Consistently outstanding

We all like a good meal out, but with changes in the economy being predicted, how are consumer habits changing and how is the meat sector responding to the needs of the foodservice sector? Nicci Piggott reports

Out of home consumption has increased significantly over the last 10 or so years and it is little surprise that the foodservice industry is thriving. However, the trends are changing and as consumers become increasingly more interested in their food, how can foodservice suppliers keep up with new demands?

Foodservice can, on simple terms, be split into two categories: the Cost Sector - formed from necessity including schools, hospitals, prisons and staff catering establishments - and the Profit Sector - which currently accounts for the lion's share of the foodservice market and is fuelled by customer demand. This sector covers fine dining, such as restaurants, pubs, and hotels.

According to Hugh Judd, project manager (foodservice) at EBLEX, and Tony Goodger, trade sector manager - foodservice at the MLC, there are plenty of opportunities for the right suppliers. Talking to some of those at the top end of the market, it is quite clear what they want and what the consumer is asking for.

"Everything we get is sourced for its quality, whether that is the gammon we use for the breakfasts or the beef and lamb for dinner," says Tristan Farmer, head chef at Enverdale House Hotel, Perthshire. Indeed, quality is always top of the list when sourcing meat, as Philip Howard of The Square, London confirms: "Primarily we look for quality, this is the overriding factor in our sourcing policy. We must have outstanding quality and consistency for the restaurant, nothing less will do."

Brent Castle, of The Three Crowns at Ullingswick, Herefordshire, and MTJ columnist, adds: "Quality above all else, that is our motto."

But as Goodger asserts, quality is not the only factor for sourcing meat: "Chefs look for consistency in their meat," he explains. "A consistency that covers, price, quality, size and delivery times."

For Howard, sourcing consistent quality beef is a particular headache, and he says he has now given up trying to source consistent quality fillet. "We now use the rib of beef, which we find much more consistent," he says. "If you really want quality I think you need to be able to source from a variety of places."

According to Judd, today's farmers are getting better levels of consistency and they are not alone: "Butchers understand more about consistency. Restaurants are happier when all the steaks they source look the same."

Miriam Roberts, marketing manager of Roberts of Port Dinorwic, which counts large pub retailers, hotel groups and foodservice companies amongst its clients, says: "Large raw meat suppliers in UK are very retail oriented and it is very difficult to get weight-ranged portions suitable for the foodservice market. Our message to meat-cutting plants is that supplying to manufacturers like us is a viable option, we are willing to hear your ideas and we are an alternative to the supermarkets."

Aubrey Allen Butchers, which has been serving the foodservice market since 1982, ranking several Michelin-starred establishments amongst its customers, says that the key to its success is being able to provide this consistency. Russell Allen, son of proprietor Peter Allen, who also runs his own restaurant, Oscars in Leamington Spa, says: "Aubrey Allen gets business because our clients know that we can deliver the consistency of product that they require day-in day-out. We buy a lot of carcase meat, rather than boxed meat, which helps us to control that quality."

In fact the catering butcher can play a significant part in the process of sourcing the right meat and many chefs will rely on their butcher, not just for their butchery skills, but their skills in sourcing good meat and even recommendations on which cuts are best used for which recipe. Russell continues: "We have in effect become consultants to our customers, chefs are looking at points of difference and we can provide that through our butchery skills." Farmer comments that his butcher, D&A Kennedys at Blairgowrie, provides an excellent service: "I often consult with Kennedys on which cuts/joints to use for certain dishes. They know what they are talking about and are very helpful; we have built up a great relationship. Whatever I am looking for they will endeavour to source it, and they let you know when the meat is coming in so that you can place it in the menu as appropriate."

The benefit of the relationship between butcher and chef goes both ways, as Goodger explains: "The foodservice market offers greater opportunities to achieve carcase balance. Chefs have a longer period of time to prepare food than domestic cooks and therefore can be more creative with cheaper cuts of meat." He advises butchers to talk to chefs on a regular basis to ensure they "offer the chef plenty of ideas for cuts he may wish to use, or the opportunity to buy up surpluses such as shoulders at a keen price". Judd adds: "The great thing about having a strong relationship with your butcher is that you can source product in an emergency. This relationship is growing more and more important."

"We try to use more diverse cuts, where we can," says Castle. "I think it's good to keep an open mind when you are shopping, remain flexible about the products you are going to buy, that way you can change the menu to suit."

Andrew Pern of The Star Inn at Harome, North Yorkshire simply adds that he uses "the less glamorous cuts" for certain dishes. "We can use the cuts that the butcher normally struggles to sell."

"You need to be able to work closely with your suppliers. Some suppliers are better than others at understanding our business. We tend to favour suppliers who make the effort to understand our business," explains Miriam. "RPD used to do focus efforts on customer briefs. Now we are taking a much more proactive approach to development. We work very closely with our suppliers, research products from around the world, and are passionate about food and new ideas. Finding delicious new products excites us."

