Restaurant owners attempting to distinguish themselves from the competition are turning to niche pork products. These products help them put a producer’s face with the product or entrée.

“About half of these restaurants are adding pork because they’re able to add something different to their menus,” says Larry Cizek, National Pork Board director of culinary and niche-market development.

According to new research from Technomic, conducted on NPB’s behalf, 50 percent of the restaurant operators polled are using niche pork as a new menu item, rather than a replacement for another pork entrée.

Plus, 60 percent of those surveyed use some type of niche protein on their menus. Of this group, 63 percent use niche pork.

A couple of examples of niche pork on the menu are:

  • Craftsteak at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, the restaurant  sources its boutique pork from Snake River Farms, Boise, Idaho. Snake River’s brand is American Korubota, which is 100 percent Berkshire.
  • Blue Hill restaurant in New York, buys whole pigs from Skate Creek Farm, East Meredith, NY, and fabricates the carcasses in-house.

Technomic’s main research objective was to evaluate restaurant use and attitudes toward niche pork products, such as organic, antibiotic-free, free-range, genetically specific, locally raised and farm-direct products. Technomic completed 50 in-depth telephone interviews with key decision makers (primarily chefs), largely within the fine-dining arena. There were a few casual-dining restaurants included as well.

“It may cost them (restaurants) more up front to add niche products, but they’re eventually able to recover more for the restaurant,” notes Cizek. The operators polled report that the typical premium paid for niche pork is 20 percent to 30 percent. They believe they can charge an equal percentage premium on the menu, resulting in increased profits for the restaurants.

“Some of the profits could possibly go back to the producer, depending on how much of the pork chain the producer controls,” he adds.

This research points out that chefs are intrigued with niche pork products. Here are a couple of comments from chefs (whose names were kept confidential) about niche pork at the American Culinary Federation Focus Group conducted last July:

  • “People are just becoming aware that there is another dimension to pork.”
  • “There’s a great demand for this (niche pork.) There’s a whole generation out there, especially the baby boomers, whose attitude about food and eating is very different. As a restaurateur, you have to look at that.”

Here are a few more reasons why chefs use niche pork products:

1.  They offer alternative production methods. More consumers are asking for specialty products, such as organic, natural and antibiotic-free. This way, chefs can offer the products consumers, especially those patrons of white tablecloth restaurants, want today.

2.  Niche pork products offer producers an alternative market, which may help generate more profit.

3.  Restaurant operators are looking to put a face with the product on the plate. Cizek says he’s seeing a lot of locally grown products, not only pork, on menus as a way for a restaurant to set itself apart from the competition. It also allows restaurants to support local producers.

“Niche pork products are getting in front of more people and gaining more acceptance,” says Cizek. “The bulk of niche products go to high-end restaurants — trend setters in the industry. If they’re doing it, it rolls down to more operators.”

Specialty products are allowing chefs to put a brand to their own restaurant dishes. It gives them another way to distinguish themselves and their businesses, while providing pork producers with another marketing option.