Despite higher prices, meat is still a popular choice

By Aimee Harvey
March 3, 2016
Despite higher prices, meat is still a popular choice

Challenges persist for the meat industry, but restaurants are responding with innovative menu ideas that are creating new avenues for growth.

Over the past couple of years, there has been an unmistakable shift in Canada’s meat industry. Commodity costs have increased substantially, fueled by severe droughts and challenging winter-weather conditions. The result has been a significant uptick in beef cattle prices. Additionally, pork producers have been hampered by the rising cost of feed and the recent porcine epidemic diarrhea virus that has raised hog prices.

Restaurant operators and suppliers have been forced to pass along the resulting higher prices for meat to their customers, which has not gone unnoticed. In Technomic’s recent update to its Canadian Centre of the Plate Consumer Trend Report series, consumers noted that these increased costs have affected menu prices, and signaled that continued menu-price hikes could lead to fewer restaurant visits in the future.

Quality counts

On the other hand, Canadian restaurant goers also say that they’d be willing to pay higher menu prices for meat that delivers on certain crucial attributes. So while operators and meat suppliers have indeed been challenged by obstacles outside their control, beef, pork, and other meats are still in demand. In fact, a sizeable percentage of Canadian consumers say that they eat beef and pork at least once a week or more.

By taking a closer look at the meat category, we can see that there are opportunities to capture and secure consumer attention with new and innovative meat offerings.

What’s on-trend for meat?

Smaller portions and “value” cuts of meats can help operators reduce costs, which may in turn help to maintain or grow customer traffic levels. Underutilized and inexpensive cuts of meat, such as beef brisket (one of the hottest cuts for smoked preparations and barbeque), pork shoulder and skirt steak are increasingly appearing on menus in different presentations.

Downsized portions of meat are being incorporated into new sandwiches, as flavourful toppings for poutine and nachos, and as the central component in stir-fry dishes and starters. Late last year, Tim Hortons unveiled new sandwich offerings featuring 100 per cent Canadian beef, including a Chipotle Steak & Cheese Panini and a new Grilled Steak & Egg Breakfast Sandwich. Wendy’s Canada introduced a limited-time offering of Pulled Pork Poutine with the choice of three different barbeque sauces. And Montana’s BBQ & Bar illustrated this trend directly with bite-sized meat portions; a recent limited-time grill menu featured small-portioned specialties like Short Rib Poutine, Bison Meatloaf Sliders and Steak Bites.

Steak as a starter

Technomic research reveals steak as the central protein in a number of new starters. This trend fits into an increasing consumer sensibility around sharing and sometimes using starters as a full meal or as a more filling option during a snack occasion. The heartiness of the steak, even in a small portion size, can make it a viable choice as a meal if the customer chooses. Noteworthy items include Canyon Creek’s globally inspired Steak & Kimchi Quesadilla (which features both Asian and Latin American flavour and prep influences), and the Bacon-Wrapped Steak Skewers starter at Boston Pizza.

Speaking of global inspirations, ethnic-style meat offerings are shaping up to be particularly trend-worthy. Chopped portions of cheaper meat cuts are perfect for ethnic handhelds like tacos, tostadas or empanadas, while thinly sliced beef stands out in food-of-the-moment preparations like Korean barbeque. These offerings, and others, answer the guest’s call for flavourful, fun-to-eat foods, yet allow operators to essentially do more with less.

Upscale hot dogs and burgers

Another trendy approach to beef and pork points to an upscale, higher-quality take on everyday foods like hamburgers and hot dogs. Customization is key, as new fast-casual burger chains like Smashburger and Five Guys make further inroads into the Canadian market, exposing more customers to “build-your-own” preparation formats with an eye on quality.

