Restaurateur, owner and head chef, K.C. Gulbro, owns and operates FoxFire and Copper Fox Pub and Banquet Hall, both located in Geneva, Ill. His work in restaurants began at the age of 16 and through the years he’s learned every position in the house from busboy to dishwasher to line cook.
Gulbro opened his steakhouse, FoxFire, in 2003. He and his staff regularly dealt with inconsistencies and the meat they procured failed to meet the team’s expectations. They decided to change to Prime-graded beef. The switch provided a slightly better product, but at a higher cost. They tried pre-cut steaks to improve quality, but the meat was still inconsistent.
“In 2007 we aligned with Sysco Chicago, and our amazing rep, Sue Wessel, introduced us to Buckhead Beef for butchering and we were introduced to the Certified Angus Beef program,” Gulbro said.
Buckhead Beef ensured FoxFire’s steaks were cut to the restaurant’s detailed specifications, and Certified Angus Beef (CAB) did the same for the quality. Gulbro started with filets and soon expanded the selection to include ribeyes and strips. Eventually, FoxFire served only CAB cuts.
“With the partnership of Certified Angus Beef and Buckhead, we saw a reduction in both our labor and waste,” Gulbro said. “We also saw a great increase in customers and profits.”
The relationship between CAB and Gulbro continued to develop over the years. Gulbro and FoxFire received staff training, menu mentoring, chef support and more. In 2017 FoxFire became an official CAB licensee and in 2022 a Certified Angus Beef brand ambassador.
“They were more than just a company vying for our business, they were an investor wanting us to succeed,” Gulbro said.
As a brand ambassador, Gulbro is part of a network of chefs throughout the country who use and represent the CAB brand on their menus, as well as through events in the media. The brand ambassadors carry an in-depth understanding of CAB that includes the high standards the beef must meet to receive the brand’s logo.
“Certified Angus Beef hosts a yearly Brand Ambassador Summit at their Culinary Center in Wooster, Ohio, where this group of powerhouse chefs comes together to get creative with beef cuts, share ideas, and visit a working-family Angus farm and see first-hand how cattle are raised to higher standards,” Gulbro said.
Gulbro is committed to putting FoxFire at the top of a list of the best steakhouses in Illinois. The restaurant’s social media marketing and activity has increased after featuring CAB’s steak cuts exclusively on the menu with customers putting their steaks on display when dining at FoxFire.
“The expectation is that our menu showcases only Certified Angus Beef on our steak offerings,” Gulbro said. “By investing in Certified Angus Beef, we have a partner that wants us to succeed. They are responsible for standing behind the product, and by that, if there is a problem, they solve it. With Buckhead handling the cutting, I know that the cuts are uniform. As I mentioned earlier, if I need help with anything, Certified Angus Beef is always available to us with instant answers.”
From just two cuts of meat on the menu to full ambassadorship, CAB has been key to FoxFire’s success throughout the years, bringing the two entities closer and closer.
“Either through front of house or chef training, marketing materials, and an amazing website full of recipes and inspiration, Certified Angus Beef helped our brand evolve,” Gulbro said.
During the pandemic in 2020/2021, CAB led an effort to help struggling restaurants with its #RestaurantChallenge. The 10-week campaign created conversation and heightened awareness of the struggles restaurants went through during COVID. Throughout #RestaurantChallenge, restaurants supported each other through social media.
“Even though FoxFire did not receive revenue from this, we did get the marketing material that helped get our staff through the pandemic,” Gulbro said. “Guests were quick to point out great FoxFire memories on our Facebook and Instagram pages. The morale of our staff increased, and so did the funds to help them.”
Since the peak of the pandemic, foodservice operators are faced with a new crisis, the rising cost of beef, as well as other supplies needed to run a business. Gulbro still looks to Certified Angus Beef and Sysco’s Buckhead Beef for help navigating the challenges. The brand, distributor and butcher provide FoxFire the necessary information and materials needed to use different cuts that ensure margins stay the same without sacrificing quality.
“We are currently using a Certified Angus Beef cap steak, flat iron, and Manhattan cut sirloin on our menu to help with our food cost,” Gulbro said. “Even though Prime and Choice filets and ribeyes are increasing, they are menu staples and are not going to get replaced. These new cuts help keep overall food costs down, customers happy, and staff confident in the products we serve.”
Supply chain strategy
Initially Gulbro focused on cost when putting together the supply chain for his restaurants, but after separating from a mostly profit-focused partner, he began to take a different approach. Gulbro and his team follow publications such as MEAT+POULTRY, Taste and others, as well as doing web research and contacting producers directly. For producers carried by suppliers FoxFire and Copper Fox already use, the decision is easy.
“If it is a new company, we will do our research, followed by a series of meetings,” Gulbro said. “It is important that we know who we are working with. Sometimes it is the first impression, and sometimes we request a walk-through of facilities, etc. We do not want to just sign with a company and then do this procedure in reverse.”
A large number of established and new meat and produce companies in Chicago compete for business in the restaurant channel. Many of these distributors use the same processor and butcher for their meats.
“There was one week that I had three different distributors come in for meetings, all vying for our beef, yet every one of them had the same product from the same meat company,” Gulbro said.
Gulbro comes from a long lineage of salespeople and understands maintaining margins and the importance of price negotiations. He also believes in fair pricing. When two companies offer the same product, price plays a major role, but delivery days, minimums, availability and quality are also part of the equation. Sometimes if quality is better, and availability and flexibility of delivery is better, he will pay more.
“This gives us the ability to get fresh ingredients and cuts,” Gulbro said. “If I am able to order often, that will also move into deeper discounts due to the frequency. At FoxFire the average life of a steak from when it’s butchered to plated is less than 48 hours. I could spend less with another provider of Certified Angus Beef, but I would only get deliveries on Wednesday or Friday. Not only would I have to spend more on storage and refrigeration, but I also would not be serving ‘fresh’ meat. In our size of a kitchen, sometimes the delivery times are just as important.”
Close to home
Gulbro prefers to keep the supply chain for FoxFire and Copper Fox tight to nurture strong relationships like the one he has with Sysco Chicago. While using multiple vendors is not a bad thing and often keeps pricing low, it also makes it difficult to cultivate those quality relationships. It can also cause friction in the day-to-day tasks required to operate a restaurant.
“At FoxFire and Copper Fox, we want to know where our products come from,” Gulbro said. “Buckhead and Certified Angus Beef help us trace that. Buckhead has the Iowa Premium label on most of our cuts. This branding ensures that beef is produced within the Midwest and in most cases our backyard.”
Both restaurants rely on Sysco for pork and chicken; they get seafood and charcuterie from Sysco and Fortune Fish; Greco Foods provides Italian products and sausages; and Performance Foods, Sysco and Greco all supply produce.
Soon, Sysco Chicago will make FoxFire and Copper Fox part of a new program called Home Grown. The program will showcase locally grown pork and chicken, 90% of which will come from Illinois and its neighbors, as well as help to shrink the footprint of the two restaurants. It will also allow Gulbro to trace pork and poultry supplies in the same way he’s able to trace Certified Angus Beef.
“By keeping things local, and using companies like Certified Angus Beef and soon the Home Grown program, we are able to visit our producers periodically,” Gulbro said. “Not only to check on their practices and products, but to let them know we do care, and keep up on what is new with them. It is amazing to see the innovations of Certified Angus Beef and Buckhead while staying ahead of the trends. By keeping the relationship strong, we are introduced to new concepts and practices that keep our restaurants thriving.”