What dish is worth a splurge? For many Americans, the answer still is steak.
This article first appeared in the 1 May 2009 issue of Restaurants & Institutions (R&I).
R&I is the USA's leading source of food and business-trend information and exclusive research on operators and restaurant patrons. Editorial coverage spans the entire foodservice industry, including chains, independent restaurants, hotels and institutions. Visit the R&I website to find out more about the magazine or to search its recipe database.
By Kate Leahy, Senior Associate Editor
No matter how tight diners' budgets get, meat lovers will always crave steaks. According to R&I's 2009 New American Diner Study, 67% of consumers say steaks are a worthwhile splurge—more than any other protein. Seafood ranked second.
What seems to be changing, however, is how much consumers are willing to spend and what they expect to get for their money. These days, even diners with a fondness for filet seek a deal. Operators who are willing to offer a side of value with their steaks stand to reap benefits.
Budget-oriented steakhouses appear to be faring well. Santa Fe, N.M.-based K-Bob's Steakhouse, where the dinner checks average $11.50, saw revenue increase 4.9% last year. In the first quarter of 2009, sales were up 8.26%. Meanwhile, times haven't been as kind to upmarket concepts. With check averages topping $30, locations of Heathrow, Fla.-based Ruth's Chris Steak House saw same-restaurant sales dip 18%. Chicago-based Morton's Restaurant Group fared only slightly better; its same-restaurant sales were down 12%.
Despite these numbers, serving steaks may offer some built-in protection for operators, because when people do go out, they want to know (now more than ever) that their destination will offer something approachable and satisfying. Hyde Park Group, the Beachwood, Ohio-based operator of 12-unit Hyde Park Prime Steakhouse, customer counts are steady even though bookings for corporate events have fallen. “It's almost like 20 years ago,” explains Hyde Park President Joe Saccone. “You're going to go out with your hard-earned money to have a good meal. You want to go somewhere you feel comfortable. You're not going to stray to the new fancy restaurant down the street.”
To ensure that customers continue to come through the door for their favorite steaks, Saccone and others are answering the call for value by lowering prices, diversifying beef selections and adding prix-fixe menus.
THE PRICE IS RIGHT
Wholesale beef prices soared in 2008, but recent softening of demand has given chefs much-needed bargaining power with purveyors. Morton's anticipates that its beef prices will decline by at least 10% this year—a drop that could tally up to $5 million in savings. And it's not just large companies catching a break. At Christy's Restaurant in Coral Gables, Fla., the wholesale price of prime filet mignon has dropped from $19.25 to $15.25.
Lower wholesale prices have allowed some restaurants to lower menu prices. “If we get a deal, we run specials and pass the savings on to the customer,” Hyde Park's Saccone says.
At Lark Creek Steak in San Francisco, Chef John Ledbetter has passed along price breaks for premium à la carte steaks to his customers, too. Even so, he sees many diners opt for the lower-priced steaks on the menu. In response, Ledbetter has expanded Lark Creek's selection of lower-cost cuts beyond the best-selling 6-ounce petite filet for $28.95 by adding an 8-ounce wagyu-beef flank steak for $24. While not as fork-tender as more luxurious wagyu-beef rib-eye (which wholesales for three times the price per pound), wagyu-beef flank is superior to other flank steaks, he says. “When they eat the flank steak, they'll appreciate it for being the best flank steak they have had.”
Of course, some customers will always gravitate to their favorite filet, rib-eye or New York strip, no matter what bargains are offered. That's the case at Christy's Restaurant, where the menu reads as it did 20 years ago. Chris Klaic, managing partner, says regulars make up 80% of Christy's business, sometimes dining at the restaurant twice a week. Though the menu includes New York strips and rib-eyes, most guests come for two things: the filet mignon with époisse sauce (see “Real Steals” on page 28) and Christy's slow-roasted, carved-to-order prime rib. The latter especially is a favorite. Says Klaic, “We sell out almost every night.”
Another reason regulars return to Christy's is for the generous side dishes served with the steaks. Prime rib, for example, comes with broiled mushrooms, horseradish sauce and a side Caesar salad for $37.50. “We're the only non-à-la-carte steakhouse in town,” Klaic says. “People are looking for a deal, and that's why they're still coming here.”
Even restaurants that focus on à-la-carte steaks are giving prix-fixe menus a second thought. At Sullivan's Steakhouse, a 19-unit concept run by Southlake, Texas-based Del Frisco's Restaurant Group, steak aficionados still often opt for the broiled, bone-in, 24-ounce cowboy rib-eye, a $36 à-la-carte option. But Corporate Executive Chef Thomas Dritsas has also rounded out the menu with some more-inclusive options to appeal to cost-conscious diners.
