Sunday, August 05, 2007

"the ability to learn faster than your competitors may be the only sustainable competitive advantage"--Peter Senge

NOTE: USDA Prime beef is the highest of the eight graded levels of inspected beef--in good years less than 2.5% of all graded beef rates USDA Prime. For the last few years, this available percentage has dropped by as much as half, while new steakhouses have cropped up at a record pace fighting for what little supply does exist. Prices have skyrocketed, and many restaurants that once served only USDA Prime have had to adjust their concepts, either secretly or officially.

For the first time in about 100 years, the menu at Peter Luger's Steakhouse in Brooklyn has changed in an appreciable way. Long the undisputed champion of the porterhouse steak, this venerable USDA Prime cafeteria has been having a unique version of the same supply problem affecting almost all USDA Prime-only restaurants. During this current record-long shortage of USDA Prime beef [supplies have been tight for the last five years--sometimes shockingly so], Luger's has often limited reservations and sometimes closed early, occasionally placing a hand-lettered sign in the door that simply says "out of steak" once their nightly limit was served.

Peter Luger's Steakhouse is the most venerable and successful one-trick pony in the entire world of restaurants. Over a century old [nearly as old as some of the waiters working there], it is plainly furnished, briskly [or brusquely, depending on point of view] run, and curtly staffed. There is no wine list to speak of, no real wine glasses to serve the stuff in even if a bottle might be found, no payment option other than cash [or house account], and for all intents and purposes only one item on the menu--porterhouse steak. If you don't like the "concept", most of the waiters will be happy to suggest one of the many Manhattan steakhouses that "might be better for a fella like you". These are the same waiters who could also tell you from personal experience what it felt like to vote for Franklin Roosevelt five times [once for governor and four times for President], but they won't, because they really don't want to talk to you.

Outside the Luger's world, other USDA Prime steakhouses are likewise strugging to maintain meat supplies even as prices skyrocket, but the fact that they serve more than one item gives them more options. Many chains no longer serve USDA Prime filet mignon, as it is the most expensive to buy and usually the most popular seller--while the other steaks listed on their menu will clearly sport the "Prime" badge, their filet mignon will often carry a separate description, something like "corn-fed midwestern beef" or "our tenderest cut". We ourselves continue to serve only USDA Prime beef sourced from only one supplier, one of the oldest packing houses in the United States--but what USDA Prime we serve has gone through more than a change or two over the last few years. We first offered smaller steaks, then added lesser-known cuts like the deckel. We added more veal, more seafood, and a wider array of daily changing specials.

Other restaurants have tried to diversify the style of meat they serve, adding wagyu [Kobe-style] beef, Argentinian grass-fed steaks, or even game. Some that serve USDA Choice, like The Capital Grille chain and most independents, are relatively unaffected.

What Peter Luger's finally decided to do, after getting crushed for their rationing and after starting to hear long-time guests sometimes [GASP!!]question the quality of the Holy Luger's Porterhouse itself--what they finally decided to do was kick me in the balls.

Yes, from half a continent away, Peter Luger's Steakhouse just reached out a gigantic foot and planted one squarely on my nads. Peter Luger's has decided to add a USDA Prime bone-in rib eye steak to their menu--the same steak that is our trademark. If it catches on, the demand generated from such a machine as Luger's could make it triply hard for us to secure our supply.

When Joe's Stone Crab decided to open two restaurants in Chicago and another in Las Vegas in additon to their $20+ million flagship in Miami, they crushed the market for jumbo and collossal stone crab claws. The 90 or 100 pounds flown in to me each day during the season simply disappeared, swept into the massive cauldron that was their $40 million in new stone crab sales. I certainly wasn't happy about it--but seeing as the words "stone crab" aren't to be found in the name of our restaurant, I recovered rather quickly. This market shift could be a much greater headache for me.

So, to the residents of New York City and surrounding environs I offer three words of sage advice for your next visit to Williamsburg to be abused by mean old men, I mean have dinner--"try the salmon!"


Blogger Ex-restaurant manager said...

Eons ago, when I was a lowly server for Capitol Grille, we had to include in our "spiel" how we only used Prime, and how we dry-aged it in-house. On one delivery, I noticed the big boxes that arrived had USDA Choice emblazoned on the side. When I confronted the "chef", all he did was shrug. So much for being proud of those $36 ala carte filets. It was all down-hill from there, sadly.

7:58 PM  
Blogger last one home said...

The funny thing is that The Capital Grille's product is actually very nice--they do use Choice, but dry age it--giving a greater depth of flavor than would otherwise be found. I never understood the propensity for restaurant corporations to lie--there is real jeopardy if they get caught [like Tom Horan's successful suit against Ruth's Chris over their Choice filet mignon offered as Prime]and far too many potentially disgruntled people in on the scam, whatever it may be.

8:04 PM  

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