Even prior to the pandemic, chefs and operators were consistently having issues with creating menu items that they could be proud of serving without breaking the bank on labor costs. Like so many other aspects of the industry that were vulnerabilities, labor issues became fully exposed as the pandemic set in and revenue became scarce.
Suddenly, chefs were expected to design menus that would excite consumers, knowing that revenue would be down due to stay-at-home orders and capacity restrictions. More so than ever before, labor costs have become a burden that requires strategic prioritizing and decision making when it comes to overall kitchen operations.
“We’re one of these restaurants that is in survival mode right now,” says Andrew Spielberg, co-owner and chef at Gracie’s Luncheonette in Leeds, New York. “With every chef or restaurant owner I’ve ever talked to, labor is always the biggest issue, and that’s especially true right now.”
Making, say, a brisket from scratch is an investment of time and money that many operations can no longer afford. One of the ways some chefs are getting over that hurdle is by partnering with Smithfield Culinary, which offers a line of fully-cooked meats that require little labor yet still deliver on taste.
“If I were to make brisket in my restaurant, the entire process would take a week,” Spielberg says. “Not only that, I would constantly have brisket in different stages of production stored all over my restaurant—so it would take time, space, and a lot of planning that some restaurants simply don’t have capacity for, especially right now.”
Spielberg loves Smithfield Smoke’NFast’s fully-cooked brisket, and Smithfield’s fully-cooked breakfast sausage, saying they hold together like a chef would want, are well seasoned—not dry—and generally “taste exactly like they’re supposed to.”
The consistency of Smithfield’s pork stands out to Spielberg and other chefs. Not only do they help cut back on labor in a meaningful way, but Spielberg also thinks that Smithfield’s products are of such high quality that most chefs would have trouble recreating how good the proteins taste, even if they made them from scratch.
“Their ham in particular would win any blind taste test with a ham a chef could make on their own,” Spielberg says. “Smithfield has the team, and the equipment, to create a ham that is really of an outstanding quality that is difficult to describe if you haven’t tried it.”
Jaco Smith, executive chef at LeCHON in Portland, Oregon, is another champion of Smithfield’s quality and consistency. Chef Smith has added much-needed revenue to his operation via creative meal-kit packages that have been a hit with his restaurant’s loyal following. Because Portland’s dining rooms have been shut down multiple times over the past year, this unique off-premises channel has been a vital part of business. “Honestly, if we didn’t do the meal kits, I would be in a considerably tighter financial position right now,” Smith says.
One of the ways Smith has achieved a nice margin in his meal kits is by using Smithfield’s fully-cooked meats. He says he uses fully-cooked meats because it requires less kitchen labor, but he specifically uses Smithfield’s products because he trusts them.
“Every time you order Smithfield you know what to expect,” Smith says. “I can sit at my house, and write out a menu thinking of Smithfield products, and I know exactly what that meat will look like and taste like when it arrives at my kitchen.”
One of the meal kits he created centered around a fully-cooked meat is Peruvian Coconut Curry with Smithfield Smoke’NFast’s Fully-Cooked Pork Wild Wings. Smith says the general reaction to the dish was overwhelming, and he’s made it a few times since.
For chefs who are considering offering meal kits to their loyal customers in order to bring in some extra revenue, Chef Smith recommends focusing on creating something unique by perhaps going deep into their playbook. A native of South Africa, he’s used it as an occasion to get back to his roots and come up with creative South African dishes that Portland natives may have never tried, or heard of before. To create these dishes, he also recommends trying out a fully-cooked meat to help make the process that much more seamless.
“These fully-cooked products are simply more cost effective, and that brings more money to my bottom line,” Smith says. “It’s such a time saver, and plus, I trust the product and know it’s going to be great for my guests.”
It’s clear that Chef Smith enjoys talking about Smithfield’s products, and when he does, he’s constantly using words like “quality” and “consistency.” He also lauds the company’s team of research and development experts, who he says make “bulletproof products” that any cook, with any level of experience, would be able to take out of the packaging and prepare to spec.
With Portland’s minimum wage steadily rising until it reaches nearly $15 per hour in July 2022, the fact that these products require little to no labor has been a huge plus for LeCHON. That lack of prep and labor has limited the dollars spent training employees, and it lets cooks focus on other aspects of their jobs.
While Smith, and other Portland chefs, face a high minimum wage, before President Joe Biden even took office he was calling for the federal minimum wage to more than double, from $7.25 to $15 an hour, meaning chefs across the U.S. might soon face the same predicament. That would surely cause the entire industry to rethink the investment they are making in training and developing talent. Would that money be better spent elsewhere, perhaps on ready-made products?
“By using Smithfield’s fully-cooked products, you’re not just saving on the labor required to prep, store, and cook something like a brisket or a ham,” Spielberg says, “but you’re also saving on having to train someone how to conduct the process of, say, prepping and smoking brisket, and taking that item from start to finish. That’s a lot of hours spent training staff and, honestly, it’s expensive to train people.”
The whole industry is hoping that a vaccine is successful, and that restaurants will soon be allowed to come back as the fully operational entities they were designed to be. But even when that does happen, it’s clear labor will be a persistent problem—at a time when so much is unknown, chefs and operators know they can count on that. They can also count on Smithfield’s products, and team of experts, says Smith.
“You can always count on Smithfield Culinary—they’re very good at communication,” Smith says. “And if I’m ever curious about a product they can help me get to where I’m trying to go because they have so much expertise in their company.”
To find out more about Smithfield’s fully-cooked meats, visit smithfieldculinary.com.