Lots of people talk about giving consumers exactly what they want. Not everyone, however, actually does it. Chef Victor Matthews, owner and proprietor of the Black Bear Restaurant, Green Mountain Falls, Colo., is one who does.
Today’s restaurant customers, the chef believes, do not want just a steak. Instead, they want a steak with specific, verifiable attributes. Some want natural or organic, some want grain-finished, some want locally produced. To satisfy those preferences, Matthews purchases beef from multiple sources. Diners entering the Black Bear find a large board with a list of that day’s offerings which, depending on availability, can include natural, grass-fed, grain-fed, breed-specific, locally produced beef and others.
While eating quality is a top priority in any customer’s selection, the chef says information increasingly is becoming a critical part of the equation. Twenty years ago, he says, customers rarely asked questions about beef, and if they did, the questions were about the differences between cuts or grades. Today, customers have access to more information about food, leading to higher expectations.
Every night, Chef Matthews says, the staff at the Black Bear field extensive questions from about a half-dozen customers. There are two possible approaches when customers ask questions about beef, he says. One is to evade them and not say anything. But the better approach is for chefs to prepare themselves with factual information and pass it along to customers whenever possible. Matthews holds regular meetings and seminars with his cooks and serving staff to prepare them for questions customers might ask about beef. “Overall, the number-one selling point we have is information. We tell them the story.”
Matthews says some of his customers favor “natural” beef because they perceive it as offering a higher level of food safety and quality. But whatever the specific attributes, he says customers prefer beef from production systems focused on quality. “You can tell the difference between meat from someone who cared versus that from someone who didn’t.”
Customers aren’t the only ones asking questions. Chef Matthews says that over the years he has made the transition from simply calling suppliers with orders, to asking questions about the sources of beef, production practices and attributes that contribute to eating quality. Most of the bigger suppliers, he says, didn’t have answers. “This became unacceptable to better chefs,” he says. “We wanted to get back to the tradition of knowing the source of food we serve to customers.”
In addition to his restaurant business, Matthews overseas the training of future chefs as dean and president of Paragon Culinary School in Colorado Springs. Beyond cooking methods, he teaches aspiring chefs about trends in the food industry, including the growing importance of source and process verification. “Not being able to talk to a producer and discuss product changes at the source is a sure-fire way to lose track of quality,” he says. To help chefs better communicate with suppliers, he holds an annual “Beef Masters” seminar at the school, covering the differences between breed types, production methods, beef cuts and other factors that affect quality.
The chef also recognizes that more verification and specialized production practices can add to the cost of beef. If a customer wants the least expensive steak, it will come with less information. To account for higher production costs, the chef uses a “back-to-front” pricing method. In this system, he explains, “We decide what we want to serve, then go out and find the meat that fits. We base the customer price on the restaurant’s cost. I pay the farmer what he wants — what he deserves — what he thinks his meat is worth. Then I use a standard food-cost formula to create the front price for the customer.”
A standard steak might cost the restaurant $8 a pound or about $5 total for a 10-ounce portion, Matthews explains. Food costs typically account for about one third of the menu price so if he adds $1 worth of potatoes and vegetables, price of the meal would be $6 times 3 or $18, maybe $18.95. “The same steak, but all natural or local or traceable would fetch $24,” he says. “And steak from a specific breed from a specific farm with very high quality might break $30 or $35. A 16 oz. prime ribeye from a small farm, raised all natural with total paperwork, is worth an easy $50 plus.”
Matthews expects the trend toward verification to continue and accelerate in the food industry. He also expects growing demand for verification of sustainable production practices. “Seafood is a good test bed for this,” he says. “Most good chefs won’t even serve fish today that isn’t traceable from sustainable sourcing. Beef isn’t far behind.”