“Beef —it’s what’s for dinner” is one of the most recognizable slogans in the history of food marketing.

It also happens to be getting truer every year. Retail beef sales have enjoyed a steady uptick in the past decade-plus, as have volumes and per-pound prices. 

And with the U.S. economy humming and more people than ever in the work force, people are splurging on higher-end cuts. (And an increase in grade quality makes sure they keep coming back.)

The top beef cuts being sold at grocery retail today include rib eye steak, strip steak, t-bone steak, stewed meats and chuck roast, says Alison Krebs, director of market intelligence for the Denver-based National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, a contractor to the Beef Checkoff.

In the category of fastest-growing, meanwhile (biggest gains from 2012 to 2018) are t-bone, rib eye and tenderloin fillet, Krebs says.

 “We’ve seen consumers respond very well to increases in the quality of grades over time with steak,” she says. “Moving into choice and prime has created some really nice interest in some of those high-end cuts.”

That increase in quality has dovetailed nicely with an increase in consumer spending power. “The economy is certainly a contributing factor,” Krebs says. “People have more spending money, they’re more secure in where the economy is and, as a result, they want a good beef experience, enjoying some of the top-end cuts.” 

John Tarpoff, vice president of beef for Niman Ranch, Northglenn, Colorado, agrees that quality is the key. At Niman Ranch, which produces Certified Angus Beef Choice and Prime with no antibiotics or added hormones, prime beef often makes up more than half of all beef being sold by the company at any given time. Historically, the industry standard has been below 5%. Niman Ranch has introduced several new products recently, including a 2-piece top sirloin, split cap-off 103 ribs, cap-off sirloins and coulottes, Tarpoff says. On the prepared side, the company has new navel pastrami and roast beef products.

Later this year, Niman Ranch has plans to further develop its prepared offerings to meet ever-growing consumer demand for the highest quality and finest tasting products in a “case ready” format. “BBQ beef, uncooked corned beef brisket, and beef bacon are just three items that we currently have in development,” Tarpoff says.  

 “When a consumer purchases a Niman product, they feel confident they’re getting the best,” he says. “Superior genetics, proper nutrition, humane care and husbandry practices are three significant components that build the foundation of Niman Ranch beef.”

Adding value

Another trend in retail beef sales — an increase in meat case “additions” — is being driven by consumers’ ever-increasing desire for convenience. Product with additions include cuts that have been seasoned, marinaded, breaded, basted or cut and paired with other products, like meat-and-vegetable kabobs. In the past couple of years, the Beef Association has noticed an uptick in demand for seasoned and marinaded meats and meat-and-veg kabobs. Basted and breaded products, on the other hand, aren’t as popular.

“Overall, that category continues to perform fairly well,” Krebs says. “Consumers are enjoying the convenience and the value-added proposition. And we see continuing interest in different ethnicities and flavorings. 

Woburn, Massachusetts-based Verde Farms, which specializes in 100% grass-fed, 100% free-range beef, has made a shift in its retail roster in recent years to capitalize on this trend.  “Our product mix is evolving from premium raw steaks, ground beef, and patties to include more ‘value-added’ products in response to consumers’ developing culinary exploration, flavor curiosity, and consistent appreciation for convenience,” says Dana Ehrlich, the company’s CEO. In 2018 Verde Farms began a product expansion with the launch of four varieties of ready-to-cook marinated beef for customers to explore globally-inspired flavors in their own homes. The new line includes Carne Asada Flank Steak, Korean-Style Sesame Sirloin, Green Chimichurri Flank Steak, and Gaucho Steakhouse Tri-Tip Kabobs. 

And there’s more innovation on tap, Ehrlich says. “We’re building on the strong customer and consumer response to the marinades with a number of ready-to-cook and ready-to-eat products concepts currently in development.”

Retailers, Tarpoff says, “are amazing us” with their ability to meet consumer demands and time constraints. From on-site chefs, grills and ready-made menu items, retailers are capturing their audience, he says, and making delicious family-made dinners in the store while customers shop (often with glass of wine in hand) that they can feel good about — whether it’s a restaurant-quality USDA prime ribeye or a hamburger.