Capital Region meat retailers find market for premium cuts

As meat prices nationwide and locally begin to slide down from some of the highest levels seen in a
Co-owners Andy Buonanno (left) and David MacVane Jr. display two of their dry-aged beefs at Fred the Butcher, located at 1473 Route 9 in Halfmoon,  on Tuesday afternoon, Jan. 19, 2016.
Co-owners Andy Buonanno (left) and David MacVane Jr. display two of their dry-aged beefs at Fred the Butcher, located at 1473 Route 9 in Halfmoon, on Tuesday afternoon, Jan. 19, 2016.

As meat prices nationwide and locally begin to slide down from some of the highest levels seen in a generation, local butcher shops are offering dry-aged beef at anywhere from $18 to $24 a pound.

This is for committed beef lovers with a budget: Slice it an inch-and-a-half thick, and each steak will be more than a pound, pushing the price of a home-cooked dry-aged steak into the realm of an entree at a good restaurant.

The attraction, the butchers say, is all about the flavor.

Andrew Robel, general manager of Primal at Stuyvesant Plaza in Guilderland, explained that the weeks-long process of dry-aging removes a lot of water from the meat, condensing the beef flavor and making it more earthy. He was offering a dry-aged bone-in ribeye this week for $24 a pound, cut to order.

The high price, he explained, is due to three factors: It’s prime meat, typically the tenderest and most expensive grade; a portion of the product evaporates during the aging, making the remainder more expensive per pound; and there are labor and equipment costs involved in the process, which is a lot more than leaving a steak in a fridge for six weeks.

David MacVane Jr., co-owner of Fred the Butcher in Halfmoon, said the process begins by inoculating the cooler with a beneficial bacteria that keeps harmful bacteria out of the meat — the same concept as using “good” bacteria to produce cheese and yogurt.

A loin of beef is placed inside a special cooler and a blower and dehumidifier are turned on, creating a dry, windy environment that causes a crust of good bacteria to form on the loin of beef. Moisture will flow out and evaporate, but the bacteria that would damage the meat cannot get a foothold. This continues for 30 to 45 days.

“That’s how you get that nutty, woody flavor people crave,” he said.

The end product — crusty and brown on the outside, almost like it has been cooked, but still raw red inside — currently runs $18 a pound.

Fred’s does the aging on-site. Primal, which also has locations in Wilton and Clifton Park, hires the process out.

Both butchers urged their product be cooked not much more than rare. And both of them offer shoppers tips on doing it right.

Robel said his employees are mostly foodies or former restaurant workers.

“We make sure [customers] leave here with every resource. We try to give as much detail as possible without going home and doing the actual cooking,” he said.

Bring the meat to room temperature, MacVane said, sear it on both sides over high direct heat, then move it to indirect heat until the internal temperature reads 120 to 130 degrees or it starts to feel a little more firm.

For those who must have their steak well-done, he suggested going with a cut of beef that has a lot of marbled fat — such as a ribeye or delmonico, which have “more forgiveness” — rather than a dry-aged steak.

MacVane also urges against marinating or overseasoning a dry-aged steak, as that will alter or obscure the beef flavor you are paying for. A little salt and pepper is all that’s needed.

Not a lot of supermarkets carry dry-aged beef.

Golub Corp., which operates more than 130 Price Chopper and Market 32 supermarkets, sells it in exactly one location: Its one-of-a-kind Market Bistro in Latham.

Spokeswoman Mona Golub said the chain varies its product offerings from store to store, based on the specific demands of those who live nearby and shop there. Some stores offer more Kosher meat than others. Some sell more smoked ham hocks than others. Some offer goat meat. She didn’t know the exact cost of the dry-aged beef in Latham, but said it was probably expensive, and said the price isn’t the deciding factor in whether to stock a particular item, meat or otherwise.

“Where there is demand for product we will provide it,” she said. “Lamb and turkey in particular are showing growth.”

Golub said raw meat is an important menu item for consumers as a dietary source of protein and therefore an equally important retail item for supermarkets.

In part for that reason, Price Chopper and Market 32 each week mark down a selection of meats — ranging from economy to premium cuts — to the point of zero profit or actual loss.

Hannaford spokesman Eric Blom said his company’s 188 supermarkets don’t carry dry-aged beef. Instead, “We’re doing more in terms of hand-crafted offerings,” he said. “People want to try new things.”

Capital Region Hannaford stores typically offer a wide range of meats at a wide range of prices. To judge by the Guilderland store, some beef fillets — among the tenderest cuts — can be priced in the double digits but most offerings are below $10 a pound, or well below. Nothing reaches $24 a pound.

For competitive reasons, Blom wouldn’t discuss Hannaford’s pricing strategies, but he did explain that the chain — 188 stores in New York and New England — is able to keep prices down by volume of sales and efficiency of distribution. It is, he said, a “strong supply chain.”

Nationwide, meat prices are falling after a long, high surge.

Bloomberg reported last week that ranchers have increased their herd sizes after drought and high feed costs resulted in the longest cattle price rally since at least the 1960s. At the same time, pork and poultry prices have decreased, giving consumers a lower-price alternative to a steak dinner and giving the beef industry an incentive to get the prices down.

Bloomberg added that:

Ranchers who had been reducing herds every year since 2007 have seen pasture conditions improve, and feed costs dropped after years of record U.S. corn harvests. On feedlots, where young cattle spend around four to six months eating mostly corn, the average weight of animals sold to slaughterhouses in November was the highest ever, U.S. Department of Agriculture data show. Beef production will rise 3.8 percent this year, the first gain since 2010, the USDA predicted Jan. 12. Meanwhile, the strong dollar makes U.S. beef more expensive overseas, decreasing exports and increasing domestic supplies, a further downward pressure on prices.

Just as their supermarket competitors, the butchers selling expensive cuts of meat offer a wide range of lower-priced alternatives for those who can’t or won’t pay $25 for a steak.

“Chicken is definitely a staple today for the majority; we sell a ton of chicken,” MacVane said. Beyond that, he added Fred the Butcher stocks as many as 200 different items in 40 feet of cases, offering something for all tastes and budgets. Pork became a problem, he said, as the industry’s mass-production process “totally took the quality out of pork,” so he switched to a smaller producer: Mulligan Creek Acres in Sprakers, Montgomery County, which pasture-raises heritage Berkshire pigs.

So while MacVane can’t leverage his suppliers and prices the way a regional or national chain can, he does have more control over the end product. All raw meat comes into Fred’s whole, as a side or quarter of beef or a whole chicken for example, rather than as pre-cut pieces. From there it’s readied for sale raw or prepared by the three chefs on staff as a take-and-cook or precooked entree.

“We’re artisanal, we make everything by hand,” MacVane said.

That custom approach is important to a small meat market’s success, as is the buying experience. When people walk into the Stuyvesant Plaza Primal, for example, one or more employees call out a greeting loudly enough that they’d seem out of place or even disruptive in a supermarket. That’s part of the business model for the locally owned chain, Robel said.

“We live in a fast-food culture. Hospitality has always been a part of visiting the butcher.”

Categories: Business, Food, News, Schenectady County

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