Casual chains tap Kobe cachet to beef up menus

Casual chains tap Kobe cachet to beef up menus

NEWPORT BEACH, CALIF. —Chopped American Kobe beef with a mushroom-Burgundy sauce? Kobe-style beef sliders on briochelike King’s Hawaiian rolls?

Are the menus of old-fashioned diners and midscale casual chains supposed to feature highfalutin beef that is more commonly seen on fine-dining menus? —Chopped American Kobe beef with a mushroom-Burgundy sauce? Kobe-style beef sliders on briochelike King’s Hawaiian rolls?

The operators of Ruby’s [3], the 45-unit diner chain based here, think they should, and so does the management of Barney’s Beanery [4], the venerable Route 66 roadhouse that opened 87 years ago in what is now West Hollywood, Calif. —Chopped American Kobe beef with a mushroom-Burgundy sauce? Kobe-style beef sliders on briochelike King’s Hawaiian rolls?

The leadership of the Columbus, Ohio-based Damon’s Grill [5] chain and other operators also are making similar upgrades. —Chopped American Kobe beef with a mushroom-Burgundy sauce? Kobe-style beef sliders on briochelike King’s Hawaiian rolls?

Ruby’s Kobe-style beef dishes, and such upper-crust items as crab cakes and trendy salads, are among several higher-end menu items that it has introduced over the past year, suggesting a trend toward premium or upscale offerings at chains known for more plebeian fare. —Chopped American Kobe beef with a mushroom-Burgundy sauce? Kobe-style beef sliders on briochelike King’s Hawaiian rolls?

Industry watchers say new upmarket menu items may be an attempt to steal market share from the increasing number of “polished-casual” players in the upper tiers of the dinnerhouse segment. However, such menu maneuvers also may be attempts to differentiate lower-end casual players from fast-casual and quick-service rivals that are winning guests with such innovations as upscale Angus beef burgers. —Chopped American Kobe beef with a mushroom-Burgundy sauce? Kobe-style beef sliders on briochelike King’s Hawaiian rolls?

Kobe-style beef, from the Japanese Wagyu breed of cattle known for higher levels of fat marbling, long has been a favorite in fine-dining restaurants. “Kobe” refers to the prefecture in Japan where such beef is raised under specific standards, reputedly including massages and regimens of beer to stimulate cows’ appetites and help them fatten up. —Chopped American Kobe beef with a mushroom-Burgundy sauce? Kobe-style beef sliders on briochelike King’s Hawaiian rolls?

Such measures are deemed unnecessary in the United States, though an American version of the beef comes from the same breed. U.S. Wagyu cattle typically are crossbred with Black Angus, and producers and marketers loosely use the terms “Wagyu” and “Kobe.” —Chopped American Kobe beef with a mushroom-Burgundy sauce? Kobe-style beef sliders on briochelike King’s Hawaiian rolls?

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has initiated talks with the industry about defining such terms more specifically and perhaps developing a certification process for purebred Wagyu. —Chopped American Kobe beef with a mushroom-Burgundy sauce? Kobe-style beef sliders on briochelike King’s Hawaiian rolls?

Producers say wholesale prices for Wagyu-Angus ground beef typically run about $4.50 per pound, around $1 more than for regular ground beef. In recent years, increased supplies have brought prices for the beef within reach of casual-dining operators. —Chopped American Kobe beef with a mushroom-Burgundy sauce? Kobe-style beef sliders on briochelike King’s Hawaiian rolls?

Barney’s Beanery, known for its 700-item menu of downmarket comfort foods and all-day breakfasts, now has Kobe burgers at its three branches, including Pasadena and Santa Monica. Last month Barney’s introduced a $12.50 “Kobe-style” beef burger with caramelized onions, arugula and Swiss cheese. Other menu additions include a Cajun grilled chicken dish served with pasta with cream sauce, sautéed onions and roasted corn; and a Thai chicken dish with vegetables and cilantro. —Chopped American Kobe beef with a mushroom-Burgundy sauce? Kobe-style beef sliders on briochelike King’s Hawaiian rolls?

Damon’s Grill in March rolled out a new appetizer of miniature burgers made with an in-house blend of Wagyu and Angus beef it calls “Angus-Kobe,” at a suggested $7.99 for four or $9.99 for six. —Chopped American Kobe beef with a mushroom-Burgundy sauce? Kobe-style beef sliders on briochelike King’s Hawaiian rolls?

With an average per-person ticket of $17, Damon’s has been looking for more value-pricing opportunities, said Jon Quinn, the 80-unit chain’s director of marketing. However, knowing that other concepts had introduced smaller-burger plates, Damon’s decided to seek a more upscale positioning with the premium meat, he said. —Chopped American Kobe beef with a mushroom-Burgundy sauce? Kobe-style beef sliders on briochelike King’s Hawaiian rolls?

Though new, Damon’s Angus-Kobe Mini Burgers already are among its top three appetizers in terms of sales, Quinn said. —Chopped American Kobe beef with a mushroom-Burgundy sauce? Kobe-style beef sliders on briochelike King’s Hawaiian rolls?

Aaron Noveshen, whose San Francisco-based consulting firm The Culinary Edge has worked with Damon’s, said, “Mainstream casual [restaurants] are stuck in a place where their core customers need to be in a lower price range.” —Chopped American Kobe beef with a mushroom-Burgundy sauce? Kobe-style beef sliders on briochelike King’s Hawaiian rolls?

But the “upper tier” of casual dining is where the growth is, which is why some casual-dining brands seek ways to compete against higher-scale rivals, he said. —Chopped American Kobe beef with a mushroom-Burgundy sauce? Kobe-style beef sliders on briochelike King’s Hawaiian rolls?

Using on-menu descriptors for proteins, as in identifying the type of beef used, has a “premiumization effect,” he said. “Everyone and their brother has Kobe beef now.” —Chopped American Kobe beef with a mushroom-Burgundy sauce? Kobe-style beef sliders on briochelike King’s Hawaiian rolls?

For Ruby’s, the move began last year toward higher-end items like crab cakes and trendier salads, such as the chain’s apple, pecan and blue cheese salad. —Chopped American Kobe beef with a mushroom-Burgundy sauce? Kobe-style beef sliders on briochelike King’s Hawaiian rolls?

“We’ve been in business now for 25 years,” said Doug Cavanaugh, chairman and chief executive of Ruby Restaurant Group, which operates the 1940s-theme chain. “As our guests’ tastes mature, we want to stay with what’s current.” —Chopped American Kobe beef with a mushroom-Burgundy sauce? Kobe-style beef sliders on briochelike King’s Hawaiian rolls?

Ruby’s has maintained its average check of about $10, he said. —Chopped American Kobe beef with a mushroom-Burgundy sauce? Kobe-style beef sliders on briochelike King’s Hawaiian rolls?

Ruby Restaurant Group is to open four units within a year, as well as a concession stand at Angel Stadium in Anaheim, Calif. —Chopped American Kobe beef with a mushroom-Burgundy sauce? Kobe-style beef sliders on briochelike King’s Hawaiian rolls?

A full-service Ruby’s is slated to open on the pier in Malibu, Calif., as well as in Boulder, Colo., later this year. In addition, the company is planning a drive-in concept in Anaheim. A variant to be called “Ruby’s Roadhouse,” with an automotive theme, is scheduled to open early next year in the Morongo Casino Resort Spa near Palm Springs, Calif., Cavanaugh said. —Chopped American Kobe beef with a mushroom-Burgundy sauce? Kobe-style beef sliders on briochelike King’s Hawaiian rolls?