The Lingering Pandemic and Lockdown are no Match for Consumers’ Love of Red Meat


While plant-based dishes and meat alternatives continue to trend, red meat is holding its own as a mainstay protein. But that doesn’t mean things haven’t changed for this menu staple over the past year.

The predominance of take out and drive thru are fuelling the burger movement — even in fine-dining establishments. With the heightened focus on safety and security, a growing number of operators are protecting their assets with more frozen and sous-vide options. The slowdown of in-dining activity is also carving out time for casual- and fine-dining concepts to re-visit their sourcing of red meat to meet the demands of more socially conscious customers.

Red meat stayed really strong in foodservice over the past year, says Stephen Giunta, culinary director for Cargill Proteins in Naperville, Ill. “In 2019, chicken was overtaking beef in foodservice sales. But beef stood strong and found its equilibrium. It took back a bit of that market share in 2020. Plant-based proteins did not steal any share from red meat.”

Despite everything we hear about plant-based proteins, red meat doesn’t seem to be going away, says Vince Sgabellone, industry analyst, Canada Foodservice for NPD Group in Toronto. “There’s not an exodus away from read meat in the restaurant environment. The year A&W launched the Beyond Meat burger to great success, beef burgers had a huge spike in volumes that year as well. They’re simply two different markets.”

Burgers are the one item everyone can’t seem to get enough of, Giunta says. “It’s become the rising star for most operators. It used to be the middle meats like roasts and steaks that drove the economics around the category. But COVID-19 drew a lot more volume in QSR and fast food than casual dining. Appleby’s and Montana’s saw more ground beef in the product mix than other cuts, because that’s where the traffic was going.”

According to NPD Group/CREST data, burgers accounted for 750 million servings in 2020 in Canada’s foodservice sector. “In the meantime, steak, roast and veal were very small — amounting to about one-tenth of that. They’re down by half because they are a full-service [item],” Sgabellone says. By way of comparison, chicken accounts for 500 million servings, ranking number three after burgers and breakfast sandwiches.

“We’re also seeing some growing interest in lamb in ethnic restaurants, particularly pit roasting and shawarma. But by and large, the growth in lamb is in retail,” Giunta says.

NPD Group/CREST data also shows that pricing for burgers has increased three to four per cent per year, which is slightly higher than inflation, Sgabellone adds. “That speaks to upsizing and upscaling on menus. QSR operators are coming out with higher-quality burgers, more toppings, fancier builds and countering the price increase with coupons or combo discounts. The average number of full-service customers ordering burgers has also gone up. They may not be getting the same prices as a steak or prime rib, but they’re still getting a great meal.”

As for other cuts, operators have been simplifying their menus and dealing with less raw ingredients, sticking with ones that have multiple applications. “Steak is hard to satisfy a lot of needs, so operators are looking for butcher or portion-ready pieces so they don’t have to do a ton of trimming,” Giunta says.

Demand for sirloin, for one has expanded, he adds. “Sirloin has become a darling that chefs love because it’s affordable, tender and flavourful and offers good value.” Another up-and-coming cut is the beef version of pork belly.

Smoked meats are generating a lot of interest as well, not just because of the popularity of brisket, Giunta says. “The original intention of smoking was saving costs on cuts. But now the real meat geeks say that the smoking process is anti-microbial making, it a very safe cooking method.”

Supply-side economics
As operators and customers focus on safety, many are transitioning from fresh to frozen — particularly in large chains, Giunta adds. “It’s been so hard for operators to forecast and plan for fresh supply, so they are looking for a much longer shelf life for their products.”

With capacity limitations, it’s a huge challenge for operators to be able to forecast raw and fresh ingredient supplies, says John Vatri, vice-president, Operations for Cardinal Meats in Toronto. “We’re seeing a big drive in our Safe Sous Vide line because they can be refrigerated or frozen, have a longer shelf life and take much of the prep work out of the back-of-house equation. They can even take those products and sell them to the customers as they are fully cooked and ready to use in barbecue kits and grocery packs. The industry has really pivoted in ways like that to keep their employees working and revenues coming in.”

While Vatri reports they haven’t seen a real downtick in foodservice demand, supply has been affected in some areas, including packaging. “There’s a big run on paperboard on the part of big players shipping parcels.”

Pricing also became an issue when the Asian demand for red meats grew in response to the impact of the African Swine flu on the pork market. “That has ultimately had a huge impact on pricing. It almost felt like the price of boneless beef jumped over 30 per cent overnight. Pricing has stabilized since then,” says Vatri.

A time to re-group
Carl Heinrich, chef/owner at Richmond Station in Toronto, says COVID-19 has allowed chefs to re-think their meat sourcing. “We have to think about the impact on the environment, specifically around feed. It’s a growing topic when it comes to livestock — particularly beef and lamb because they are ruminants (mammals that chew the cud re-gurgitated from its rumen).”

While he has always sourced locally, the past year he has refined the search to only buying pastured cattle that are 100-per-cent grass fed and organic. “When we look at the foodservice industry as a whole, there’s a growing demand for livestock being raised responsibly in terms of what they eat, how they are treated and how they are slaughtered.”

The consumer-insights team at Cargill reports 55 per cent of shoppers say having information about how and where the animal was raised and processed is important. Consumers’ definition of animal welfare involves many aspects, including how animals are handled during slaughter (60 per cent), access to outdoors (60 per cent) and the amount of living space (58 per cent).

Transitioning to grass-fed only meat did bring interesting new challenges, Heinrich admits. “Grass fed is a very different animal. The meat is leaner, a bit less tender, darker and the muscle structure is different. It also ages differently because there’s not as much fat. We’re re-learning everything we learned over the previous eight years.”

One advantage to leaner meat is that people tend to eat less of it, so portion sizes are a bit smaller. “When it comes to red meat over the past two to three years, the trend has been less of it and smaller portions,” Heinrich says. “And it’s not just about getting a steak or burger on a plate. A lot of chefs are playing with ingredients like beef tallow. We’re seeing less 16 oz. steaks and more four-ounce portions with more focus on the vegetable side of things.”

Charbar executive chef Jessica Pelland in Calgary is using the restaurant’s downtime to finesse some of the cuts they work with. “The decrease in overall volumes allowed us to focus more on the quality of the product and finer details. We’re having a bit more time to train staff on the best ways to butcher and cook different cuts.”

She’s enjoying working with producers to explore more options for her menu. Her favourites include skirt steak and more recently picanha, a cut commonly served in Brazil. “I love the balance of fat and flavour.”

Slower times have also allowed the Charbar team to perfect its dry-aging techniques. “We’ve always been focused on ultra-dry aging. Now we are able to take it up to 60 to 80 days.

One other addition was a new Char Butcher Shop at Charcut, its downtown-Calgary location that offers a broad selection of raw meat products for pickup. “We had wanted to have a butcher-shop menu for years,” she says. “It’s been great for online ordering and pickup.”

For the past few months, the industry is being allowed to re-set and focus on the details, Pelland says. “In the future, when we’re busier, we hope we can maintain that focus. Right now, we’re flexing with the times and doing some really cool stuff.”


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