oil, shallots, garlic, tomatoes, chicken broth, butternut squash and freekeh. 

Full utilization

A new barbecue concept was added to the University of Kansas’ largest dining hall last year. With that came an emphasis on beef, says Janna Traver, executive chef. The way Kansas gets around increased beef costs is to make sure the team uses 100% of the product. For example, the team runs a burnt ends special with saved end pieces.
Another tactic the team is employing is strategic menu placement, where a higher costing menu item is run in tandem with a popular item at another station. “For example, if they are running a roast at one station, they’ll make sure they have chicken tenders at another station,” Traver says. “It’s a good way to go about because the higher cost item is still being offered, but you aren’t going to get crushed because of the chicken tenders.”
Full utilization has also come into play in retail venues. At the department’s World Kitchen concept, the team recently switched from cooking five pounds of meatloaf at a time to cooking two pounds. “Now instead of having 15 portions, we’re down to six portions,” Traver says. “We have a quicker turnaround and it keeps the product a lot fresher. Plus, if we do have leftovers we take those and use them in our burger station as a meatloaf sandwich. In the past when we’ve done meatloaf, we’ve ended up with at least a dozen pieces left over and this last time we had two pieces.”
Other cost-saving tricks include cutting down beef’s serving time. For example, instead of serving a higher cost beef item all day, the team will run it from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. Another tactic
Kansas has employed is to menu some of the more expensive meats on slower days, for example, running short ribs on a Friday when fewer students are around.

Go international

Looking to world cuisines has been a good way to reduce the use of beef without sacrificing quality at the University of Texas, in Austin. Executive Chef Robert Mayberry says his department is moving away from using beef as a center-of-the-plate item, opting to use it in stir-fries, fajitas and other similar preps. Brisket in particular has been a lower cost item. Mayberry says that although that cut has gone up in price along with everything else, it’s still fairly reasonable. Texas’ team uses brisket in its barbecue brisket tacos. The brisket, which is cooked low and slow, is rubbed with Mayberry’s custom dry rub. That meat can be a filling for tacos or enchiladas, with the student’s choice of toppings.

Another dish Mayberry is particularly excited about using brisket in is pho. “We’ll slice the brisket and put it in the broth,” he says. “We make a broth using beef bones, ginger, onions and a pho spice mix. We cook that on a low and slow simmer, because with pho, it’s all about the broth. The broth and beef will be cooked ahead of time and then for service the students can choose their own veggies and toppings.”

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