The foodservice sector is preparing to brave the brunt of spiralling food costs and the predicted downturn in consumer spend in the autumn. Equally difficult is the current volatility of food prices, which means that the foodservice sector is going to have to look at new ways of managing its fixed-price supplier contracts if it wants continuity of supply. “Some catering butchers may say, ‘Sorry guys, but we have to renege on this contract because we cannot afford to supply you at the prices we agreed, as our costs have gone up,’” says Hugh Judd, EBLEX foodservice trade manager. “Some, however, will think more laterally and suggest that foodservice buyers try other products.” Richard Taylor, a catering butcher who runs family firm Owen Taylor in Alfreton, Derbyshire, believes that the best way forward, as prices rise, is to talk to your customers. “Give them the facts by showing them the World Market Reports and just negotiate.
We are finding people are very understanding when you show them the facts. It is widely known that the basic problems are feed and oil costs and these are global problems.”
He admits that the last few months have been difficult for catering butchers. “Nobody has been hitting their margins. We talk to the trade all the time. You have to keep on top of your costs. We used to do our costings monthly, but now we do them weekly.”
At the same time, Taylor believes catering butchers need to be consistent in their quality and keep the service levels they offer their customers high. Judd agrees that, as previous recessions have shown, the best and most proactive traders in the meat sector will survive. “It applies to the foodservice sector more than any other. You can see the people who have always been consistently good and their level of service is excellent, as they are constantly looking for new ideas and innovative ways to keep their menus looking fresh,” he says.
For the time being, the hospitality industry is cashing in on holidaymakers splashing the cash they budgeted for their annual summer vacation. “They are saying that, while there might be a recession, we have budgeted for this so we are not cutting back on our spend during the holiday,” says Judd. But when holiday-makers get back home that is when the cutbacks will be made and it is fair to say that the out-of-home food consumption market will start feeling the effects of consumers tightening their belts as they experience the double whammy of increases in utility prices and coming off low fixed-price mortgages. Some big brewery groups have been anticipating this and have already started trading heavily on price, as they all desperately try to hold on to market share. The price of two-course meals has been slashed from £10.50 to £8.50, for example, and JD Wetherspoon has introduced a breakfast at £2.49.
Meanwhile, the supermarkets are promoting what they call restaurant-quality food to cook and eat at home. Tony Goodger, BPEX foodservice trade manager, believes this will undoubtedly impact on the foodservice sector. His advice for catering butchers and foodservice operators is to keep the lines of communication between each other open and really promote value cuts where possible. Pork, for the first time, is beginning to look expensive on the menu, notes Goodger. “In the past, people were prepared to pay the same for chicken as for pork, certainly not the same as steak. But because of pricing uncertainty, pork prices are rising above chicken prices and are on a par with rump steak. We are advising foodservice operators to use the blackboard to promote pork, so they can alter their prices more easily.”
BPEX is also seeing the work it did on promoting forequarter and value cuts finally reaping dividends. Goodger says: “We are seeing a lot more foodservice chefs using belly, collar and shoulder, because it is value-for-money and they are quite happy to experiment with that.”
Chefs have also made this move towards value cuts as the price of loin is going through the roof. “I had a nice email from a chef, who said he had put pork collar steak with wild mushroom on the menu and it sold straight away, so he would quite happily swap loin for collar,” says Goodger.
Rising prices are forcing chefs to look for inspiration and that probably explains why BPEX’s website porkforcaterers.com has seen the number of unique visits increase by 690%. BPEX’s Complete Guide to Pork for Professional Chefs, relaunched three months ago, is proving equally popular and is in its second reprint. “This is all about repositioning pork as indulgent and good value-for-money. In the past, caterers said pork was not special enough, but they seem to be changing their mind,” says Goodger.
Breakfast offers a good sales opportunity for meat suppliers, as the demand for breakfast increases in both the private and public sector.
EBLEX has also been working on promoting secondary cuts or as Judd calls them different cuts. Dutchman Dick van Leeuwen is a seam butchery expert chosen by EBLEX to front its seminars and teach the UK chefs and butchers about Continental butchery. “The Continentals know how to take the best muscles from animals that are not prime cattle and turn them into good eating cuts. They are taken from young males or dairy cattle that have come to the end of their useful life,” explains Judd. They have to think, ‘I have got this cut but I can’t chargrill and expect it to be the same.’ By cooking it differently, not necessarily more slowly, you will produce a fantastic product with great flavour and, indeed, better value.” Judd also believes that caterers should probably also be looking at longer levels of maturation on some of these cuts. A little more maturation over 14 days, or preferably 21 days, for these lesser cuts will deliver a really good product. “For instance, you get a flatiron steak from the chuck, which in the past has gone into steak pie. By seaming it out and taking out the feather blade and the main gristle, you can produce fantastic steaks.”
Judd admits that using value cuts is not just good for money-saving, but that they have different flavour. “With extra maturation and by cooking them differently, you get a whole world beyond fillet and rib-eye.”
As September kicks in, so do autumn menus, which offer the best of seasonality and, of course, lamb. EBLEX has done the same thing with lamb as beef, in terms of seam cutting. Says Judd: “It helps with the sales of shoulder meat, which, if you seam it properly, can produce good mini shoulder joint and neck fillets, as well rack from the neck.”
As lamb prices start to stabilise and even fall, English lamb is going to be fantastic value, according to Judd.
“We will be doing a major push to consumers in September/October time for autumn lamb and also pushing it on to Christmas function menus. People who don’t usually eat lamb really appreciate it when they see it on a function menu.”
Richard Taylor has worked closely with EBLEX on different cuts and admits he got some surprisingly good results using them. “We started looking at these cuts seriously in March and started pushing them around April. The feedback from customers has been good. English butchery is behind the times, but we are now moving ahead.”