While the sluggish U.S. economy places downward pressure on middle meat prices, USMEF has been undertaking efforts to promote an expanded range of beef cuts in targeted overseas markets to help maximize the cutout value for producers.
Japan has certainly been a key audience for USMEF's promotional efforts given that nation's historic appetite for U.S. beef, including the desire for delicious steaks. Given the strength of the Japanese yen in the international currency market as well as its relatively strong economy despite the current global economic challenges, USMEF is working to take advantage of the competitive pricing of U.S. middle meats by aggressively working to expand the presence of U.S. steak on Japan's dinner menus. This focus is consistent with the goals of the Beef Checkoff Program and the Beef Promotion Operating Committee, which have been evaluating new methods of driving up demand for high-quality middle meats.
“Seeing the demand for middle meats in the domestic market soften, we are looking for every way to enhance their appeal in the eyes of overseas consumers,” said USMEF President and CEO Philip Seng. “Although Japan certainly has economic concerns of its own, it remains strong compared to most other nations and the market sets up very well for the promotion of high-end beef cuts.”
These targeted efforts in Japan began in earnest last year with chef competitions that enticed chefs from Japan's leading hotels to take a fresh look at U.S. steak items. These competitions yielded very positive results, with several high-profile hotels expanding their steak selections. For example, the Rib Room restaurant at Hotel New Otani – one of Tokyo's most traditional and upscale hotels – expanded its beef menu last year to include U.S. Prime tenderloin and sirloin.
Similarly, the Solaria Nishitetsu Hotel, a regional luxury hotel located in Japan's western most major city of Fukuoka, conducted a Great American Food Fair in January and February. The event utilized U.S. tenderloin and sirloin as the main course item on special lunch menus. The hotel's restaurant chef also hosts a cooking program on the local television station which featured several U.S. beef items and provided excellent publicity during the promotion.
Several major restaurant chains are also focusing on U.S. steak in new promotional campaigns. After a very successful August 2008 promotion with USMEF, Lawry's The Prime Rib is following up with a second round of “Discover U.S. Beef” fairs. The first event was held in Osaka in March and has been extended for two weeks due to its success. The next event is being held in Tokyo in April. These events feature authentic U.S. Prime ribeye roll. Other restaurant highlights include:
• Wolfgang Puck, which serves “California casual” cuisine, is featuring U.S. ribeye on the regular menu at six of its eight Japanese locations.
• Jonathan, a family-style restaurant chain with 369 outlets in Japan, is aggressively promoting U.S. steak on the spring menu to be featured in April and May. Jonathan's menu also displays the “We Care” campaign logo to highlight the quality and safety of U.S. beef.
• Casual steakhouse chain Steakhouse Volks had so much success with a December-January U.S. steak promotion that it is now featuring U.S. sirloin in a spring menu promotion running at 50 locations through April 30. Steak no Don, a similar chain operated by the same parent company, is also conducting an American beef spring fair featuring U.S. Choice steak items at its 96 outlets.
• Vicky's, a casual restaurant located at the Tokyo Dome, is offering U.S. middle meat items to Japan's baseball fans during a special promotion through May 10. The menu will feature five U.S. steak items as well as a U.S. short rib.
• Since it opened its first Tokyo location in December 2007, Ruth's Chris Steakhouse has worked actively with USMEF to promote U.S. Prime steaks, including promotional support and development of new menu items.
On the retail side, USMEF began a new round of promotions in December with 28 major chains encompassing 1,200 locations. These partnerships included Daiei, Ito Yokado and Seiyu/ Wal-Mart, with a campaign focused on the U.S. striploin as a party-dish item for Japan's holiday season. The marketing effort capitalized on steak's popularity in Japan as a holiday dish by promoting striploins in conjunction with, or in place of, chuck-eye roll steaks. USMEF developed special holiday promotional materials featuring a “sizzling” holiday atmosphere, and organized tasting demonstrations at more than 200 participating outlets. Sales results totaled 228 metric tons (about 503,000 pounds), which represented a 49 percent increase in comparable sales from the previous holiday season.
“The results of this retail campaign are extremely gratifying,” Seng said. “While the tendency in this economy has been for consumers to ‘trade down' by choosing less expensive cuts of beef, this promotion offered a motivation for them to upgrade to the striploin. That's exactly the type of strategy we need in order to keep moving high-quality middle meats.”
Other recent retail promotions have included:
• USMEF organized a one-day U.S. steak promotion on March 1 with Ito Yokado, one of the largest supermarket chains in Japan. The event was highly successful, totaling sales of 22.5 metric tons (almost 50,000 pounds). Because of these positive results, Ito Yokado is already planning similar future promotions, which are also being planned at other large retailers such as Daiei, York Benimaru and York Mart.
• In a unique promotional opportunity, USMEF targeted retail consumers by offering a special tenderloin meal as a sweepstakes prize in a campaign conducted at Comodi Iida, an influential regional retail chain in the Tokyo area. This event capitalized on the crossover appeal of USMEF-sponsored chef competitions and foodservice promotions by showcasing the quality and versatility of U.S. middle meats for retail consumers.
“Although consumers are being more cautious with their spending, good food and dining are a key part of the Japanese culture, says USMEF Japan Director Gregory Hanes. “Rather than splurge on Wagyu, they are seeing that U.S. beef provides great quality and enjoyment at a more reasonable price. In long run, we view the current economic situation as a huge opportunity to reintroduce the many benefits of U.S. beef and expand the reach of U.S. middle meat items into these targeted growth sectors of the market.”
Competitive pricing also sparks interest in other Asian destinations
USMEF is also reemphasizing the value of U.S. middle meats in other Asian markets. This week, USMEF is conducting training for chefs and purchasing managers from Macau's leading hotels and casinos, emphasizing the record yields of U.S. Choice beef and the purchasing opportunities for middle meats such as striploins and ribeyes.
"Even in a weak economy, customers will turn to the predictability and higher value of a U.S. Prime ribeye or tenderloin," said guest training chef Adam Levin, a Las Vegas native who recently served as executive chef at Hong Kong's Dakota Prime steakhouse.
USMEF also recently held a classic steakhouse promotion at the Bangkok Sheraton, featuring U.S. Prime chilled middle meats. Ribeye dishes were also recently featured in a USMEF cooking demonstration for chefs, restaurant owners and culinary school instructorsat the Hyatt Hotel and Casino in Manila, as the competitive pricing of middle meats has generated renewed interest in these cuts in the Philippines.