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McClatchy-Tribune  08/10/2014 7:35 AM ET
South Bend Tribune, Ind., Heidi Prescott column [South Bend Tribune, Ind. :: ]

Aug. 10--Meat prices are soaring and restaurant profit margins are thinner than ever, but local operators realize they never get a second chance to make a first impression on diners.

Some are slimming portion size. Some are eliminating bread or other extras that normally would accompany an entree. Some are raising prices as a last resort.

But one thing restaurateurs say they would never, ever do is sacrifice quality for cost.

"It's not going to happen. We can't be tempted to sell choice versus prime no matter how much money we'd save," said Tim Ruys, general manager of Ruth's Chris Steakhouse in Granger. The prices he pays for steak and seafood are 20 percent higher today than 18 months ago.

"We don't want to and we won't sacrifice quality for cost. That's a decision that would never help us grow," Ruys said. "Our chef is experimenting with new features and I'm working on creating more value for the customer. We've got to step it up. We're going to try and hold off a price increase until the beginning of next year, if we can."

One look across the refrigerated meat cases in area supermarkets tells the story. In that venue, families and individuals also have been scrambling to put meat -- or protein anyway -- on the table without crushing the weekly budget.

Beef and pork prices have risen most dramatically during the last year-and-a-half. In June, the price of ground chuck hovered around $3.91 per pound and bacon cost $6.11 per pound, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The increase in beef prices stems from several years of high feed costs for livestock producers. The drought in the West and increasing amounts of corn going to ethanol production also contributed to one of the smallest cattle herds in decades.

"Because it costs more to feed their animals, they have decreased production, causing the price of the lesser amount of available meat to increase," said Edie Sutton, extension educator for the Purdue University Extension office in South Bend.

Meanwhile, the pork industry has been hammered by a virus that has killed about 10 percent of the U.S. herd.

Local restaurateurs are grappling with the problem, knowing that it is not going away in the short term. Beef prices are expected to continue to increase, Sutton said, with even less beef being available next year. Lower beef prices may begin to be seen in 2017. Pork prices will continue to increase until October, with lower prices coming in the spring or summer of 2015.

"It's affecting everyone," said Mark Harman, president of Stanz Foodservice in South Bend. "If the restaurateur isn't raising their price, it's cutting into their profitability and ultimate survivability. The operator that doesn't manage these difficult times with a balance of providing value options and appropriately priced menu options will have difficulty in the long run."

And that's the reason Harman says his company would never recommend that an operator sacrifice quality of product for cost savings.

"If you choose to drop quality levels, you will lose satisfied customers. And getting them back is a long road," he said. "The operators have to continue to reinvent themselves and provide the 'total experience' to the customer to differentiate themselves and win customers' loyalty."

Local restaurateur Javier Mendez shops around for the best quality meats at the best prices he can find, much more than he ever has during his 27 years as a chef.

The owner of Javier's Bistro on Miami Street in South Bend frequently reviews his menu, too, and makes subtle changes. Mendez might be able to trim certain portions one week and give a little more of the accompaniments.

Using creativity and innovation, he can offer diners different choices that are better options when it comes to affordability for both the restaurateur and consumer.

"Because of my years in this profession, I can purchase an item and twist and turn it so every piece gets used," Mendez said. "My number one goal is not to turn customers away. So I watch and do everything myself to

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