Pork sausages and hot dogs are also receiving gourmet treatment at independent restaurants in major cities. In Edmonton, It’ Dog is turning heads with a menu of hot dogs touting truly unique toppings and flavour combinations, such as:

  • Crispy Chicken Dog — grilled sausage topped with fried chicken pieces, spicy mayo and onions
  • Peach Shrimp Dog — grilled sausage topped with deep-fried shrimp, peach mayo, diced pineapple, green onions and cucumber
  • Beef Rib Dog — grilled sausage topped with grilled beef short rib, lettuce, sweet mayo, green onions, deep-fried garlic and sesame seeds
  • Truffle Mac & Cheese Dog — grilled sausage topped with truffle macaroni and cheese, bacon bits, Parmesan cheese and jalapeños

These examples illustrate just how readily pork can take on myriad flavour profiles, from mushroom and sesame accents, to sweet, sour and ultra-spicy tastes. Because it’s unlikely that the average consumer will replicate these preparations themselves at home, meat offerings like these may have the greatest potential to draw in consumers and justify higher price points.

Health in the spotlight

In the midst of all this activity around flavour and unique preparations for meat, it’s vital for operators and suppliers to also keep health at the forefront. But what defines health – specifically for meat – today? The answer is ever-evolving; in years past, simply describing meat as “lean” may have been enough of a health indicator, but now the health definition is far more likely to be shaped by “free-from” and “natural” qualities.

Of all health terms measured by Technomic for beef, pork, chicken and seafood, claims signifying natural production, such as “hormone-,” “steroid-” and “antibiotic-free,” are among those that about one-third of Canadian consumers are most likely to pay more for. Promoting the use of more all-natural meat items in the menu mix may help strengthen perceptions of quality and health.

Sustainability matters for meat, too, especially for beef. Earlier this year, McDonald’s announced that Canada would be its pilot market for a global sustainability program for beef, which it plans to roll out system-wide by 2016. For the world’s largest restaurant company to select Canada as the starting point for this massive undertaking speaks to the well-known importance that the Canadian consumer places on sustainability and other contemporary markers of health and well-being – not just for diners, but for the animals from which the meat is sourced.

Technomic research found that a noteworthy percentage of Canadian restaurant goers said that it’s important to them that the beef they eat is sustainably sourced (48 per cent), was free-range or cage-free (44 per cent) and that the environment was not negatively impacted by how the cattle was raised (44 per cent).

Looking ahead

Now that we’ve discussed what is happening today, let’s look at what’s in store for the meat category going forward.

Burgers beyond beef will proliferate. Beef may reign supreme for burgers, but operators are offering more specialty, non-beef burgers as well. Further, burgers are one of the fastest growing turkey-based and vegetarian-friendly entrées, and are among consumers’ most preferred chicken and vegetarian entrées. The implication for operators and suppliers is that burgers can easily appeal to a wide range of dietary needs and tastes – even if they’re not beef.

Chicken concepts will prevail. Ongoing innovation keep beef and pork in the game, but the winning protein on the plate is chicken. It’s outpacing beef and pork in consumption, and consumers are hungry for more. The Canadian market is poised for an influx in restaurant brands that specialize in chicken. Look for big, bold flavours to be in the spotlight for ethnic-style chicken chains, and for the fried chicken category to emerge as a top story in the industry in the years ahead.

Exotic proteins gain notice. Canada’s diverse immigrant populations – as well as its interest in authentic ethnic cuisines – are driving the inclusion of different meats on the menu. The burgeoning growth of Middle Eastern and Mediterranean foods is leading consumers to try less familiar meats and proteins, like lamb and goat.

As always, independent restaurants will lead the way as these trends take hold. Consider WVRST, a Toronto eatery specializing in unusual sausage preparations. In addition to pork and beef, WVRST offers sausages made with wild boar, guinea fowl, duck and even kangaroo. While kangaroo entrées will certainly not be appearing on mainstream menus any time soon, there’s still something to be said for the willingness of menu developers to experiment and appeal to diners’ curiosity with new meats.

See also:

About the author:

Aimee Harvey is Managing Editor, Global Content, at Technomic Inc. Since 2003, Aimee has delivered insights for Technomic’s trend-tracking reports, newsletters, competitive analysis of global markets, and proprietary work covering both commercial and non-commercial foodservice segments. For more information visit

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