There are several emerging trends in out of home eating, which have started to influence the foodservice industry significantly. Goodger says there is a growing awareness amongst consumers of assurance and quality standards, fuelled mainly through the retailers. "Make sure that your supply chain to the foodservice market is assured and that assurance is passed to the chef," he advises. Judd believes this is where schemes such as the EBLEX Quality Standard Mark come in, providing full traceability and a fully assured supply chain. "It's a real win-win situation and solves a lot of problems for the procurement guys," he states. Castle agrees, adding that for those looking extensively for British produce, "you can't go wrong with the EBLEX and BPEX quality standard marks".

Alongside traceability and assurance, provenance and local sourcing have become watch-words in the foodservice industry. Chefs are now more interested in the provenance of their meat as their customers' interest in origin increases. Goodger says that the more information butchers can give their customer in regard to where the meat has come from the better, even going back as far as the farm. "The chef will appreciate this and use it as a selling point on the menu," he adds.

"We always look for locally produced meat," explains Farmer. "We want to use as many Perthshire products as possible. It's my personal preference and also what our customers want. Our sourcing policy also helps us to support the local business community."

Pern adds that he sources all his meat from within a five-mile radius of his business. "It seems commonsense to use product that is on your doorstep," he confirms. "We are lucky that those who rear the animals come to the restaurant so we all have a vested interest. For the butcher our restaurant is almost an extension of his shop window. So in effect we promote each other's products."

There is even merit in going direct to the producer, according to Castle, who explains: "I find that with regular suppliers you can get the quality you need. I get some of my pork from a local farmer, Gordon Tudge. When you deal direct with the producer they understand your needs better and that means better business all around."

Judd however warns that, when it comes to provenance, businesses must be realistic about what they can source. "Work together with local farming and farmer groups and make sure you go through the right channels," he advises. "If you are sourcing local meats then use it as a selling point. If chefs are getting their meat from a specific source, they should be shouting about it. What's the point of sourcing local produce if you are not going to market the fact. It may seem obvious but it's where a lot of restaurants are missing a trick. Of, course it's also up to the butcher to make sure they provide this information to caterers."

Provenance does not have to mean local sourcing, as Allen says: "We use free-range or outdoor-reared product because we think it is a better quality. We don't necessarily source local meat but we do want the provenance for the meat we use." Retailers such as Waitrose and Marks & Spencer, who are using images of the farms/farmers on some of their meat products, are leading the way in the provenance stakes. "Some of the most successful foodservice guys are learning from the big retailers, who are using images of the farmer on their meat offering," says Judd. "The customer now has confidence that when he sees this type of imagery he is getting quality. One of the most important things a caterer can do is to train their staff to communicate with the customer about the origin of the meat; be able to tell its story."

Howard explains that he looks at specific breeds to get the quality and provenance he desires. "In most cases we source our meat from specific breeds or farms who produce regional items. We have to use a range of butchers to source what we are looking for, those who sell certain products from certain areas." He agrees that provenance is now a growing concern amongst his customers. "General trends are showing that consumers want traceability and provenance for the meat they are buying. People are also more concerned about air miles these days and expect to know more about the meat they are eating."

Along with provenance there is increased awareness among consumers about diet and health and, while Castle argues that it is not his job "to provide his customers with a balanced diet, but rather good quality food that is tasty", he does concede that chefs need to be aware of customers dining needs and stay flexible. Goodger believes that while government guidelines to reduce salt, fat and sugar do not directly affect the top-end of the foodservice market, consumers will want to see "healthier options" on the menus. "People want to be able to stick consistently to the diet they are following and so will look to be able to do this when they are eating out," he comments. "In the United States there are restaurants which offer an adult 'pick n mix', where the menu will list the proteins, vegetables etc separately so in effect you pick and choose the components of your meal."

With rises in inflation the trend for mid-week dining is changing and more people are turning back to dining out at the weekend. However, Judd believes that there are opportunities for those who can corner the market in mid-week dining. "Now consumers have got into the habit of eating out it is unlikely that they will break that habit, which is good news for the sector. Those who will thrive in this environment are likely to be the ones who offer simple alternatives for the mid-week diner at a lower cost," he comments.

One shining example of getting this mid-week market right is Bang! Bar & Grill in London; an establishment that offers its customers over 45 different varieties of sausage. Tom Frohnhofer, who set up the business with Tom Mayers just five months ago, explains: "Sausages have become trendy again and we serve between 80-100 people a day in the restaurant, most of our clientele are professional people in for lunch or after work. We haven't really hit the tourist trade, but we are very busy none-the-less.

Goodger argues that the Sunday lunch market is still a growing trade: "Families are choosing to eat out and spend more time together rather than being holed up in a kitchen somewhere. This is a great opportunity for butchers to supply these establishments."

Judd concludes: "Research has shown consumers want reduced food miles, local provenance plus products, that are environmentally conscious and support local communities, and this is as true for foodservice as it is for retail."

Satisfying foodservice providers

? Price - chefs print their menus to last for a period of time and if the price fluctuates then the margin moves

? quality - reassurance that every piece of meat they serve has the same eating quality

? size - every steak, for example, must look the same in terms of thickness, surface area and be of a consistent weight with no tolerance to ensure that when a customer orders an 8oz sirloin, that is what they will get and the chef will be able to present every 8oz sirloin identically on the plate

? delivery times - chefs have little storage and they need to ensure that their meat arrives on time and in time for them to cook and serve the meat at dining times.