KANSAS CITY, Mo. – When the going gets tough, the tough get going —particularly when it comes to supplying foodservice customers with meat as it continues rising in cost throughout the US. As such increases bump up restaurant menu prices, menu development and innovative preparations of beef and pork center-of-the-plate offerings are helping to offset the pain. So relays Technomic’s updated Center of the Plate: Beef & Pork Consumer Trend Report.

Increasing prices for beef—and to a lesser degree, pork—will have direct implications for operators and suppliers through this year, said Darren Tristano, vice president of Chicago-based Technomic. "It's vital for suppliers and operators to work together in keeping meat products cost-effective. Opportunities are emerging to explore different cuts of meat and develop innovative applications that cross-utilize beef and pork across the menu."

Technomic’s report featured several highlights including:

• Consumers say four out of every five meals they eat, on average, contain some type of meat, such as beef or pork. More meals of older rather than younger consumers' meals likely contain meat.

• When offered a choice of protein for a menu item, consumers say they order the item with beef or steak about 33 percent of the time. For almost as many occasions (29 percent), consumers order these items with chicken; while 12 percent order menu items with fish or other seafood; and nine percent order pork.

• Approximately 65 percent of consumers say they enjoy pork served with sweet/honey; 64 percent, hickory; and 58 percent, smoky barbecue sauces, glazes and marinades. Consumer preferences for sweet, tangy and chipotle-flavored barbecue sauces are also increasing.

When I contacted Technomic to get an example or two on how suppliers and operators can work together in keeping meat products cost-effective, Mary Chapman, Director, Product Innovation, explained, “The idea here is to avoid raising menu prices, at least not too much. Suppliers can portion their products for their operator partners to avoid waste and over-portioning at the unit. They can also help train cooks in the restaurant to butcher properly.

“Suppliers and operators can work together to create items out of lower cuts of meat that would include marinades or other tenderizers; and, again, suppliers can offer training or recipes that show how to make a tougher cut more edible through cooking and preparation techniques,” she added. “They could even work together to agree to take a temporary hit on margins so they don’t have to raise prices for the customer.”

Examples of different cuts of meats operators should explore include lower-cost cuts, such as skirt steak, flank steak, shoulder or London Broil steak and low-and-slow-cooked braised or barbecued beef brisket, Chapman said. “The National Restaurant Association’s latest What’s Hot chef’s survey called underused/inexpensive beef cuts like brisket, shoulder and skirt a top center-of-the-plate menu trend for 2013,” she added.

Related red-meat alternatives are also emerging, she pointed out. “As beef prices rise and consumers look elsewhere on the menu, operators may have a greater opportunity to successfully experiment with other meats,” she said. “Original Roadhouse Grill menus a Bison Ribeye, as well as a Bison Back Ribs Dinner. Silver Diner lists a Local Farm-Raised Bison Chopped Steak entrée.”

Foodservice operators who are offering barbecue, tacos, kebabs, entrée salads and similar products can offer both types of meat (plus many other proteins) and interchange them fairly easily, she concluded
Predictions on menu prices increasing due to increasing meat costs, among the other increasing costs of doing business, have been circulating for several years now — and it appears these predictions have since come to fruition.

“At some point, restaurants will need to raise their prices,” stresses Mike Martin, director of communications, Cargill. “Some already have, and may need to raise them more in the future. There are limits to cost containment in an environment where input costs continue to rise. In the past year or so, our foodservice team has seen some customers trading down to smaller portion sizes to better manage their costs.”

Cargill is recommending to its customers that they look at under-valued cuts within the premium category. “We suggest items that meet a menu price, yet also give consumers a quality eating experience,” said Misty High, Cargill’s assistant vice president, Beef Foodservice sales, Wichita, Kan. “For example, a Sterling Silver beef chuck flat is great as a braised item or as a Texas-style barbecue dish and can be positioned at a nice price point. We work closely with our culinary team to make recommendations that work both in the front and back of the house. We're highly focused on collaborating with our customers to find solutions that help them maintain and grow their business.”

When asked if Cargill’s R&D team has helped develop innovative applications in recent months that could help menus maintain prices, High answered “Absolutely.” One example is the company’s Marbold Beef. Cargill R&D developed Marbold Beef utilizing a patent-pending process to reintroduce beef tallow into beef muscle cuts. “This process takes a beef cut with little-to-no marbling and makes it consistent in flavor, tenderness and marbling equal to Choice graded beef,” she said. “The advantage is a high-performing product at a competitive price.”

As mentioned earlier, smaller cuts and portion sizes are an option to off-setting rising meat costs. “We are beginning to see quite a bit of interest in half-cut primals, stew meat and other pre-portioned cuts,” High said. “We're also seeing smaller-portion burger patties with some customers as they deal with rising material costs.”

Restaurant operators are always on the prowl for ideas to help them satisfy their customers. Cargill Value Added Meats – Foodservice recently launched its BurgerCravings.com as the go-to location for foodservice operators to get ideas, inspiration and knowledge on how to develop a more energetic and profitable burger platform for their operations. A portion of this site is dedicated to giving customers relevant, timely, trend information and menu ideas/recipes to help better serve them and their bottom line, Martin said.

“We believe that putting trend and menu innovation insights in one location will bring value to all of our customers as well as help them build an unforgettable burger menu,” Martin concluded.

Rising costs for raw materials will likely continue to challenge restaurant operators short-term, but for those operators who think outside-of-the-box and develop innovative, alternative menu offerings to help hold costs down — the opportunity to drive sales up is still very much alive.