“We're diversifying,” Dritsas says. “We're bringing in plates that include protein, salad, starch and vegetables. And we're utilizing smaller cuts of beef.” One new example at Sullivan's, the Contender, includes a 10-ounce strip steak with frites, garlic butter and an iceberg wedge salad for about $25.
The company also runs nine-unit Del Frisco's Double Eagle Steak House, which serves under-$30 dishes called “lagniappes” (meaning “a little something extra”) that include selections such as beef medallions served with creamy potatoes, mushrooms and a Brie sauce.
Passing along savings to customers and delivering extra, unexpected dishes to the table won't pad a restaurateur's bottom line. But it just might keep him or her in business.
Says Klaic: “These are not the times to get rich. These are the times to keep doing what you're doing. Give people big drinks and big pieces of meat and make them happy.”
SPLURGE VS SAVE
Some consumers are still finding opportunities for the occasional over-the-top splurge. More often, though, they're just looking for a good meal. Here's how three lux steaks compare with three deals.
The dish: Vertical Steak Tasting for Four at Union Trust Steakhouse, Philadelphia
What you get for the money: Four (18-ounce) portions of prime steak aged 35, 42, 49 and 56 days broiled to guests' specifications. Only one tasting is available per night. It runs the kitchen a steep 62% food cost.
The dish: A5 Kobe Tenderloin at Meat Market, Miami Beach, Fla. ($95 for the steak; $19 extra for 2 ounces of seared foie gras)
What you get for the money: A six-ounce portion of “A5,” the highest grade of Japanese Kobe beef available, is seared in a cast-iron pan oiled with rendered Kobe beef fat.
The dish: The Tomahawk Chop (r.) at Del Frisco's Double Eagle Steak House, multiple units
What you get for the money: A broiled, 32-ounce dry-aged prime American wagyu longbone rib-eye. (On the nights the steaks are available, restaurants can sell 15 to 25 of them.)
The dish: The 8-ounce prime filet mignon at Christy's Restaurant, Coral Gables, Fla.
What you get for the money: The steak is seasoned with a mixture of salt, black pepper, sugar, paprika, garlic powder, turmeric and cornstarch, grilled over charcoal, and served with potatoes, époisse sauce, spinach and a side salad.
The dish: Bacon-wrapped ball-tip sirloin at The Hardware Store, Vashon, Wash.
What you get for the money: The cut comes from the center of the top sirloin. Owner Melinda Sontgerath serves the sirloin in 5-ounce portions. Bacon is secured around the steak with a toothpick, and then the steak is marked on the grill, finished in the oven, and served with garlic-mashed potatoes and grilled broccoli.
The dish: Chicken-Fried Steak (r.) at K-Bob's Steakhouse, multiple locations
What you get for the money: Four ounces of cube steak are battered, fried in 350F oil and served with a peppered creamy gravy. When ordered as part of a lunch special, it comes with a side salad and a beverage.
ALL IN HOW YOU COOK IT
Among steakhouse chefs, there are grill aficionados, broiler fans and the occasional sauté-pan advocate. Before opening Meat Market in Miami Beach, Fla., last October, Chef-owner Sean Brasel analyzed each technique. Ultimately, he decided to employ all three, depending on the kind of steak he was preparing. Here are the three pieces of equipment at work in his kitchen and how he uses each:
Char Broiler: To give the meat that caramelized surface steak lovers crave, Brasel sears it in a 1200F broiler until it is just shy of being ready and then lets it rest for several minutes. He fires it in the broiler one last time for the pickup. Great Steaks: Thicker cuts such as New York strip, rib-eye, bone-in filet or porterhouse.
Wood Grill: Brasel grills over a mix of Florida pine and oak for a mildly smoky flavor. He places the steak over the hottest part of the grill (which can reach 800F) to sear it quickly. Great Steaks: Thinner cuts, such as marinated wagyu-beef skirt steak.
Cast-Iron Pan: This method is best for marbled cuts of meat that might flare up on a grill. Brasel uses fat rendered from the wagyu rib-eye cap to oil the pans before searing the steaks over high heat. Great Steaks: Japanese and American wagyu.
Some contemporary steak preparations have just as much appeal as classic steakhouse offerings. At Sens, a Mediterranean restaurant in San Francisco, Chef Dane Boryta pairs a grilled flat-iron steak with Israeli couscous, braised chard and a sauce made with veal stock and metaxa, a Greek brandy. “The steak has a nice texture; the sauce makes it melt in your mouth,” Boryta explains.