Beef’s a trip

Farm Forum

Packers add to beef quality

Anyone who thinks ranchers and feeders are the only ones who work long hours in the beef business has not talked with a foodservice distributor or thought about a chef burning the midnight oil.

Anyone who thinks beef quality only rides on the production sector’s shoulders has not toured a packing plant or learned about aging and cut shops.

There are real people at every link along the beef chain, working to add value, ensure safety and make sure the meat that starts on the farm or ranch gets sold at the price point consumers demand.

During a Certified Angus Beef LLC (CAB) tour of ranch country last fall, foodservice professionals made a stop at the Cargill Meat Solutions plant in Fort Morgan, Colo.

“After the ranch visits [the attendees] were bubbling over with excitement about the down-to-earth, passionate people they met-and when we got to the packing plant, we found the same type of people,” says Deanna Walenciak, CAB director of marketing and leader of that excursion. “That made such an impression.”

Cargill’s Nicole Johnson-Hoffman welcomed the group and even told them to give her employees a “thumbs up” as a way to let them know their work is appreciated.

“Seeing every step is so important so they truly understand what an amazing and efficient business the packing plant is. To see the overwhelming amount of skilled work it takes to get it from animal to meat,” Walenciak says.

Packers also have a great influence on the quality of the cattle that come into their plants, and the beef that goes out.

South Dakota rancher Rich Blair once complained to a packer-buyer, saying producers are never told what kind of animal packers want. “He said, ‘Yeah we have. We’ve laid our grids out there. We’ve told you what we wanted.’”

“And I thought, ‘Holy smokes, he did,’” Blair says. “He told me he didn’t care if they were blue or green, but he’ll pay me if they grade Choice and he’ll pay me if they’re CABs and Primes.”

Procurement strategies and price signals tell producers they want quality, but once the ranchers and feeders have set them up for success, it’s up to the packers to maintain that potential.

“You only get one chance to handle them right,” says Phil Bass, CAB meat scientist.

Animal handling when the cattle arrive-things like letting them rest and not comingling groups so they have to establish new pecking orders-can impact stress level. That ultimately makes a difference in the number of dark cutters and meat tenderness.

Chilling is important for food safety, Bass says, so packers have to do it quickly, but not too quickly. If they do, a phenomena known as “cold shortening” can cause the muscle to contract, and that hurts tenderness, too.

“Then probably one of the most important steps is assigning the right grades on the carcasses when they get to the sales cooler,” says Bass. “When somebody buys a piece of Choice beef, it better really be Choice.”

From a packer, beef can take different paths to the consumer, to a further processor, distributor, or directly to retail. People load the trucks; drivers make sure beef is kept at the right temperature until delivery; processors take great care in aging it.

Ranchers depend on hundreds of people to make sure their product shines on its final stage: the plate.

For more on the role of each sector of the beef business, search “Beef’s a Trip” on the Black Ink Blog at

“Always on” for Team Beef

Cattlemen would no doubt get paid less for their product if they didn’t have dedicated foodservice distributors on their side.

Not only do these people need to correctly assess demand, they must help create it. They work on education and menu creation, they help smaller restaurants figure pricing and in general provide a lot of support. They also age meat and do further-trimming and packaging work for all those who don’t cut their steaks in house.

When a rancher has had a long day weaning calves, he might be surprised to know his beef counterpart in the nearest urban center has kept similar hours.

Take Dennis Hendrickson, district sales manager for Sysco-Boston. He’s often on the road as the sun comes up and continues that trail until all of his customers are taken care of.

“We carry 14- to 15,000 line items for next-day delivery,” he explains. “It’s highly probable at least one thing is going to go wrong. Whether the chef forgets to order it, you didn’t punch it in right, we were out of stock on it-which doesn’t happen very often, but it’s reality. My wife used to say, ‘Do you ever have a time when something doesn’t go wrong?’”

Fridays get busy as restaurant operators realize what they’re running short on for the weekend. Salespeople often get panicked calls when chefs find themselves out of staple items.

Hendrickson says the mantra among his team is, “We are right here Mr. Customer. Our job is to make

sure you have every product you need to service your customer.”

That’s only part of their role.

Hendrickson says his clientele relies on him to provide expertise on where the market is going, to help explain new cuts and develop menu items.

“A lot of them are chief cooks and bottle washers, operators that are trying to make it,” he says.

The stats are bleak-only two out of 10 restaurants do make it. But if Hendrickson has his way, that’ll change. He’s convinced that getting his customers to treat their beef purchases like an insurance policy is one way.

“Do you know what the most expensive cost in a restaurant is?” he asks. “An empty seat. Once Friday night is closed down, you take all those empty seats and you can’t get those sales back.”

Paying another 50 cents to $1 more than Choice beef is worth it for a premium product.

“The more they get educated, they realize, ‘We have to serve good beef.’ I can charge $1 to $2 more to the customer, but it’ll get them in my restaurant,” Hendrickson says.

Hendrickson’s “always on” hours aren’t the only thing he has in common with ranchers. He also feels a strong calling for his chosen profession.

“I just fell in love with the business,” he says. At 15, he started as a dishwasher at a seafood restaurant. He worked his way through high school and a business management degree at Merrimac College.

At 21, new degree in hand, Hendrickson continued his education at the school of hard knocks, helping in a family business and starting his own bar and grill. After major family health issues, Hendrickson sold The Usual Pub and Grill, but today it’s like he’s the manager of 350 restaurants. He manages salespeople, develops strategies, provides support where needed and, probably most importantly, helps right the wrongs.

Hendrickson wants to change that reality from two in 10 restaurants surviving to at least three in 10.

“If we can help keep our customers in business, that’s huge,” he says. “Then you become a partner and not just a sales guy.”

He also wants to keep his suppliers in business. After riding around in the pickup with a Midwestern cattleman last spring, he feels an even stronger push to rep quality.

“We have to work so that the [ranchers] of this world-their craft gets noticed,” he says.

For more on the role of each sector of the beef business, search “Beef’s a Trip” on the Black Ink Blog at