EDITOR'S NOTE: This is one of the stories that will appear in next week's special NRN 50 issue, Opportunities Knocking: Open the door to bold thinking and unlock your profit potential. Look for the issue Jan. 26.
As customers look for ever-better deals, restaurateurs are responding with ever-creative strategies for managing food costs.
Rob Sanchez, a Melting Pot franchisee in San Mateo, Calif., says purchasing co-ops, similar to those developed by independent restaurateurs to compete with chains' purchasing power, can work for franchisees, too.
"By grouping together with other franchisees in our area [we can] negotiate lower prices for larger orders," he says.
Others have worked on marketing less expensive foods: This past autumn on the East Coast, a slew of restaurants were serving bluefish, which amateur fishermen easily catch along the shore and that suppliers were selling at rock-bottom prices. The oily fish takes on a strong flavor within a day or so, but if the fish is quickly skinned and gutted and the blood lines are removed -- and the fish is romanced a bit to customers -- it has sold well.
Chef Michael Lachowicz of Restaurant Michael in Winnetka, Ill., has started using venison leg instead of loin and "pinning" it -- piercing the flesh with rows of pins to break up the connective tissue -- a common practice in industrial production for cheaper cuts of meat.
He points out that leg meat is naturally more flavorful than loin meat, albeit tougher, and on top of that, poking a bunch of holes in the meat allows it to absorb marinades better, and they close up when the meat is cooked.
"The holes are then undetectable to my guests," Lachowicz says.
Venison leg meat is less than half the price of tenderloin, he adds.
Other chefs are finding ways to stretch luxury products, like by using them in stuffed pastas. For example, at Sagra, an Italian trattoria in Austin, Texas, chef Gabriel Pellegrini has been stuffing ravioli with high-end fillings.
"That way we get the bang for things like truffles and foie gras, but only use a dollar's worth in each portion," he says.
At Grafton St. Pub & Grill, chef Matthew Richey is thinking of using "chuck flap" meat for his pot roast instead of USDA Prime chuck. The flap is just a little higher on the shoulder than short ribs, he explains -- a similar cut, but without the bones.
He says the Prime chuck is less expensive, "but the flap meat gives a better perceived value because I can tell guests itÕs a boneless short rib," he says. He braises the meat in red wine with aromatics and a little stock and serves it with roasted fingerlings and young carrots -- "not exactly baby" he notes -- cipollini onions and natural jus, topping it with carrot chips for eye appeal.
"We had it on the menu last year for $17, and it was selling like crazy," he says. "People are ordering more of the comfort food items and more of the entrees that are in the under-$20 range."
Being in the under-$5 range is good, too, observes New York chef Anita Lo, who at her restaurant Bar Q has introduced a bar menu with items all in that range.
Among them are deep-fried wings, tossed in garlic oil and served with chile salt and lime. Lo buys whole chickens for the restaurant, but only uses the breast in dinner menu items. The dark meat is used for staff meals, and so were the wings until she introduced the new item.
At Pamplona, also in New York, chef Alex Urena finds uses for his scraps as well: He uses rendered fat from chorizo scraps to use as cooking oil for popcorn served at the bar.