Half a pound of moist brisket, a couple of beef ribs, collard greens, mac and cheese, cornbread, and tap water (all served after waiting in line 45 minutes for counter service): $75. That was the total bill from a recent lunch stop at a popular BBQ restaurant in Brooklyn. Long considered a food of the people for its use of tough cuts that respond magically to long, slow cooking methods, barbecue has become, in NYC, an expensive (and time-consuming) proposition. What gives?
After digesting both the meal and the sticker shock, I wondered if what had just occurred was a classic Manhattan phenomenon: A city restaurateur justifiably capitalizes on booming demand for a cuisine (e.g., $18 for three pork-shoulder tacos at Empellón Taqueria), and prices hit the stratosphere. At times, it seems like everything our grand city touches, no matter how humble its culinary roots, becomes outlandishly expensive.
In this case, though, the rising cost of brisket runs deeper than New York City economics, so don’t expect to see your local pit master manning a Tesla Roadster anytime soon. The culprit lies in the confluence of several forces: a shrinking cattle population, the increased popularity of Texas barbecue, and, oddly, the introduction of Arby’s brisket sandwich.
Yes, Arby’s is partially to blame for rising brisket prices. Jon Stewart might pop off a joke here about suffering from a roiling case of indigestion, but the reality is that this fast-food behemoth (sorry, “fast-casual restaurant”) has exerted pressure on an already strained market with a wildly successful sandwich. Last year, Daniel Vaughan, barbecue editor of Texas Monthly (yes, that job exists and it sounds amazing), speculated that Arby’s swallows approximately 5 percent of the available brisket nationwide. If his number is close to correct, it presents as a significant demand on the domestic market.
Vaughan spoke with the Voice about the cattle shortage that initiated the problem. Extreme weather conditions out west, specifically a deep drought, resulted in a water shortage for animal stock. Before ranchers sell cattle to feedlots, they raise them on pasture. When a drought hits, grass and water sources for the animals dry up. As Vaughan sympathized, “put yourself in the shoes of the rancher…all of a sudden you have to pay for what was previously free. Do you pay to truck in water and buy hay?” Consequently, ranchers thinned herds by selling off large portions to cope. The total number of head of cattle across the country has dropped to its lowest since the 1950s, but there are now a lot more people to feed, said Vaughan.
While the last year has seen some improvements in pasture conditions, cattle populations can’t rebound as quickly, as, for example, pigs can. The time frame from pregnancy to raising a calf to marketable weight is over two years, and there’s only one calf per pregnancy (unlike pigs, which birth a litter and need only eight months to get offspring to market).
On February 5, 2015, the Houston Chronicle reported that Texas cattle herds “grew last year after eight years of consecutive decline caused by drought. Statewide bovine inventory hit a 48-year low in 2014, but rebounded six percent according to January 2015 numbers from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.” That may be good news in the short term, but unless you’re living under a rock or vote Republican in Florida, you’ve probably read the news that the American West’s long-term weather forecast does not call for rain and rainbows. Scientists warn of an 80 percent chance of a “megadrought” hitting the Southwest and central Great Plains in the second half of the century if we remain on our current greenhouse emissions trajectory. Which means a brisket sandwich may be a relic of America’s culinary folklore by the year 2100.
Price pressure also stems from the growing popularity of Texas-style barbecue across the nation. From California to New York, the country is consuming more brisket now than ever before. Beef prices are going up across the board, but the level that brisket has risen to is unlike any other beef cut, according to Vaughan. “As an example, Franklin BBQ in Austin, Texas, goes through 40 briskets, or 20 head of cattle, a day. Multiply that by all of the existing and opening barbecue restaurants around the country. That’s a lot of cattle for two cuts of meat,” he said.
Vaughan published a piece in January titled “The End of Cheap Beef.” In his column, he reported that Texas A&M professor of ag economics David Anderson predicted to a roomful of BBQ joint owners “[to] plan on two or three years of elevated pricing.” By the numbers, whole, choice brisket during the week of January 6, 2015, was $3.45 per pound, up from $2.14 a year earlier, reported Vaughan.
What effect will the wholesale market have on steak and BBQ restaurant economics around NYC? According to Joe Carroll of the Carroll Group NYC, owner of Williamsburg restaurant St. Anselm, known for reasonably priced cuts of meat, and Fette Sau, a popular BBQ joint, he’ll have to raise prices. He cautions that he “must be sensitive to raising them too high too quickly. For example, if our increase in cost is 25 percent, we won’t raise our prices by 25 percent all at once, we will do it gradually over a couple of months.” He also notes that his prices are already a bit higher than other barbecue places because he uses naturally raised, heritage breed animals from small farms. As he put it, “any increase in price is tough for us.”
Perhaps the future of BBQ trends lies in the pork-based traditions of the Carolinas. A slow-smoked, succulent pig shoulder, shredded and served on a bun with tangy sauce and slaw, provides a respectable, delicious alternative to the brisket sandwich — if it comes to that.