In his remarks as outgoing president of the Beef Improvement Federation (BIF), Steve Whitmire told a couple of stories that should be a warning bell to everyone in the beef business.
Whitmire is an Angus and Braunvieh seedstock producer. He also owns Brasstown Beef, named in honor of the community in North Carolina where he lives. Brasstown Beef is a branded beef program from conception to consumption that started about eight years ago.
The branded beef line has grown and now, among other places, is sold in all the Whole Food stores from Jackson, MS, to Charleston, SC, and served in all four restaurants in the Biltmore Estates in Nashville, TN.
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About four years ago, he got a call from the head of food and beverage purchasing at the Biltmore. There’s a problem, Whitmire was told; a tough New York strip steak. Three weeks later, another call comes in. Another tough steak. “She said ‘come pick up all your New York strips,’” Whitmire told the BIF attendees.
“Would you believe, to this day, they have never bought a New York strip from us again? They buy ribeyes, they buy filets, they buy sirloin, they buy ground beef. They buy lots and lots of beef from us.” But they no longer buy strip steaks. All because of two bad eating experiences.
A brand is a promise, and in that circumstance, the Biltmore knew exactly who to call. Most restaurants don’t have that luxury. Whitmire told another story, this time from a meal prior to a BIF board meeting. “We went to a very well-known steak house and I ordered a bone-in ribeye. I could not cut it,” he remembers. “This was $40 on the menu and literally, it would not cut.”
The restaurant had two types of patrons that night—business people on an expense account and people celebrating some sort of significant occasion like a birthday or anniversary. What are the odds, Whitmire asked, that somebody else got one of those tough steaks and ordered the chicken entrée the next time they went to a fine-dining establishment?
Here are some numbers to consider. According to Whitmire, a 1,250-lb. steer will yield roughly 24 lbs. of strip steaks and 28 lbs. of ribeyes. Cutting 12-oz. strips will produce around 32 steaks. Cutting 14-oz. ribeyes will produce the same number.
“When you produce one tough animal, that’s how many people you contaminate,” Whitmire said.
“I know what the response will be,” he said as he surveyed the room. “I don’t get paid for tenderness.” So Whitmire related another story. “General Motors had 68% of the worldwide market for vehicles in the ‘80s. They didn’t think they got paid for quality. Now they’re down to about 35%.”
And his point? “You can’t just count on getting paid for something. Sometimes you have to be proactive and move forward.”
Beef demand has, surprisingly to many, remained strong even with retail beef prices hitting all-time highs. That’s reflective of a cattle supply situation that has resulted in never-before-seen cattle prices.
Times have never been better in the beef business. If we fail to heed Whitmire’s warning as we retain heifers and attempt to expand the cowherd, however, we run the very real risk of becoming the General Motors of the animal protein business.
Now that’s something to think about. Do you agree?
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