Smart consumers can calculate how much they save by buying steak at a local grocery store and cooking it at home instead of ordering a grilled steak at a restaurant. But picky gourmets see something else that a home cook cannot easily achieve: Access to the better-quality meat is one of restaurants’ advantages.
When people pay $20 or more for a Kansas City strip steak, they pay for more than the cost of the meat. They also pay for the restaurant’s access to fresh, high-quality beef, the cost of cutting the meat by specially trained chefs, the chef’s cooking skills and the restaurant’s services.
Most restaurants in Columbia serve choice quality beef and few serve the top-grade prime beef.
Prime and choice are the top two quality grades among the eight quality grades designated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Both are ranked ahead of select, the grade individual consumers mostly will get from retail stores.
CC’s City Broiler, 131 S. Tenth St., is one of the few restaurants in Columbia that serves prime beef. The extensive marbling in prime beef gives extra flavor, and that’s what the customers pay for, said restaurant manager Brian Benenati.
Gil Laboy, kitchen manager of Murry’s, said restaurants have access to a bit better quality of beef because not every grocery store sells USDA-graded meat.
“We’d like to serve what customers pay for, which is better quality,” he said.
Consumers can’t just go out and get prime beef because of the limited quantity on the market. Only 2.02 percent of U.S. cattle were graded prime in 2000, compared to 49.11 percent of choice and 42.9 percent of select, according to a report in the Journal of Animal Science (Vol. 80, 2002).
“Most prime cuts are reserved for restaurants,” said Courtney Daniels, Hy-Vee health department manager.
Aging beef is another advantage that restaurants bring to consumers.
“Steaks you can get in restaurants are usually aged that you can’t get in grocery stores,” said Michael Keene, resident instructor of MU’s hotel and restaurant management department. Dry aging is a process in which meat hangs for 14 to 21 days in a cooler to break down tissues for more tender texture.
The extra work of aging meat turns into a double cost that makes most retail stores hesitant to carry aged beef, Keene said.
However, customers’ preferences for food are often unpredictable. “Most restaurants use choice-graded beef because of the perception of less fat in it,” said Jeremy Brown, one of the owners of Addison’s.
Variety among grocery stores
The quality of beef should be the same from a grocery store and a restaurant if the beef is the same grade.
“Choice is choice,” said Dawn Thurnau, marketing director of the Missouri Beef Industry Council, adding that the quality of beef is only part of the cost.
Thurnau said while the quality of beef found at a retail store and a restaurant is similar, chefs and their suppliers are probably more focused on the need for consistency in everything they do. Much of the difference in quality simply relates to preparation methods, sauces and concepts.
“We buy our choice beef from our vendor, which is the same grade of beef that grocery stores can buy from their vendors,” said Brown at Addison’s.
While most grocery stores carry choice and select beef products, Hoss’s Market & Rotisserie is the only Columbia vendor to sell prime beef.
Prime is about 40 to 60 percent more expensive than other grades of beef, but the prime beef sales at Hoss’s have been good since the store opened one year ago, said owner Jim Koetting.
Other stores also have their specialty brands. For example, Schnucks offers Certified Black Angus beef; Hy-Vee carries Blue Ribbon beef and Choice Amana beef.
Hy-Vee’s Amana is graded choice, but consumers won’t realize it unless they ask the meat staff. At Gerbes, abbreviations in small type — such as “SLCT,” which stands for select — can be found on some of the labels. At Moser’s, 75 percent of the beef is labeled choice. A huge USDA Choice sign can be found at Sam’s as well.
Besides three different grades of beef, grocery stores also have different strategies to present the freshest and most flavorful meat. Stores including Sam’s, Hy-Vee, Moser’s and Hoss’s, get “primal” cuts — huge chunks of uncut beef — from their meat distributors and slice them into usable sizes to keep the meat fresh.
Wal-Mart, which does not cut beef in local stores, pumps up to 12 percent of a liquid solution in the meat before it is packed to enhance flavor and keep moisture in the meat.
Liquid solution gives the meat extra flavor, but some prefer the original taste of the beef, Keene said.
Many steakhouses don’t buy precut beef; they buy it in bulky pieces, and the chefs cut it.
“It’s much cheaper to cut on our own than buying precut, and also the meat stays in better quality longer if it’s not cut,” said Chris Smith, one of the owners of Colosseum Bistro.
Sophia’s, CC’s City Broiler, Murry’s, Tellers and Flat Branch Pub & Brewing also cut their own meat.
High-quality doesn’t always sell
Prime, Choice and Select are not a perfect way for consumers to evaluate their favorite cuts of beef. But most consumers who prefer meat that is more tender and flavorful are more likely to be pleased by Prime than Choice, and by Choice than Select, said Carol Lorenzen, assistant professor of MU food science.
Higher quality beef has more assurance in cooking because the fat in it protects the meat from being overcooked, she said.
Besides freshness and USDA grading, consumers might also consider the absence of hormones as a criteria to choose their meat.
The Sho-Me Farmis one of the few local cattle breeders that raise cattle and provide meat to Hy-Vee’s health food section. Consumers usually seek tender and hormone-free meat from local beef farms, said Don Mayse, the Sho-Me Farm’s owner.
Mayse’s beef has sold well at Hy-Vee for the past 18 months, and its products are some of the bestsellers in the frozen food section, Daniels said.
But it has a hard time offering its product to local restaurants, Mayse said.
“With local farmers, a lot of the problem is they would not be able to provide the consistent amount of product we need, and the price is a bit more expensive,” said Brad Pippen, one of owners of Addison’s.
He said there probably won’t be more than one or two places in Columbia serving locally produced beef because of the cost and availability.
Most restaurants have their own meat suppliers such as local Tiger Packing, St. Louis-based Kuna, and Chicago-based Allen Brother’s. “Some restaurants make sincere efforts at serving the very best they can, and there’re some that make a sincere effort at serving the very least expensive (beef dish),” Mayse said.
He said the best way for consumers to find the best deal is to shop around at different restaurants.