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Should I be buying whole/sides of animals and butchering them in house as opposed to buying cuts of meat, fish and fowl?

Cook, Philadelphia, PA

You are asking a classic make-or-buy question familiar to many restaurant items but especially butchery, pastry, and specialty items like fresh pasta and ice cream. The core question is: “Is the additional investment in labor and expertise required to make these items returned in cost savings, revenue, or overall customer experience?” 

Nose-to-tail eating has become a trend but it is not without its challenges and, it should be noted, a lot of good parts don’t even make it to your loading dock.

The first thing to consider is whether you have the ability to take on this additional work if you choose to. Do you have the necessary space for butchery? Does your staff have the expertise or will you make training available? How would it mesh with their other prep responsibilities?

The next key concern in terms of cost savings, is, “Do you have a revenue-generating outlet for all parts of the animal?” While it is easy to see that the cost per pound of whole animals is usually less than the cost per pound of a specific desirable cut, if you don’t have a way to sell the other parts, you will end up paying more per pound for the premium parts. Do you have menu outlets for trim? Will you be using bones for stock?

Ciara Tate, a cook at Il Pittore in Philadelphia says, ““We buy whole racks of lamb with the belly and short ribs still intact. We clean, french and portion the racks into three chop cuts to be seared and roasted for a dish. All of the scrap from butchering the meat gets made into sausage and we sell it as an appetizer. The appetizer [sales] pay for all of our lamb, so our rack of lamb entree becomes essentially all profit.”

A final consideration is how the whole animal fits into your menu mix. If you sell many more lamb shank entrees than racks, you will have a lot of expensive unsold inventory. A lamb with sixteen shanks doesn’t exist, though it sounds delicious. You might need to tweak your menu items or run additional specials to better use the whole animal.

What’s your practice when dining out? Feel free to leave your comments below.