The classic chophouse continues to thrive across Canada. But rising prices and an increasing consumer preference for casual, contemporary dining is compelling some steakhouse operators to explore new approaches. Here’s a look at some of the culinary and operational opportunities for steakhouses.
Canadians love beef and they love to dine out. So it’s no wonder that the steakhouse is an enduring favourite. Foodservice research firm Technomic Inc. reports that steak was second only to the much trendier Asian category in terms of unit growth among the top 200 full-service Canadian restaurant chains in 2015. The steak category nearly doubled the overall unit growth average.
Yet sales growth was a bit below the average: Steak-category sales grew 3.4% versus 3.7% for the complete list of the top 200 full-service chains.
That sort of data has some steakhouse operators looking at ways to advance sales at a more rapid clip. Gordon Food Service Corporate Consulting Chef Gerry Ludwig, CEC says operators can broaden their customer base by differentiating their menus from classic steakhouse spreads of the past.
Broadly speaking, Ludwig notes, the culinary characteristics of the classic steakhouse include:
Focus on more than steak. While steak will always take center stage, a much broader range of foods can play increasingly prominent supporting roles. Bard’s Steakhouse in Stratford, Ontario, has created a menu that offers more non-steak dishes than traditional cuts and chops. Free-range chicken, prawn and cherry-tomato linguine, and lobster mac and cheese grace the entrée list. The expansive appetizer menu includes escargot, calamari, meatballs, fried chicken and a sausage board.
Expand menu parts. Consider exploring non-steak dishes to produce a more eclectic and varied menu. Menu categories at Kettle Valley Steakhouse in Kelowna, British Columbia, include For the Table, To Start, Grains and Composed in addition to Cuts. To Start choices range from salads and soups to foie gras, lamb cheek, beef carpaccio and pommes frites. The Composed menu features such dishes as pan-roasted Haida Gwaii ling cod with warm beet and potato salad, and confit crisp duck breast with parsnip soubise.
“We’re taking the steakhouse to the next level,” says Rob Walker, Executive Chef for Kelowna, British Columbia-based Big White Ski Resort, which offers seven distinct dining concepts.
Emphasize sharing plates. One of the most significant dining trends of the past decade is already being implemented at progressive steakhouses, as operators create dishes intended for guests to share. The Bard’s menu includes 14 appetizers and 11 sides perfectly portioned and priced for sharing.
“Table-shared sides and communal shared dishes contribute to a more approachable and comfortable style of dining,” says Andrew Tutt, Executive Chef at 27 Marketplace, which includes Bard’s and The HUB sports lounge. “Diners are moving away from the higher-end white-tablecloth experience.”
Take a new approach to vegetables. The veg-centric trend is also being incorporated into steakhouse menus, as chefs experiment with more creative and boldly flavoured vegetable dishes. The Grains menu at Kettle Valley includes two vegetable entrées, a mushroom risotto and cauliflower mac and cheese gratin, while Bard’s offers an organic tofu entrée featuring braised green vegetables and quinoa.
Reduce portion sizes. While you still can get a substantial piece of meat at most steakhouses, smaller portion sizes are being menued as well. Kettle Valley offers 10-oz., 8-oz. 6-oz. and a 4-oz. [note: all oz. listings are cq per the menu] kids’ portion of its filet mignon, for example, while Bard’s menus two sizes each of its striploin, tenderloin and ribeye, ranging in size from 6 oz. to 14 oz.
Explore nontraditional cuts of meat. Sirloin, filet mignon, porterhouse and ribeye steaks still dominate steakhouse menus. But cost-effective alternatives or bistronomc cuts of meat offer opportunity as well. They may require more creative preparation techniques, but they deliver big, beefy flavour, can really set your menu apart from the competition and help improve margins.
These culinary variations can help steakhouses evolve beyond the familiar and increase their appeal to a wider range of customer tastes, budgets and occasions.
Alternative Cuts of Meat
Skirt steak. Hanger steak. Flat iron. Use these and other secondary or bistronomic cuts to create signature dishes at a lower cost than traditional cuts.
