BEEFING UP ON LEAN

BROOKFIELD, Wis. -- Less is apparently more when it comes to beef sales at V. Richard's.The upscale independent is finding success with a new lean beef program, centered around a branded line cut from the Piedmontese breed of cattle.The supermarket, located in this affluent suburb of Milwaukee, replaced its Black Angus branded beef program with the Piedmontese beef, produced from an Italian breed

BROOKFIELD, Wis. -- Less is apparently more when it comes to beef sales at V. Richard's.

The upscale independent is finding success with a new lean beef program, centered around a branded line cut from the Piedmontese breed of cattle.

The supermarket, located in this affluent suburb of Milwaukee, replaced its Black Angus branded beef program with the Piedmontese beef, produced from an Italian breed of the same name known for its low-fat and low-cholesterol composition and high levels of protein and taste.

Response to the Piedmontese line -- the only beef now carried by V. Richard's -- has been amazing, according to Al Kingstreiter, meat department manager.

"The Piedmontese program is blowing Black Angus away," Kingstreiter told SN.

He estimated that the Piedmontese beef, which V. Richard's introduced in February, is already selling at levels 25% higher than the sales generated by the Black Angus program during its own introduction at the store two years ago.

The product's debut at V. Richard's marks another stage in the slow infiltration of Piedmontese beef into the high-end niche of premium branded fresh beef in American supermarkets.

Although the first Piedmontese cattle appeared in the United States in the early-to-mid 1980s, it is believed that there are only about 12,000 to 17,000 Piedmontese of half-blood or greater here today, said Roger Chenevy, president of Ameri-Pied, Wooster, Ohio. Ameri-Pied is dedicated to the marketing and sale of Piedmontese that have been certified under a grading program designed specifically for the brand and administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The program, which was implemented in January 1997, allows Piedmontese to bypass the USDA's traditional grading criteria, which uses marbling as a major factor in attaining higher grades such as Prime and Choice.

"The USDA's traditional grading system would be a death knoll for Piedmontese," said Chenevy. He explained that the beef's natural leanness would relegate it to a grading of "standard" or "select" -- grades usually associated with dryness and toughness.

"Piedmontese cattle are really an anomaly," said Chenevy. "They offer leanness while retaining tenderness and juiciness."

Kingstreiter of V. Richard's told SN he is reaping the benefits of carrying a somewhat exclusive product that appeals to health-conscious consumers and has a great taste.

V. Richard's is merchandising the Piedmontese beef line in its full-service meat case, which measures 40 to 50 feet in length and includes sections of chicken and pork, as well as value-added products.

The company, which purchases about five heads of cattle per week for slaughtering, is currently offering more than a dozen cuts of beef, including New York strip steaks, flank steaks, rib eyes, fillets, regular and extra lean grounds, briskets and chuck roast.

Prices average about 10 to 20 cents higher per pound than the Black Angus product previously carried. A New York strip steak, for example, is priced at $15.99 per pound, and a chuck roast is priced at $3.59 per pound. Kingstreiter estimated that profit margins for the Piedmontese beef are fairly close to or the same as those of the Black Angus product.

At V. Richard's, the beef is also merchandised in the value-added section of the company's full-service meat case, as well as a value-added, self-service section located at the front of the store near the checkout counters.

Both sections play a "big part" in overall department sales, according to Kingstreiter. Since its introduction more than a year ago, the self-service case at the front of the store, which Kingstreiter describes as a "gourmet, on-the-go section," has increased overall meat sales by about 40%, he said.

"A lot of our customers are professionals who like the convenience of running in after work and grabbing a ready-to-go meal at the front of the store to take home," he said.

Kingstreiter is offering such value-added Piedmontese products as shish-kabobs, meat loaf, marinated and stuffed steaks, eye of the round Italian rolls, spidini, Sicilian steak and meatballs.

Because consumer education was needed to introduce the new product, V. Richard's is relying on heavy in-store sampling -- a strategy that is helping guarantee the product's success, according to Trevor Cox of Consumer Trends Marketing, a New Berlin, Wis., consulting firm that is handling product marketing for Metcalf Farms of Mechanicsburg, Ill., V. Richard's supplier.

