Where’s the Beef: Restaurants Experimenting With Lean Proteins

Although Americans obviously love their steaks and burgers, many are looking at other protein sources as a way to maintain healthier diets and save money when dining out. The nation’s total beef consumption is down from 27.3 billion pounds in 2008, to 25.5 billion pounds in 2013, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Clearly, Americans are looking for healthier protein alternatives, and poultry options fit the bill, according to “Who Eats the Meats: A Guide to the Modern US Lean Protein Eaters.” The report found that more than 31 million households purchased a lean protein at least once a week because they are low in fat and play an important role in strengthening the body’s immune system.

The trend of consumers embracing lean proteins is one that many restaurants are embracing in an effort to offset the cost of beef, which increased 25 percent last year. Prices aren’t falling any time soon, thanks to the droughts of 2012 that decimated cattle. Although farmers are rebuilding their herds, it takes up to three years from gestation for cattle to reach market weight, according to Kevin Good, senior analyst at CattleFax.

That means most cuts of beef will remain high for another year, which has forced many restaurants to increase menu prices, said Joe Pawlak of Technomic.

“They can only do so much from a cost cutting or yield effectiveness perspective to keep menu prices flat,” Pawlak said. “They are passing prices onto their patrons.”

Fresh to Order, a 15-unit fine fast casual chain, is one restaurant that recently increased menu prices, but it’s impossible to raise them enough to cover the costs, said Jesse Gideon, the brand’s COO and corporate chef.
“You can never truly raise enough; guests can never absorb all the true increases,” he said. “You will price yourself out of business.”

Lean proteins taking over restaurant menus:
Higher beef costs aren’t only affecting small restaurants; it’s a problem for the big guys, too. Chipotle, for example, raised its steak prices last year and is contemplating another increase later this year, Jack Hartung, Chipotle’s chief financial officer, said during the company’s last earnings call in February.

“Restaurants have been embracing and incorporating lean proteins like chicken, pork, turkey and fish into their menus as locally sourced meats and seafoods top our culinary trends list for 2015, said Christin Fernandez, director, Media Relations & Public Affairs at the National Restaurant Association. “Poultry and fish items continue to be perennial trends in limited service restaurants and we’re also seeing that like beef, restaurants are incorporating less traditional protein and seafood options like pork cheeks or arctic char.”

A tactic that many restaurants are using to offset high beef costs is focusing specials and limited-time offers on non-beef items to save costs and enhance their margins, Pawlak said.

Fresh To Order serves poultry, is relying on less expensive cuts of beef and also encourages customers to try new menu items.

“We have been gently nudging guests with marketing around alternative items and training staff to recommend other favorites in like and other categories,” Gideon said.

Del Taco’s turkey test:
While turkey isn’t a staple in most Mexican restaurants, Del Taco added it to the menu last year when it introduced turkey tacos and turkey CrunchTada tostadas. It was the first Mexican fast-food chain to offer turkey as a protein option and is advertising that the 150-calorie tacos contain 33 percent less fat than the beef.

“People are substituting turkey for beef to meat dietary needs and health goals, and Del Taco was excited to offer its guests lean, seasoned ground turkey last year now made using Jennie-O turkey,” said John Cappasola, the chain’s EVP and chief brand officer. “This move provides guests with an excellent beef alternative without sacrificing the delicious Mexican flavors they know and love at Del Taco.”

Although restaurants have historically shied away from serving turkey unless it came in sandwich form, that’s changing, according to Mintel’s January 2015 “Emerging Flavor & Ingredient” report. It picked up 23 mentions of unique turkey ingredients on menus in Q3 2014, and 11 of those are posting “menu incidence growth,” an increase in mentions across all menus.

Although Uncle Maddio’s Pizza Joint uses beef on its pizzas, it sells three times the volume in hormone-free poultry than beef products, said Scott Goodrich, SVP of the chain’s Operations Franchisee Support Training Purchasing

“Over the last two years, we have seen beef prices rise in double digit percentages, however pork has remained flat and poultry has gone down,” he said.

Darren Tristano, executive vice president of Technomic in Chicago, isn’t surprised and expects to see other restaurants using more non-beef items, especially turkey, in a variety of dishes.

“I think we will see [turkey] consumption rise across the board … with [the addition of] tacos, burgers and other more traditional items. Turkey is leaner, healthier and less expensive,” he said.

*Abridged from an article by Cherryh Butler, www.fastcasual.com


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