Carl Heinrich of Toronto’s Richmond Station, with its seasonal and ingredient-driven menu, says he hasn’t noticed a change in what his customers are asking about protein sourcing. That’s because, he says, the eight-year-old restaurant has a strict approach to sourcing, which forms a foundational tenet of its philosophy. However, he has noticed the general dining population wants more information about their food.
“As a growing trend, people want to know more about where their food is coming from: whether it’s organic and local. We’ve always looked for best-in-class sourcing and buy whole animals direct from the farmer — only after we’ve met that farmer and seen the farm. We buy the whole thing and we use the whole thing,” Heinrich says.
Mickella Lycka is supply-chain manager for Calgary-based OPA! Of Greece. She says customer demand for lamb has increased slightly over the last several years — despite the fact prices have increased to almost double what they pay for chicken. It’s a testament to what she says is a dedicated customer base. “As a QSR serving lamb, it’s a niche,” Lycka says. “We haven’t seen a drop off in demand. People who like lamb are loyal followers.”
She adds OPA! customers don’t ask about the history and provenance of the protein that’s on their plate. It’s not an issue, Lycka says, and they seldom get requests about their protein sourcing. OPA! does not serve Canadian lamb — “because of the price point” — but the outlet is a rare QSR operation that serves whole-muscle cuts of lamb, according to Lycka. “For many people, lamb is a familiar flavour they can’t get elsewhere at this price point.”
Local and Sustainable
Yet Canadian lamb does have a history and provenance. According to Corlena Patterson, executive director of the Williamsburg, Ont.-based Canadian Sheep Federation, this is due partly to strong farm-gate sales which make the concept of “local” — the range of possible definitions notwithstanding — an important quality when it comes to lamb. She notes 80 per cent of Canadian lamb is processed at a provincially inspected facility, which means if you’re eating lamb in that province, it was processed there.
“By virtue of that, it is largely local. It’s a strong element in the Canadian industry. Some producers will do grass-fed and some try to capitalize on the local trend,” says Patterson, noting the significant number of drive–up sales of lamb that chefs and restaurants can — and do — experience.
She adds the value in sourcing Canadian lamb products is freshness — the fact is it doesn’t come frozen and from far away in shipping containers. That, Patterson says, differentiates local lamb from any off-shore product. “We see a continuous increase in per-capita consumption of lamb in Canada. In terms of a Canadian product,we have very good quality-assurance and traceability programs, along with animal-welfare practices in our country, that define and distinguish the product.”
The issue of sustainability is important to beef producers as well, according to Duane Ellard, director, Marketing and Business Development at Canada Beef. “The industry looks toward environmental sustainability practices and invests in research to ensure the practices are sustainable,” Ellard says, pointing out many farming families have used the land for their cattle for three generations. “[They]have done so out of a sense of responsibility. Their intent is to be able to do that for another three generations.”
Farming practices and what beef cattle eat when it comes to grass-fed and organic is in a “niche stage,” Ellard says, adding in Western Canada, beef cattle eat primarily barley, while in central Canada corn is more prevalent, acknowledging that some like “the flavour profile that grass-fed beef has.
When it comes to organic and grass-fed, Heinrich enthusiastically applauds. “I love it. More people should eat organic and grass-fed,” he says. “The animal is living out on pasture, which is what it’s supposed to do.”
When it comes to porcine protein, Canada exports about 65 per cent of the pork it produces, but it’s the job of Ottawa-based Canada Pork to promote and accredit the domestic market’s needs when it comes to sustainability, too. That includes branded initiatives from farmers and processors regarding the quality and safety of Canadian Pork. The initiatives are handled through nationally accredited on-farm and in-plant programs that communicate to consumers that Canadian producers are doing “the right things on farm.” Programs that, according to Kevin Mosser, Canada Pork director, National Marketing, demonstrate systems are in place to ensure that, “The Verified Canadian Pork (VCP) foodservice program allows restaurants and operators the opportunity to differentiate themselves in the marketplace.” He adds foodservice operators have shown an increasing interest in highly marbled pork programs. “Domestically, we’re beginning to understand that marbling, along with pH, colour and other factors, equal flavour and restaurants are in an excellent position to deliver on the value of high-quality pork.”
Dare to be Different
That idea of differentiation is key in the new approaches to traditional animal-based proteins, Ellard says. “Foodservice looks for differentiation, whether that’s through culinary trends, ingredients or cuisines.” Citing “an explosion” of restaurants in communities trying to differentiate themselves, Ellard adds it’s being done through preparing less traditional cuts of beef that originate from chuck, flank, brisket or hip cuts. “That could include beef cheek, skirt steak and a shoulder cut,” he says. “The challenge for foodservice is these are often smaller cuts and fewer. However, over the past few years, there’s been a balance struck with restaurants looking outside the traditional cuts.”
A similar differentiation can be found with pork. ‘P-Toro’ — a cut derived from the jowl that is heavily marbled but delicate in texture — has performed well for restaurants, according to Mosser. “We’ve also noticed foodservice interest for the pork pluma, or feather steak. It’s a triangular-shaped steak located alongside the rib-end portion of a boneless pork loin and has a balance of finely textured muscle and superb marbling characteristics.”
Patterson says lamb producers are looking to familiarize consumers with lamb products through retail sales, so they recognize it on restaurant menus. At the same time, they are trying to differentiate themselves in a new market with a changing demographic. “We have a new generation open to trying new things. It’s about deriving more dollars from one animal, not wasting and being sustainable.”
Differentiation converges with sustainability, in part, as a recognition. “It takes a lot of energy to produce a single calorie of steak — or really any animal protein,” says Heinrich. “Even though it is a much smaller animal, it takes a lot of food to put a chicken breast on your plate, too. But absolutely, people are eating less meat and want to know where their food is coming from. I think that’s a great trend.”
Written by Andrew Coppolino