Beef brisket, the savory staple item served at Texas barbecue restaurants far and wide continues to escalate in price, but consumers remain hungry and willing to pay up, according to experts.
Pitmasters from across Texas attending the seventh annual Texas Barbecue Town Hall Meeting in College Station said they are battling through the high prices and supply shortages to continue to make sure customers have options and get the best experience possible.
Higher beef prices won’t end soon
A number of issues are driving both supply and pricing, said David Anderson, Ph.D., Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service livestock economist, Bryan-College Station. Anderson was a featured speaker at the town hall.
He said brisket prices continue to be a concern as well prices paid to cook other proteins. Monthly wholesale brisket values for U.S. Department of Agriculture prime and USDA choice cuts were more than $280 per hundredweight going into December.
“Demand has been very good and despite these high prices, people continue to buy,” Anderson said. “Production costs are much higher due to feed costs. High corn and other feed prices coupled with higher other production costs are leading to producing less.”
Drought, packing capacity and corn prices have been weighing heavily on beef production.
“It’s going to be hard to see a reduction in feed prices,” he said. “Higher fertilizer prices are also contributing to production costs, so it’s highly likely corn prices will stay relatively high.”
A consolidation in beef processors coupled with current COVID-19 labor shortages also has been a concern, Anderson said.
“We don’t have the processing capacity like we used to and beef production is declining due to drought in the West; it keeps creeping into Texas and the rest of the Plains,” he said. “We are in year three of declining cow numbers nationally, and the second half of this year we will likely have declining beef production because of declining cow numbers.”
Anderson said expect overall U.S. beef cow numbers to decline even more from 2021, which were a reported 31.2 million head.
“We expect beef cows to be down close to 2% from last year,” he said. “More heifers were marketed last year and supplies of beef will keep going down as there are fewer cows. An important key will be how many replacement females were kept by ranchers.”
‘Barbecue is community’
The town hall meeting attracted both barbecue restaurant owners and pitmasters from across Texas.
“Barbecue is community,” said attendee Joey Victorian, owner of Victorian’s Barbecue in Houston. “What a joy this is. All of us in this room know each other through social media or networking. I’m certainly proud of Texas and Texas barbecue.”
“We started this meeting about seven years ago over the concern of the price of brisket by barbecue restaurant owners across Texas,” said moderator Jeff Savell, Ph.D., University Distinguished Professor, Regents Professor and E.M. “Manny” Rosenthal Chairholder in the Department of Animal Science.
Part of the program was dedicated to an open floor discussion on issues and trends, including addressing the potential missed revenue from selling out of barbecue early in the day. To put it into perspective, many Texans are hitting the road early, before daylight, hoping to beat the lines at some of the state’s most popular barbecue outlets.
“How much do you put on (to cook) is the $64 question,” Tootsie Tomanetz, legendary pitmaster at Snow’s BBQ in Lexington, told the group. “We fill our pits Friday and Saturday and hope somebody gets something to eat.”
Rather than chase what’s selling well on a particular Saturday, Tomanetz said a customer might prefer brisket on one visit, then the next week prefer chicken or pork the next.
“It’s part of human nature to want something you can’t have,” said Brandon Hurtardo, owner of Hurtado Barbecue in Arlington, who gave a presentation on social media marketing.
Supply chain issues continue to be a challenge for all barbecue operators. Everything from paper plates to ketchup packets are in tight demand with certain suppliers.
“We know you’ve had trouble with takeout containers and had to prepackage pickles and onions,” Savell said. “Even straws are hard to come by.”
Rounding out the presentations was Homer Robertson, executive assistant chief, City of Fort Worth Fire Department, who discussed fireproofing barbecue businesses and safety protocols. And Davey Griffin, Ph.D., AgriLife Extension meat specialist, gave a chuck roll demonstration providing an overview on some alternative beef cuts to consider in light of high brisket prices.
From bioenvironmental science to barbecue
At the meeting, attendee Joel Garcia ‘12, co-owner of Teddy’s Barbecue in Weslaco, related a unique story about being an Aggie and going into the barbecue business. He was a bioenvironmental science major who became intrigued with barbecue during his agriculture and natural resources internship at the State Capitol.
“It wasn’t until I moved to the Capitol and went around learning about different barbecue places, traveling around the state … I just fell in love with barbecue,” he said. “After that I worked in a few barbecue places around Austin and that kind of drove me to do my own thing. That’s what led me to move back home to the Valley and open up my own spot.”
Garcia said in honor of the 12th Man tradition at Texas A&M, customers who are former students receive a 12% discount during Aggie football game weekends.
“We have a lot of fun with it,” he said. “My wife is class of 2014 and is a teacher. We are proud of the fact we are Aggie owned and operated. We let everyone know.”
Garcia said he was glad to return to College Station to learn more about making Texas barbecue.
“I’m just happy to be back here and learn,” Garcia said. “We make our own sausage; we make everything in house.”
Garcia said they try to minimize the days they are open because “it’s so labor intensive. We don’t have a huge team, so we are open only on weekends.”
“High meat prices continue to be a concern, we’ve had a lot of illness where we’ve had to step in where they left off. Supply chain issues (such as) getting certain products, takeout containers, for example … there are just certain things our suppliers can’t keep up with,” he said.
Annual barbecue meeting helps make ‘educated decisions’
Richard Funk, co-owner of Desert Oak Barbecue in El Paso, makes certain he attends the annual Texas A&M barbecue town hall meeting to stay abreast of current trends and issues.
“We combine this trip with our research and development trips to keep abreast of everybody in the Central Texas barbecue industry and to see why meat prices are doing what they do,” he said. “These town hall meetings are the reason why we have turkey on our menu at all. It’s such a stable cut, we needed something that gives us stability rather than just beef.
“When we first started, we were just brisket and pork ribs. This meeting gives us a little more insight as to what this stuff is going to do, and it helps us make more educated decisions on what to put on the menu and how to deal with the price fluctuations.”