Prime Time for Fine Wine?

The Wall Street Journal reports that USDA Prime beef is now available in your supermarket meat case. Bad news for your cholesterol count, perhaps, but maybe good news for supermarket wine sales. Do you think it will last?

Steak-Out at Ruth’s Chris

USDA Prime beef is usually almost impossible to get outside of restaurants. Prime is the grade reserved for the top 1-3% of all beef — it is sort of like beef with a 93+ rating from Robert Parker. Fine dining establishments, including steak houses like Ruth’s Chris (which advertises itself as “The Best Prime Steakhouse Restaurant”), pay a premium for the limited supplies of this top quality beef. It is unusual, therefore, to find much Prime beef in the regular retail food distribution chain (USDA Choice is usually the top grade you will find at your store). It is especially rare to discover choice cuts like Filet Mignon in a supermarket meat case.

So then why did some shoppers recently find USDA Prime ribeye steaks at Costco for $9.99 per pound? The answer, according to the WSJ article, is the slump in high end restaurant sales. (I don’t know how Ruth’s Chris in particular is doing, but the fine dining industry overall is taking a beating. due to the economic crisis.)

The recession is bad news for restaurants and for the businesses that supply them. I have already written about the effect on wine.  Some hard-to-get, winery-list and restaurant-only wines are now relatively easy to find — a few have even shown up at Costco — because distributors are diverting the wine that restaurants won’t buy to their other selling channels. The same thing, apparently, has happened to Prime beef.

Prime Time on the Wine Wall

Some of the folks who used to splurge on expensive restaurant meals are now sometimes treating themselves to  fancy home-cooked meals, which can be less expensive even when they use similar ingredients because high restaurant labor costs are supplied in house for free (or lower cost, anyway, if you have to pay your children to be waiters, prep-cooks or dishwashers).  Prime beef and excellent wines are now more readily available to these home chefs, as the WSJ article indicates and, while they may be expensive in an absolute sense (compared to Kraft Macaroni Dinner, for example) they are still cheap relative to the restaurant experience. Good food and wine at home can cushion the recession’s hard knocks.

My friend Patrick, wine manager at a local upscale supermarket, has a front row seat as these shoppers assemble ingredients for a special meal. His  Wine Wall is located strategically at the corner of Meat, Fish and Produce, so aspiring gourmet chefs inevitably pass through his territory once or twice and he is happy to help them select a nice wine to complement their home creations.

Patrick thinks that this fine-dining shift from restaurants to residences may not be a temporary phenomenon. People are educating themselves about food, ingredients, cooking methods — and wine of course — and they may find themselves drawn more deeply into the home dining experience. As they become more skilled and knowledgeable they may begin to identify themselves as “foodies” who enjoy planning menus, shopping for and preparing food, not just eating it, and change their fine dining behavior for good.

I’m sure this won’t happen to everyone everywhere, but I think I agree with Patrick that a noticeable structural shift could occur. If sustained, this trend could have important implications for several industries, including wine. A major shift in sales from restaurants to supermarkets, specialty stores and big box retailers would force some winemakers to reevaluate their business plans and perhaps shake up the whole wine market.

Now, where are my car keys? I feel an urge to go to Costco …

One response

  1. Thanks for the tip on the Costco USDA Prime Ribeyes. I booked over to the Waltham, MA Costco and indeed found them for $9.99 a pound.

    The butchering of the steaks wasn’t quite as meticulous as what I’d expect from a small independent purveyor, and the meat was more “challenging” to get through than I expect it to be. So I’m left wondering if Costco’s treatment of USDA Prime steaks is on par with what you’d get from an Allen Brothers or a fine local butcher.

    What do you think? Are these $9.99 steaks really as good as the ~$30/pound steaks we’d get elsewhere?

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