Thinking of Buying a Fast-Casual Franchise? Read this report first.

Menu Development | By Marc Halperin

No Bum Steer
Beef options abound with new cuts and novel ethnic twists.
A steak dinner is becoming more affordable with the debut of new cuts of beef.

May I interest you in the filet mignon this evening?

It’s seldom a hard sell. For many diners, the mere mention of the tender, succulent, prime cut of beef from the end of the tenderloin is enough to shift the salivary glands into overdrive.

But would the very same cut of meat provoke the same reaction if it appeared on the menu as the Shankstown loin steak, the filet pauvre or the Pahrump rump roast?

And how about that New York strip? Not to take anything away from the Garden State, but would this steakhouse mainstay still conjure up a mental image of a sleek, well-trimmed, well-marbled slab of juicy decadence if it were renamed the New Jersey strip?

Marketing, as it turns out, is a big deal in the meat world, and nowhere more so than in beef circles. In April, the New York Times reported that it took five years of research and $1.5 million in funding to devise the Denver cut—an inexpensive analogue of the New York Strip sliced from a muscle on the steer that’s considerably less tender than those that yield higher-end varieties.

The Times pointed out that the Denver is just one of the newer cuts devised by the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association in recent years as the organization searches for ways to put traditionally unsung parts of the animal to better use—and to entice value-conscious consumers who love a great steak, but often can’t stomach the price.

Enter the Denver, the flank-steak-like Sierra, the boneless country-style beef chuck rib, and the Delmonico—not so much prime cuts as prime examples of beef-industry ingenuity. And since hamburger chains like Burger King and Jack in the Box have made hay out of trumpeting true choice cuts such as Angus and sirloin, these crafty new developments should soon find their way onto the fast-food radar.

It took five years of research and $1.5 million in funding to devise the Denver cut—an inexpensive analogue of the New York Strip.

At a time when bargain hunters are demanding deals and quality to boot, the Cattlemen have dealt the restaurant industry a great hand. Now chains can offer branded cuts of beef for less and, when paired with different and interesting ethnic flavors, the implications from both sensory and marketing standpoints are quite exciting.

For a little East-meets-West action, chains could serve mini Denver beef tips on a stick—portable skewers that have been marinated in spicy Korean barbecue sauce or rubbed with garlic, lemongrass, and Thai spices. Encrusting beef kebabs with black pepper or spiking them with jalapeños and bits of Jack cheese might satisfy those with a preference for Southwestern or south-of-the-border flavor profiles.

Standard-issue Asian salads could be strengthened by the addition of a wasabi and soy Sierra steak component. Boneless country-style beef chuck rib sandwiches could prove to be a category killer with just the right chimichurri or Peruvian lomo saltado sauce—the latter being a savory, tangy dressing often composed of ingredients such as vinegar, soy sauce, spices, red onions, parsley, and tomatoes.

As we look for new ways to use these newly hatched cuts of beef, it’s worth tossing a little extra food for thought into the mix.

Many environmentalists, dietitians, nutritionists, and other activist eaters are raising red flags about beef consumption less for its health effects than for its environmental impact. The controversial author James McWilliams, for example, has ignited something of a firestorm in the food world by suggesting that eating beef is bad, but that eating grass-fed beef—the alternative that conscientious carnivores have turned to for years—may be worse for the planet. As McWilliams noted in a recent Newsweek interview:

“Many grass-fed cows are eating grass that’s been fertilized or irrigated. As a result, the amount of greenhouse gases that go into its production is a lot higher. You also need eight to 10 acres a cow. If everyone ate grass-fed beef, it would mean giving up a lot of arable land and chopping down rainforests, which is already happening in some places. The bottom line is, animals are inefficient.”

While McWilliams’ views have gotten a certain amount of play in the mainstream press and on food blogs, they haven’t quite captured the popular imagination. But beef cattle have already become the environmental movement’s favorite whipping beasts, and that trend seems likely to continue. So even as we consider new and better ways to prepare, package, and present beef to quick-serve and fast-casual consumers, it’s a good idea to give some thought to what the future would look like if our beloved cattle were put out to pasture permanently.

© Copyright 2009 Cattlemen’s Beef Board and National Cattlemen’s Beef Association
As COO and culinary director at San Francisco’s Center for Culinary Development, Marc Halperin assists food and beverage companies with new product development and consumer research.