“Economic cuts have more potential for creating unique recipes than a strip loin or a tenderloin,” says Alberta-based Gordon Food Service Business Development Specialist and former chef Art Beattie. “The flavour is so much richer than a lot of other cuts. There’s more diversity and more opportunity to expand your menu using these underutilized cuts.”
From an operational standpoint there are two main drivers for evolving the classic steakhouse concept, says Gordon Food Service® North American Commercial Segment Manager Doug Owens. “It’s all about building sales and controlling costs.”
Those are universal restaurant goals, of course, but steakhouses are poised to achieve them in unique ways.
Evolving the menu helps steakhouses counter two marketing challenges. First, steakhouses are generally perceived as high-priced dining alternatives. Some consumers may patronize them only on special occasions or when dining on an expense account. Second, the expectations set by the term “steakhouse” can deter others. For example, if someone in a group doesn’t eat meat or is on a tight budget, that group may not even consider choosing a steakhouse.
These weaknesses also can be great strengths, as higher prices mean higher checque verages and those with a taste for high-quality steak are conditioned to believe nobody can fulfill their expectations like a steakhouse. The emergence of new culinary variations is by no means an indicator that the classic model is passé.
Evolving the steakhouse concept drives sales increases by appealing to a wider sample of potential guests. Adding non-steak dishes to the menu tempts those who don’t eat red meat or any meat at all. Smaller portions and lower-priced cuts make meal tabs more manageable for more household budgets. Sharing plates cater to diners’ desire for increased socialization at meal time.
Innovate your menu in this fashion, Owens suggests, and you’ll position your restaurant as more accessible, which can motivate guests to choose it more often. You can still capture higher checque averages by offering a selection of premium steak dishes and pushing shareable dishes.
Building a varied menu with a greater percentage of non-steak dishes reduces your exposure to volatile beef costs. Incorporating more vegetables decreases your overall food costs, especially when you emphasize seasonal produce. Using lower-priced cuts of meat trims costs even further. While you certainly will pass some of these savings along to the consumer, patrons expect steakhouse prices to be higher than other restaurants—so you still have room to make a nice profit.
The new steakhouse is an evolution, not a revolution. You can transition to the new concept at a measured pace to give your staff and customers time to adjust. Here are few considerations for making the transition.
Set the table. Assess whether your existing tableware and serviceware will meet your new needs. For example, can you accommodate sharing plates with your on-hand stock? Cross-utilize items across menu categories as much as possible to minimize new investments, at least at first.
Train your servers. Servers need to be able to educate diners on the benefits this approach delivers to them—including more choices, bolder flavours and the ability to share dishes. The server is integral to delivering an experience that sets you apart from a traditional steakhouse.
Test the market. Pilot-test new dishes and menu categories through limited-time offers and specials to confirm that your staff can execute them properly and that your existing customers will embrace the new approach. Phase-in changes over time on a planned and methodical basis. How long that takes depends entirely on your unique circumstance.
Redo your menu. It’s not just about adding new items; it’s also about how these items will be presented on the menu. What categories will you use? Where will you position your steak offering relative to other categories? Is a laminated card, a staple of classic steakhouses, the best choice for a menu that may now change seasonally? These decisions also affect the presentation of the menu on your website.
Get social. Market the new approach and gather guest feedback via social channels and your website. Emphasize that more varied flavour profiles and sharing plates encourage socialization. “This is not your grandpa’s steakhouse.”
“This is about expanding the appeal of this venerable concept, even to consumers who don’t have a passion for steak,” Owens says. That’s an opportunity few operators can afford to miss.
Beef prices soared to record highs in the past few years. They began to drop in 2016, but they remain more volatile than many experts predicted, says Megan Carfagno, Gordon Food Service Category Manager for Beef, Pork and Entreés. Value cuts, alternative proteins and veg-centric dishes can help you protect profit margins and appeal to customers feeling a budget pinch.