by: Emily Krueger

In his line of business, customers come and go.

Some are travelling business class with expense accounts, perhaps apt to eat more and spend more. Others are vacationing families, watching their costs and looking for a relaxing time on a pinched budget.

Regardless of the customer, quality must remain consistent. In Sean Woods' world, it simply must.

Woods is the executive chef at The Ritz-Carlton Orlando, Grande Lakes (, where he oversees the Florida hotel's four restaurants, one of which is a steakhouse, and three bars. With 582 rooms and the potential for more than 1,500 guests at any time, Woods allows no room for mediocrity in dining, especially the meat on his menus.

The Vineyard Grill steakhouse at The Ritz-Carlton is a case in point. “We offer prime steaks in an upscale environment,” says Woods. “You can't cut quality in any form.”

But of course, he must always consider how to cut the high-quality product. Decisions for each dish include economics.

“It depends on their market price, which then alters our profitability,” the chef explains.

Sound familar to those in the beef cattle world?

Restaurant operations run parallel to the ranching business in more ways than one. At the end of the day, the cost of raising beef animals, the labor to care for cattle and their end-market value dictates producer profits. Woods says it is the same in foodservice.

“We run small profit margins, even though the steak is $50 a person. It's the yield on that steak by the time it gets to us and what we pay for that product,” he says.

Just as death loss in the herd is costly to the rancher, rebates on a meal leave a large deficit for Woods. “If one steak goes into the garbage, or one steak isn't right, the cost of that mistake is huge. A rebate could mean losing five times the value of the steak because it would include the entire dinner, including the wine,” he notes.

That's why he says quality beef is not an option. It is a must. Yet Woods is always looking for options when it comes to featuring the high-quality beef.

Continual efforts to provide a premium eating experience lend creativity to the chef's meat cut selections, and Woods says he wants to explore unique uses for different cuts. “What can I add to the menu to offer the guests more variety? We've seen hanger, flat iron, and all of these different cuts, so what's next?”

Sliders are a recent hit with consumers that have been an easy advantage. “Whenever I can't figure out what to do with a cut, it becomes a slider,” Woods says with a grin.

He sees other trends such as demand for “Natural” and locally raised beef as providing opportunities for dialog.

At The Vineyard Grill, consumers are gaining knowledge about their food and Woods finds himself answering guest's questions about the beef industry more and more often. “I'm fielding questions,” he says. “Where is the beef coming from, who's raising it, why do you serve this brand?”

That rising interest in food production presents a challenge to “bridge the gaps” between rancher, chef and diner, Woods adds, like daily cattle care and calving. “They want to hear about those small things that are going on in a rancher's life.”

Helping put a face to the farmer and rancher behind each delicious cut of meat, Woods seeks to understand the process of quality beef production, so he can confidently answer consumers' questions.

They may be pinstripe-suited business travelers or families retreating from the daily grind, but Woods is committed to offering premium beef to them all.

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