Ground beef is featured in many of the staples of American meals: meat loaf, burgers, spaghetti with meat sauce, meatballs, tacos and much, much more. Grinders have seen and will likely continue to see growth in this market, particularly as consumers look for ingredients to make a quick and cost-effective meal.

Located in Carlstadt, N.J., Burger Maker is considered a premier hamburger supplier, says Jamie Schweid, executive vice president. The company was started in the meat-packing district of New York City by his father and covers the East Coast, along with some areas west of the Mississippi River. The company produces hamburger patties in a variety of grades, shapes, sizes, thicknesses and widths, from an individually quick-frozen patty to a USDA prime product.

Schweid says that portion sizes in burger patties have been increasing over the years.

“Trends have really been upwards — in the patty fresh size, more of an 8- to 10-ounce [size],” he says. Restaurants have also been very successful in thinking small as well.
“The big trend in the last two years has been the slider burgers,” Schweid notes. “I think that’s great, because any opportunity to put more hamburgers or ground beef on your menu drives the profit margin as well.”

Schweid says that other major trends in hamburgers have come from chefs and restaurants adding their own ingredients to the patty.

“The restaurants want to work their magic on the burger,” he says. “They’re looking for us to provide the best-quality burger we can, and once they get it in, you’re seeing more chefs working with burgers, putting their own spin on them”

Finding a market

While there are many retail and foodservice opportunities for grinders, it’s sometimes difficult to find a niche where one can thrive.

L&H Packing and its processing division, Surlean Foods, is headquartered in San Antonio and produces about 120 million pounds of product per year, and president of the company, Neal Leonard, estimates that probably 90 percent of those pounds are ground-beef products. About half to 60 percent of that will be fully cooked product.

“Major customer prospects for us are going to be any national-chain account, probably anything greater than 50 units,” says Leonard. “We try to do customized-food solutions for these clients, which is how we’ve gotten into other things besides ground beef.” He says the company also works with other proteins like chicken or pork and also produces sauces and gravy as well.

Rich Broadbent, president of Wasatch Meats in Salt Lake City, says the company is similar to what processors from 20 or 30 years ago used to do.

“We deal with all the proteins, and everything’s fresh,” he says. “We do a fair share of ground beef to small, independent-type chains and a lot of single-unit restaurants. I do the upper-end hamburger places in the Utah Valley.

“A lot of people won’t do fresh grind because of the liabilities and potential problems, but we still find it’s a great niche,” he adds, pointing out that most of the time, product is delivered the same day it’s ordered. “You can get it fresher from us than you can anywhere else. That’s the nature of being small and being able to react very quickly.”

Fresh ground beef is a strong feature for Wasatch Meats because it’s an area that many broadline distributors can’t provide. Innovations in packaging technology, particularly with gas-flush packaging, have helped the company attract customers in this regard.

“Some people used to take our product and freeze it to hold it over for some time,” Broadbent says. “Now a lot of people buy the gas-flush [product} so they don’t have to freeze it.”

Several of Wasatch Meats’ restaurant customers have an open kitchen, where customers can watch their meals being prepared.

“They want that nice bloom and a nice-looking patty,” he says. “When they take it out of the gas-flush package, the bloom is remarkable.”

Wasatch Meats does some natural ground beef for the higher-end restaurants and ski resorts in the Valley. He adds that natural products sell better in areas with a larger population, but the area is a good one for products like natural ground beef and bison meat.

“Park City [Utah] is a great niche area, and people are looking for different things,” Broadbent says. “We’re doing more natural all the time.”

Leonard says that Surlean doesn’t produce any natural products, but the company has started getting into the Angus beef niche. He acknowledges those markets are growing but are still considered a niche.

“Keep in mind, especially with the food price crisis going on, a large majority of the marketplace, especially in ground beef, is looking for a price point. [Niche products] are probably one of the fastest growing parts, but in the grand scheme of what’s being sold and consumed, it’s a small part.”