To cut costs, control quality and beat the competitors, Dubai's Atlantis buys whole cows reared especially for its restaurants. The resort's culinary chief explains how branded cattle eventually become steaks on his menu.
All in the branding for a top steak
There are about 60 steakhouses dotted across the whole of Dubai, and at least 15 in Abu Dhabi.
For meat fans, the breadth of choice is huge. But for restaurateurs, competition is hot and finding ways to stand out from the herd can be very rare.
So when Atlantis The Palm opened in 2008 with its signature steakhouse, Seafire, chefs at the hotel thought long and hard about how they could source beef cheaply, more efficiently and uniquely.
"My highest cost of sales in all my restaurants is my steakhouse," says Mark Patten, the vice president of culinary at Atlantis, which has 19 restaurants and serves about 12,000 people every day. "It's tight margin in this business because beef products are very expensive. I had to find a way I could control the cost, and how I can control it is by thinking a bit differently about how I source the product."
So Mr Patten eventually came up with the idea of buying whole cows for the hotel. In what is now a Dh10 million (US$2.7m) contract, the hotel buys its own Atlantis-branded beef from one source in Australia. For a variety of dishes, the hotel uses every part of the cow, including the cheeks, joints for roast, ribs, and cuts to make steaks.
That way, the hotel can get a better price for its beef. Here, Mr Patten explains what makes up the cost of the steak on your plate and why he thinks Wagyu beef wins every time.
There are so many steakhouses in the UAE. Is it not a very difficult market in which to succeed?
During the pre-opening stage of the property, one of the areas I thought was going to be a key driver was our beef strategy for the hotel. There were so many steakhouses then and there's a lot more now. In 2008, I met with a team from Australia - the Australian Agricultural Company. I mentioned that I wanted to create a programme specifically designed for Atlantis for a product that no other person in town was selling or sourcing.
So how much meat do you buy each month?
Whole cattle, we probably go through 25 a month. But then I top up with the three regular cuts [striploin, fillet and rib-eye] just because the consumption I use on these products alone for Seafire is very large. If you count 25 animals, you only have a certain amount of fillets, striploins, rib-eyes and that won't be enough. We go through half a tonne of each of these cuts each month in Seafire. It caters for 278 people.
All Atlantis-branded beef is Wagyu. Can you explain what Wagyu is?
Wagyu is a breed of cattle that stemmed from Japan. Then from that breed of cattle they have a definition on their heritage, whether they are full blood or half blood. The level of marbling in the beef then has a score [up to 10].
Why is Wagyu different to any other cow?
It's a little like great racehorses come from other great racehorses. Great beef will come from a bovine that was a producer of great beef.
Is Wagyu the most popular beef in Dubai?
What I saw when I started in Dubai was a lot of prime US being sold. It is the equivalent from the US of what Wagyu is on this side of the world. It's a grain-fed product from a single strain bovine animal, so they are not cross-breeds.
What is the process of rearing cattle for steak?
For us, once the animal is born to roughly 300 days it stays on a property in Australia and eats a mixture of hay and wheat and grass. After 300 days it is sent to a feed lot where it stays another 250 to 300 days. It is fed a mixture of 12 different ingredients, which is almost like muesli.
The cows eat muesli?
The food lot has silos with sorghum, corn, wheat, cotton husk, sediment from the brewery. They take a bulldozer load of these ingredients and dump it in the back of a truck. It's a big truck. It has this huge big paddle that turns all these ingredients as it's going. Then it goes under a huge molasses silo, and pure sugar cane molasses, black golden treacle, is dumped on top and makes it look like an Alpen muesli.
So that is the secret to a good steak?
The animals feed on that and get fed twice a day and increase their body mass by about 700 grams a day. So by the time [the cow] finishes, it is close to 800 to 900 kilos. It goes [to the food lot] about 300 kilos. After the abattoir, everything is chilled and shipped on a boat. It takes three weeks to get here from Australia.
What are the biggest costs in creating a piece of steak?
The rearing. It is the time it takes to get to the end product.
What about animal feed and fuel costs? They have been rising in recent years, and the Australian dollar is also very strong, so that must have hurt your business?
Feed has been going up, transportation, currency. They have gone up. Every year since 2008 the cost has gone up.
So you have had to raise prices?
A little bit, but not to the point of the product going up. If I was to say the product has gone up in the last three years, 10 to 15 per cent [annually], I've not increased my prices by that. The Australian dollar also hasn't helped.
Working at a huge hotel complex such as Atlantis, you have the luxury of buying beef in bulk. But has sourcing whole cows and having the meat shipped actually worked? Is business booming?
Business is growing. Every year we have seen an increase in customers.
Are we talking double-digit growth in sales each year?
We are not seeing that because there's so much more [choice] in the market. How many steakhouses are out there? But we are seeing growth. If I had not put the strategy in place in buying the whole animal, I'd be selling Dh80 to Dh100 more for a steak. We call it Atlantis beef on the menu, that's the whole idea. Brand our own product, brand our own cattle and make it well known for the restaurant.
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