Few food groups are as intractable as prime beef when it comes to food cost and margins. To restore some sanity to profits, steakhouses increasingly are looking beyond filets, New York strips and Porterhouses, building out menus with more variety of flavor and cost. Happily, there are lots of choices that satisfy operators’ budgets and diners’ appetites.
Prime, corn-fed Midwestern steaks may be menu darlings, adored, coveted and sought out with happy abandon by indulgent, beef-loving diners but it’s hardly an industry secret: steakhouses find the most profits in ABM—anything but meat. Appetizers, sides, cocktails, bottled wine and desserts are essential, their margins balm to the profit pinch. Beef, especially prime, can carry a price tag that makes buyers wince—and that’s at wholesale. Apply food-cost math and most of those steaks price themselves right into the upper stratosphere.
Profit-minded operators looking for some relief have nothing to beef about; there are lots of options besides the hide-bound menu stalwarts — cuts and grades that offer delicious eating at friendlier price points.
“It can’t all be prime and fortunately it doesn’t have to be for great results,” says Tim Cottini, executive chef of Fork and the newly opened Knife; the restaurants, just a few short blocks away, are in Chicago’s bustling Lincoln Square neighborhood. While Fork is a classic American gastropub, Knife is what Cottini describes as different, a modern take on the traditional steakhouse.
“It’s not just steak on a plate; there are twists and turns to keep it interesting. We have a wide variety of sides and sauces.” Sides are plated with entrees rather than served family style and the meat sauced. “This is so diners can build personalized meals,” he explains, adding that plates arrive at tables looking complete.
Veering from the standard steakhouse format gives Cottini latitude in crafting the menu, allowing him to introduce diners to less familiar cuts that still manage to sate guests’ beefy urges. “There’s a lot out there that hasn’t really been explored as much as it should be. It’s not so much that the cow has grown new parts,” says Knife’s Cottini. “But they can be broken down differently, yielding new cuts.”
To nab the quality he sought, Cottini and his team tasted products from eight purveyors. All were grass-fed and grain-finished. “Due to cost, we didn’t look at prime,” he says. Instead, a top-tier choice grade made the cut. “When you look at it, the meat is beautiful, heavily marbeled much the way you expect prime to be,” Cottini notes. “The cost is a lot better, though, for us and for customers.”
At Ye Olde Steakhouse in Knoxville, Tenn., co-owner Cheryl Wilson notes that careful purchasing along with care in cooking and handling are key strategies that allow the 48-year-old restaurant to continue offering guests the steaks they hold so dear. “It’s something we have to be aware of and watch closely. A lot of customers have been coming for a long time and have expectations that every visit will be just like the ones before, especially the food,” she notes. Her son, Hugh Wilson, is tasked with purchasing and she says it’s a job that isn’t as easy as it used to be. “He spends a lot of time to ensure quality, consistency and price.”
Hugh Wilson acknowledges that many of Ye Olde’s long-time diners waver little from their dining habits. “They like strips and filets,” he notes. But even with that, he sees more consumers interested in variety. “It could be because of cost or maybe they want more variety,” he says, adding that this has led him to explore what he calls middle meats. “There are some excellent cuts from the mid-area of the cow and we’ve had good results with that.”
Noting that many of their tried-and-true customers are of an older demographic, Hugh Wilson says that adding cuts such as flat-iron steak will serve a purpose. “They are very good and it’s something that appeals to younger diners who come with a different set of expectations in price and taste.”
Community of Trust
With an “out in the neighborhood” location, Chicago’s Community Tavern has a devoted following of regular guests, people who have come to think of it as a local spot to drop in for casual midweek meals as well as weekend splurges. At the same time, strong reviews draw first-time customers from a wider radius. Executive chef/partner Joey Beato is mindful of exceeding all their expectations.
“Regulars have come to trust us so they’re willing to go deeper into the menu and try something a little different. Others want the classic steakhouse experience,” he says.
A stand-out star is ribeye, a 16-ounce dry-aged beauty that has been on the menu since the restaurant opened. “It’s important to feature it but it’s a loss leader,” notes Beato. Other cuts such as the skirt steak featured in steak frites and short ribs help to cushion the blow.
Beato works closely with his meat purveyor and feels that they’ve established a strong working partnership that helps buffer the cost. “He works hard to provide what we need,” Beato explains. The kitchen team, too, has a lead role in keeping food costs in line. “The cook’s end is very important. Meat is a big expense and it’s their job to handle it properly and make sure there’s no waste.”
In the end, Beato understands that guests drive the menu and he is constantly on his game to make the hard realities of food cost balance out. “It’s our job to make the menu unique and different, and to offer it at a good price. When we do that, we’ve hit it well.”
Quick to the Cuts
Here’s a sampling of more-moderately priced steak cuts to consider. Whether they balance out pricy options or are chosen as a solo steak offering on a diverse menu, they perform well for food costs and eat well, too.
Spinalis, also known as cap steak or ribeye cap: This is almost too good to be true, a beautifully marbled, tender strip of meat that surrounds a ribeye opposite the bone. The whole muscle is about 16 inches long, 8 or so inches wide and an inch thick. It is ideal for high-heat cooking, either under the grill or in an infernally hot pan.
Tri-tip: Although it has caught on in California, this triangular muscle from the bottom sirloin is tender and ideal for grilling and smoking.
Flap steak: Sometimes called bavette (sort of a catch-all term in France for thin steaks), this is generally cut from the bottom sirloin butt. Richly flavored, it works well for grilling; it is best cooked rare or medium-rare.
Flat-iron: From the shoulder, found adjacent to the shoulder clod, it is generously marbled and even in thickness—an asset for cooking. It is deliciously beefy and juicy, suited to the grill or a quick pan sear.
Hanger steak: Located near the kidneys—where it hangs, hence the name—this cut for years never really showed up on the market. For one thing, there are only two per cow. And they have a strong, pronounced flavor; some say they taste of the kidneys with which they keep company. But their alternate name says it all; they also are called butcher’s steak because butchers typically reserved this cut for themselves. In France it is called onglet and often makes up the steak part of steak frites.
Boneless short ribs: You’re not alone if you assume this to be short ribs, cut from the ribs and then deboned, but you’d be wrong. From the chuck shoulder primal cut, they have a lot of connective tissue that when cooked properly makes them tender and flavorful and allows them to hold their shape.
Sirloin filet: This pretty much looks like the coveted filet although it is not as tender. Flipside, it has a beefier, richer taste and is very lean, a plus for some diners.
Denver cut: This cut keeps on trying to find its fame and to many minds, it’s overdue. “Discovered” when the beef industry asked two universities to explore alternate ways of breaking down beef, this super-marbled cut from the chuck boasts flavor, tenderness and versatility. Said to be the fourth most-tender cut (behind tenderloin and two others on this list, the flat-iron and rib cap), it’s a gem waiting to find an audience.