Managing the Meat Market
by Steven Marlin
Managing the Meat Market
The restaurant business is becoming a ‘high-steaks’ game as operators vie for the best cuts of meat and seafood
For all the talk about cutting down on red meat, steak is, by far, the most popular menu item in casino resorts’ restaurants nationwide, and obtaining the best cuts of beef to please discriminating palates is something of an obsession for restaurateurs. As with all dishes, the trick is to start with the finest ingredients, and operators will spare no time and expense to procure the choicest meats.
The supply chains for beef are dominated by large meat processors, all of which have foodservice divisions that market directly to restaurants, hospitals, schools and other volume users. This creates a challenge for individual restaurant operators.
“The national chains lock in the market by committing to product purchases a year in advance,” said Rene Werner, executive chef at The Orleans Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas.
Orleans’ parent company, Boyd Gaming, maintains relationships with local purveyors to “ensure that we have the highest quality product,” Werner said. Consumers are becoming more sophisticated about the types and cuts of beef, and restaurants must be attuned to their tastes.
“Customers read about beef and know what they want,” he said.
Making the meat
Prime rib is a perennial favorite. The Orleans features 21-day, dry-aged roast prime rib of beef. Dry aging is more costly than wet aging due to the extra trim, storage, refrigerator space, etc., but it produces a superior flavor. To ensure the highest quality and tenderness, The Orleans dry ages its prime ribs on the property, seasons them with sea salt and cracked pepper and slow roasts them for the most flavor.
Obtaining premium cuts of beef to whet the appetite of the heartiest carnivore is the goal of every operator of high-end or “white table cloth” establishments. For some cuts, such as Kobe steak, there sometimes seem to be only two choices: scarce and scarcer.
“True Kobe beef is scarce,” Werner said. “Most of the Kobe beef served in restaurants is an Americanized product.”
Premium-grade beef is limited to about 2 percent of the available supply, almost all of it going to major restaurant chains, Werner said. Therefore, he seeks to get the most value for the dollar with high-quality choice and select grades.
“By buying in bulk and doing lots of aging on our premises, we’re able to provide good quality at low prices for our quick-serve restaurants, which is 60 percent of our business,” he added.
Prime rib is also a favorite at San Manuel Indian Bingo & Casino in Highland, Calif., which serves a home-style buffet on Sundays, featuring all-you-can-eat prime rib.
“Our clientele love prime rib, and we have searched for the best quality prime rib that you can buy,” said Scott Ringwood, San Manuel’s director of food and beverage.
It has standing instructions with its meat purveyor to supply the best quality cuts all year round for its main food outlets, which include a steakhouse, a buffet, a quick serve food court and a snack shack.
“We have a particular brand that’s purchased for us that’s consistently high quality but reasonably priced,” Ringwood said.
Most casino operators use either select or choice grades of beef, with choice being the most popular.
“Our approach is to be multidimensional in our outlets, from the prime steakhouse to the buffet,” said Chris Matta, executive chef at Wheeling Island Hotel-Casino-Racetrack.
Wheeling’s The Pointe steakhouse uses 21-day, wet-aged prime beef. In a casino environment, it’s possible to sell at a lower price and still maintain high quality by serving non-certified Angus.
“Unless the cow is 100 percent black, it can’t be certified as pure Black Angus, but the meat is still of a high quality,” Matta said.
Kobe steak is available but isn’t in great demand.
“Kobe is more of a niche item. It’s a great product that’s caught on in bigger cities. But western Pennsylvania is not really a Kobe market,” Matta said.
For fishy palates
For seafood, Matta does “a good bit of commodity buying,” storing it on the property and then using it in the buffet.
For instance, he varies the types of product when it comes to crab, depending on the price and season.
“We don’t want to always have product XYZ,” he said. Last year, for example, he switched from Opilio crab to the lesser-expensive red crab. “When we went from Opilio to red, customers couldn’t discern any difference in flavor. We had put out information sheets on the differences between types of crab and worked to educate the customer. Once they saw they were getting a better value and a better product, then it was accepted.”
Wheeling’s parent company, Delaware North Companies, has developed a procurement system which provides “a corporate specification of [national] companies that have good reputations as purveyors,” Matta said. “We also look at local purveyors and butchers. We don’t have a lot of cattle farms here, but properties in the West have the opportunity to develop one-on-one relationships with smaller distributors.”
Quality over quantity
As with any purchase, buyers need to be sure they’re getting what they pay for in terms of quality.
“Be careful with vendors, especially with cut meats and processed seafood,” Matta said. “Self inspect to make sure you get what you pay for. Don’t pay premium price for something that’s three or four days old.”
Although the meat industry is dominated by large processors such as Cargill, Sysco and Tyson Foods, small, independent suppliers are finding a ready market in casinos through product development and marketing savvy.
St. Louis-based Holten Meat, Inc. supplies several Ameristar Casinos properties with its line of Thick ‘N Juicy hamburger patties. Quality control is what distinguishes Holten Meat from its competitors.
“We are licensed to do certified Angus, and as a result our product has a better taste and texture,” said James Holten, president of Holten Meats. Equally important, he said, is its attention to food safety, including the use of ozone to kill e. coli bacteria.
Thick ‘N Juicy patties retain their flavor when safely cooked to 160 degrees, have excellent taste and texture, superior retention of juicy beef flavor, and perform well under multiple cooking methods, Holten said.
“Our product will shrink less than competitors,” Holten said. “Whereas, a typical burger will get rubbery when cooked to 160 degrees, ours stays thick and juicy.”
One of Holten’s customers, a 60-unit restaurant chain, found that because a 7 ounce Thick N’ Juicy certified Angus patty shrank less than most competitors’ 8 ounce patties, it could serve the smaller-sized patties without sacrificing quality or taste.
The Thick N’ Juicy family features more than 150 varieties with shapes and portions. Holten Meat has developed a process to create a texture and appearance typically found only on a backyard grill. The patties ship frozen and maintain freshness 90 days from code date.
For the high-end beef patty market, Holten Meat offers Thick ‘N Juicy sirloin beef patties, which it says “represents the finest product available for the gourmet hamburger aficionado. Thick ‘N Juicy Sirloin combine the superior taste and texture of sirloin steak with the enhancing flavors of our seasoning.”
Holten’s Black Angus chuck beef patties—which are used by Ameristar—are made with certified Angus beef.
“Only 8 percent of beef makes the grade. Our patties contain only certified Angus chuck beef, water, spice and salt—no fillers,” Holten said. “Our process ensures each patty will maintain the appearance and robust flavor of patties found only on the backyard grill.”