Despite the downturn, outlets will still pay for quality cuts
With limited access to local agricultural markets and now the economic downturn to contend with, the region’s restaurants face certain challenges sourcing a good variety of top-quality meat products. Ben Watts tackles some meaty issues facing the industry
In spite of the economic downturn, demand for high-quality meats remains high across the Middle East, as demonstrated by the ever-growing number of steakhouses and meat-concept restaurants.
But as economic conditions forces the F&B market to re-evaluate such offerings, are customers shifting towards cheaper alternatives — and must kitchens start looking locally for products?
The local market
As a US concept, The Monarch Dubai’s Ruth Chris Steak House stocks only prime meat from the US, with executive chef Paul De Visser explaining that it would be difficult to find the right meat products locally.
“In Dubai they call many products local,” says De Visser. “But pretty much everything apart from dates is flown in.
“However suppliers here are well organised, so the quality is available even if potentially cheaper local options are not.”
The Meat Co executive chef — Middle East, Roy Soundranayagam, maintains that certain local options are available, but notes certain products are more financially viable than others.
“The only thing we buy from this region is chicken, everything else has to come from the US, South Africa, Australia or New Zealand,” he says.
“I would always prefer to buy free-range chicken, but it comes down to price. If you go to the supermarket you can spend AED 18 (US $5) on a locally-produced chicken or you can buy a free-range chicken from France for AED 98 (US $27).
“There are goats available in this region as well, but they probably don’t provide enough meat even enough for the locals; and the other option is camel meat,” he continues.
“I actually tried some camel biltong with one of our suppliers, but it’s not cheap. For one kilo of camel biltong it would cost us about AED 140 (US $38), whereas beef biltong ranges from around AED 28 (US $7) to AED 35 (US $9).
“I was going to introduce camel biltong. In the end it was too expensive and we were concerned no one would buy it — but the idea’s still at the back of my mind.”
Country Hill International director of sales and marketing Hamish McKerrow points out that the Middle East’s agricultural resources cannot support the burgeoning hospitality and retail markets.
“The region lacks water, grasslands and cereal grain production, all vital ingredients for the development and production of livestock,” explains McKerrow.
“In my opinion, an active Middle East farmed livestock market is not about to develop any time soon.
“Livestock such as sheep are processed locally within the region, but even this market segment is supported by the importation of live sheep from Australia and selected other countries.”
McKerrow maintains that the region will continue to be a major importer of whole primal meat cuts as it attempts to meet the demand of restaurants and the retail market.
Around the world
As it is accepted that the region’s F&B outlets will shop for the vast majority of their meat abroad, the supplier network has grown to provide kitchens with meat from a variety of sources, from Chile to Australia.
This presents a series of logistical challenges, with many suppliers citing both quality and regulations as the biggest issues facing meat suppliers.
Cuisine Solutions’ business development manager for on-board services, Bhasker Raghav, suggests going direct to the source helps solve the quality issue.
“It is very difficult for meat suppliers to provide consistent, quality products at a steady price,” notes Raghav.
“As an example, we have sourced a lamb supplier in New Zealand and are one of his largest consumers; this supplier provides us with consistency in quality and pricing that we are able to pass directly onto our customers in the Middle East throughout the year.”
Other suppliers note that the meat importing process can prove challenging in the Middle East, as Food Service Trading director Ashley Craven points out.
“Our biggest challenge is managing the different import regulations within the region,” he says, adding that implementing a GCC-wide standard for issues such as shelf life would help simplify the process for importers of meat products.
But logistical problems can also arise from issues that cannot be controlled, as JM Foods general manager Robert Mitchell explains.
“Already this year we have had to find a way around floods in Australia, harsh winter conditions in America and Northern Europe and halal certificate bans in Europe,” comments Mitchell.
Mitchell claims that logistics providers are one of the most important clogs in the supply chain.
“We cannot operate without them,” he admits. “Furthermore in addition to red meat, poultry and game we also have an extensive pork and ham range, which means we need special transport, storage and handling requirements as per municipality guidelines.”
The meat trend
In the face of the global economic downturn, meat suppliers have had to face up to new challenges in the Middle East market.
JM Foods’ Mitchell suggests that while the industry has taken a hit financially the demand for high-quality products remains.
“With less demand in the market, orders are naturally lower; however there remains demand for quality products,” he says.
“It is impossible to cut corners with quality and producers do their best to remain competitive.”
But Country Hill International’s McKerrow asserts: “While high-quality meat products like wagyu and grain-fed beef are still being consumed across the F&B market, we have experienced softer demand for these types of products.
“As a result, we have seen increased demand for more cost-effective alternatives, including high-quality secondary cuts and grass-fed beef.”
Cuisine Solutions’ Ragnav adds that food costs have become “one of the top concerns for establishments across the region”.
“They are realising that they need to balance their prices and labour to become profitable in this tough environment,” he says.
As the United States economy adjusts to the change, the country’s meat producers have been forced to think outside the box in their quest to provide quality, according to Food Service Trading’s Craven.
“The downturn in the USA has meant that suppliers have to provide new and innovative quality products that represent real value for money for the US domestic market,” he explains.
“We have the advantage of being able to provide these same product solutions here in the Middle East.”
The region’s chefs, meanwhile, remain positive that the lure of quality meat dishes will see continuing demand for such cuisine.
Ruth Chris’ De Visser admits: “Some of out customers are worried about price so we lowered it for some dishes and we added more choice to our menu by offering smaller cuts.
“What we’re doing is new to the market here and it’s been doing great — there are already 130 of our restaurants worldwide and people seem to like the concept.”
The Meat Co’s Soundranayagam adds: “We haven’t faced that much of an issue during the downturn at our outlets. I don’t think our sales have dropped and if they have, then not by more than 10%; for us that’s not a huge issue.”
So despite the changes in the market, which both outlets and suppliers have been forced to adapt to, demand for quality meat products remains high across the region and the challenges suppliers face are being overcome.
Quality meat and the wide range available in the region, it appears, will continue to lure customers to outlets, despite the worries created by the financial slowdown.
Pureland Black Angus porterhouse steak
“Known as ‘the king of steak’, the porterhouse is composed of a New York strip steak on one side and a tenderloin on the other. This cut is available in all sizes to match a chef’s needs,” says
Food Service Trading director Ashley Craven.
Rack of lamb
Cuisine Solutions business development manager for on-board services Bhasker Raghav describes this product as “incredibly tender and elegant”.
“Through the sous vide cooking method, flavours of herbs and lamb are intensified,” he says.
Tel: +1 703 270 2900
JM Foods general manager Robert Mitchell comments: “Our magret peche duck breast is from Valette, a traditional French family-run company known for its high quality fois gras products. Duck breast is also one of its specialities and is produced to very high standards.”
Tel: + 971 4 338 6580
Fax: + 971 4 338 9833