"We follow the old-fashioned philosophy of, 'Feed them and they will come,' " said Cox, a former chef who personally oversees the sampling.

Sampling also plays an important role at West Point Market, Akron, Ohio, according to store manager Rick Vernon, who says that customers who taste the beef usually buy it.

Vernon told SN that Piedmontese accounts for about one-third of the approximately 30 feet of case space he allots to beef and generates about 5% of overall category sales.

That figure, however, continues to grow, according to Vernon, who said the beef tastes comparable to Prime, which is the only other grade of beef the store carries, and it earns high marks for tenderness, juiciness and flavor.

The product's appeal is also enhanced by the beef's naturally "rich, bright red color," said consultant Cox. It draws customers to the meat case and "really speaks for itself," Cox said.

V. Richard's and West Point Market are also using product brochures and signage to market the beef, and product labeling to alert people to the product's nutritional benefits, as well as to its faster cooking time -- one-third to one-half faster than conventional beef -- because of its lean composition.

Kingstreiter of V. Richard's said Piedmontese consistently outscores conventional beef in lower fat and cholesterol content, fewer calories and higher levels of protein.

The brochures that V. Richard's is handing out at the store are produced by Metcalf Farms and include a comparative laboratory analysis of a 3.5-ounce serving of trimmed Piedmontese from Metcalf Farms vs. such lean products as Choice beef and skinless chicken.

In the analysis, prepared by Warren Analytical Laboratory of Greeley, Colo., Piedmontese shows a fat and cholesterol content of 7.56 grams and 40-mg, respectively, compared with Choice beef's 24.05 grams of fat and 74-mg of cholesterol and skinless chicken's 3.08 grams of fat and 70-mg of cholesterol.

The Piedmontese analysis also shows 20.94 grams of protein and 154 calories, compared with Choice beef's 17.32 grams of protein and 291 calories and skinless chicken's 21.39 grams of protein and 119 calories.

Since Metcalf, like other suppliers, guarantees only that the beef is at least half Piedmontese -- due to the scarcity of full-blooded animals and their need for breeding -- the nutritional profiles are even more impressive when full-blooded Piedmontese are analyzed.

For example, in an analysis carried out by Industrial laboratories in Denver for the Piedmontese Association of the United States, a 3.5-ounce serving of untrimmed, full-blooded Piedmontese had 36-mg of cholesterol, 1.7 grams of fat and 95 calories. The Piedmontese Association of the United States is a Denver-based nonprofit organization that tracks and registers full-blooded Piedmontese.

In addition to its nutritional characteristics, Metcalf's Piedmontese is an all-natural product derived from cattle that have not been fed hormones or antibiotics, according to the supplier.

Metcalf Farms is not the only supplier to make such claims. All Piedmontese certified under the USDA's program -- which was developed by Ameri-Pied and the PAUS -- adhere to a number of diet restrictions, including no hormones and no antibiotics.

One of the secrets behind the success of Piedmontese is that "it offers consumers a high-quality meat that's actually good for them," according to Cox.

"It's the perfect answer for the person who's been eating beef hamburgers all his life and doesn't want to switch to turkey burgers in order to cut down on fat and cholesterol," Cox said.

As for the higher price, Metcalf points out that the product's lean composition creates higher yields.

"The typical yield of a domestic cattle is 58% to 62%, but we're seeing yields of 66% to 74% with our Piedmontese," he said. "An additional 8% yield on a 700-pound carcass can create another 56 pounds of retail product, which can generate another $140 at $2.50 per pound."

In past years, the sale of Piedmontese in the United States has been limited mostly to small businesses and individuals who purchased the product on a "custom-butchering" basis from farmers who raised the cattle, according to Chenevy, who says the lack of availability prevented widespread distribution.

Although there are no solid figures on the number of retail and restaurant outlets currently selling the product throughout the country, Chenevy estimated the figure at about 50 as of the end of April and says that most are of a specialty or upscale nature.

A more widespread distribution, however, seems inevitable.

Nieman-Marcus, the upscale department store retailer, began testing a Piedmontese burger in three of its restaurant locations in March and plans to roll it out to additional locations, according to Chenevy. In addition, he said, the product is expected to be introduced to a number of restaurant and specialty food outlets within the next two months.