How Smith & Wollensky is One-Upping its Steakhouse Competition
When consumers buy a bottle of wine, most of them know what variety of grapes they’re drinking in that particular vintage. But do they know what properties—or even how many different vineyards—those grapes come from? Not likely.
Matt King, corporate executive chef of Smith & Wollensky Restaurant Group, likens the way the meat industry works to winemaking. There’s plenty of prime beef on the market, but the big producers buy beef from multiple feedlots, then process and pack it. The end results are often inconsistent cuts—a relative bit of unpredictability that winds up being passed on to the diner at any given time.
Product discrepancy is only one reason King entered into an exclusive, single-sourcing partnership with the sustainability-minded Double R Ranch, founded by Robert Rebholtz Sr. Via this partnership, the ranch provides all eight of the Smith & Wollensky properties with its USDA prime steaks and signature filets. (Select Smith & Wollensky locations also serve Snake River Farms’ American Wagyu beef.)
The Double R Ranch is part of the Agri Beef network of family-owned and -operated ranches, and Agri Beef is also family-owned and -operated. The ethical animal husbandry at Double R, King says, is not only unparalleled but also on par with his own principles and those of the Boston-based restaurant chain.
“It used to be good enough to say that you served prime beef,” King says. “Not anymore. Now people want to know where their food is coming from. And, unless you enter a program like this, you can’t say with clarity and give a forthright answer about where the beef comes from.”
The program, which King installed this past March, relies on what he calls Double R’s “traditional, old-school ranching,” which is free-range, humane, and socially responsible. That means the family is in control and aware of the beef life cycle from start to finish. The ranch itself comprises 70,000 acres in Loomis, Washington, which is known as the Okanagan region in the Pacific Northwest.
“It seems too big to imagine. And then you ask them how many head of cattle they have, and it’s only 5,000, which seems small. But to raise cattle responsibly with respect to the land, you have to rotate them through a certain amount of acreage,” King says.
Like the winemaker who tends his own vineyard, watching the grapes grow, Rebholtz family members are aware of what stages their animals are in at all times. They keep tabs on the weather or any adverse conditions that might affect the cattle. They tend to them like they are fragile grapes, and know their bloodlines and genes like singe-vineyard growers know their grafts and clones.
And the animals enjoy a relatively free and pampered existence. The Double R stock wander on a seasonal basis. In general, the overall temperate nature of the Pacific Northwest is well suited to husbandry, keeping the cattle free of stress, which in turn ensures good quality beef.
When it becomes hot in the valley during the summer months, the herds are moved up into the mountains; they later return to the lower elevations in the fall and winter. Because of these mini migrations, the grasses the cattle graze on have time to naturally regenerate between seasons, making for a more sustainable practice.
Double R also owns the feedlots, so the Rebholz family remains in charge of the animals’ diet and often mix in potatoes and harvests from renewable local crops including corn, alfalfa, and other grains. The family also hired a professional cattle nutritionist to concoct a supplement of vitamins and minerals, and a veterinarian checks in daily.
Additionally, the company owns its processing facilities, which ensures compassionate and accountable butchery. The results are steaks and filets with the finest, hand-selected levels of marbling on the USDA grading scale.
Smith & Wollensky then ages those cuts in-house for 28 days before cooking, and Chef King adores the consistent quality of Double R steaks across the restaurant’s system. “The rib-eye you order in Chicago is the same one you get in Boston,” he says.
Double R is invested in breeding practices, and its bull services are in great demand for lease or trade. This is also good news for Smith & Wollensky, because right now, the two businesses are perfectly paired size-wise. “We’re not too big that they can’t supply us, and we’re not too small that they don’t want to contract with us,” King says.
Should the demand start to outweigh supply—a possibility given that Smith & Wollensky recently opened its first overseas steakhouse in London—Double R can bolster its output through other members of the Agri Beef network, trading bull services for cattle from like-minded family ranchers from northern California to North Dakota. “The hope is that we grow together,” King says.
So far, the response to the program from patrons has been twofold. King says some customers, who don’t notice or care about such things, are just happy that it’s a tender, tasty piece of beef.
“They think, ‘Hey, it was a great steak before and it’s still a great steak. You didn’t make it worse, so good for you,’” he says. But many others are “intrigued and thrilled by the husbandry,” just as King was when he learned about Double R through industry contacts. At the time, he’d been trying to find the best possible beef program and had visited a large number of processing plants and feed lots. “I was blown away by what Double R is doing,” he says.
Naturally, such care costs a little more, and there are other single-sourcing programs in the industry (including ones that King used in the past out of Iowa) that offer terrific prime beef for a better price point. While he admits that he could “certainly find a way to pay less, this is not an arrangement based on money. No other national steakhouse chains are doing what we’re doing.”