Raise the flavor profile, not the beef spend

Four operator tips for creating main dishes that sizzle on a dime.

By 
Lindsey Ramsey, Contributing Editor

angus steak plate

Beef has long been an entree staple, but with prices projected to rise by 5 to 6 percent this year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service, it is becoming tough for operators to keep up.

Here are some ways noncommercial chefs are satisfying consumers’ desire to keep the hearty protein on the plate without breaking the budget.

1. Go gourmet for less

Switching from Angus to grass-fed ground beef and reducing the portion size of its signature burger allowed San Diego State University to increase its profit margin, says Paul Melchior, director of SDSU Dining Services. It also led to a better value for customers. “We were actually able to reduce the price by $2, taking the margin from 78 percent at $10 to 81 percent at $8,” he says. SDSU then offered a new gourmet option to add bacon and fried onions as an upsell of $2.

2. Apply creative cooking techniques

Braising and sous vide (slowly steaming meat in an airtight bag) are preparations that help get the most value from low-end cuts, Melchoir says. Braising works especially well with flavor profiles such as barbecue and curry, while sous vide maximizes the meat’s tenderness, making a top sirloin steak taste like a tenderloin, he says.

3. Ask vendors to make a deal

Though part of a buying group which reduces costs all around, Todd Hollander, director of dining services and events at John Knox Village, a continuing-care retirement community in Lee’s Summit, Mo., was able to secure additional savings just by asking. “We have found our local distributors and processors are willing to decrease their mark up with the more expensive center-of-the-plate items,” Hollander says.

4. Flavor up less-expensive proteins

To keep menus interesting while combating rising prices, Hollander has begun featuring options starring proteins other than beef, often in ethnic-inspired dishes. Stuffed pork chops, Szechuan chicken, shredded pork, enchiladas and seafood creole all are making a bigger splash on the menus at John Knox Village. “Don’t be afraid to try new flavor profiles,” Hollander says. “Be creative and know what is important to your guest.”


More cost-cutting strategies

  • Scale back beef specials from weekly to twice a month
  • Avoid protein-only center-of-the-plate items
  • Serve more vegetables to enhance plate coverage
  • Reduce portions so residents can feel good about cleaning their plates
  • Wrap more economical beef cuts in bacon to increase value perception

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