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The middle meats man

News Roundup from the September 2015 issue of Canadian Cattlemen

Mike Friesen’s official title with Gordon Food Service (GFS), North America’s largest privately held broad-line food-service distributor, is “Category Lead for Centre of the Plate.”

Friesen sells beef to the chef who sells the restaurant experience to the customer, and it all hinges on the beef Canadian cattlemen produce.

“Ever go to a restaurant because someone raved about their vegetables?” asks Friesen “No. It’s the main course. That’s what people talk about. That’s what people come back for. That’s what people pay for.”

That’s where the “centre of the plate” part of his title comes into play.

“Beef is the main driving force as to why people go out to eat. We’re driven by flavour, and it better be good,” he says. He points to independent research from Oklahoma State University that shows restaurateurs face a one-in-six chance that a Select (AA-grade) steak will result in an unsatisfactory dining experience. That jumps to one in 13 with a Choice (AAA) steak. Better, “but with meat prices like they are, you can’t afford that,” Friesen says. “You lose your tail when you have to comp two meals a night because the steak wasn’t great.”

Rather, he points chefs to quality-focused brands like the Certified Angus Beef brand, which requires exceptional marbling, plus sizing, yield grade factors and other carcass specifications to ensure consistency. That decreases the odds of an unfavourable experience to one in 50-plus, he says.

Before joining the GFS team, Friesen managed restaurants, with more than 12 years as the Calgary Stampede’s restaurant manager, plus many years as a sous chef and as food and beverage manager at the Canadian Olympic Park.

“I still use the Stampede as a barometer of the economic market, to see what people are willing to pay for and where their tastes are driving them,” Friesen says. “It’s not so much about dollars and cents, it’s about how are they’re going to spend that money and what’s the value of what they’re spending that money on?

“Consumers want bang for their buck. Chefs want quality and consistency. We need marbling to do all that,” he says.

A highly marbled cut not only provides the flavour and tenderness to hit a home run on the perfect plate, but it’s more forgiving if overcooked or held at temperature for long periods of time for a catering job. It matters in more than just steaks, too.

“Look, you’re not just seeing marbling in the strips and the rib-eyes, but (with a premium brand) you’re seeing marbling in the insides, the roasts, in places you never saw it with AA or AAA products,” Friesen says. “That gets chefs excited, and it gets them committed to the centre of the plate.”

Last year Canadian restaurants purchased 7.1 million kilograms of Certified Angus Beef.

When price challenges are met with quality, the next hurdle to overcome in maintaining beef on the centre of the plate is sizing, he says. As the average rib-eye size in Canada creeps up, food-service professionals have to get creative to literally keep steak on the plate.

“I know you guys are excited that the cattle are getting bigger, bigger, bigger, but I’ll tell you, restaurants hate it, hate it, hate it,” Friesen says.

A week spent touring North American ranches, feedlots and farms opened his eyes to the realities of the cattle business and allowed him to be a better spokesperson for cattlemen to the chefs.

“I get it — you guys have to make a living, and that’s how you do it. So my job, as a meat adviser to restaurateurs, is to be creative and help them figure out a way to fit that on the plate while keeping their customers happy,” he says.

That means investing in innovation and education on the latest meat and culinary industry trends.

It’s a long chain of command and demands, from the consumer to the cattleman, Friesen says, and that’s a challenge. But meeting it by keeping meat and high-quality beef in the centre of the plate comes back to one expectation: “At the end of the day, you have to put yourself in the shoes of the customer. At the end of the day, it’s the customer eating at the restaurant that dictates everything we do.”

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