Producers told to zero in on chefs to get bison on menu


Educate restaurants and hotels | Chef says bison could be a hot item if health benefits are properly marketed

Saskatoon chef Anthony McCarthy waved a glossy brochure in front of the room full of bison producers and wondered why he’d never seen it before.


If people like him, who know how to prepare bison and can introduce it to new consumers through restaurants, haven’t seen the professionally done brochures and recipe cards, then who has, he asked the Canadian Bison Association’s annual convention in Regina Nov. 18.


“You’ve done the homework,” he said. “You’ve spent the money.”


The Canadian restaurant industry does $63 billion in annual sales, or almost four percent of the country’s economic activity, McCarthy said.


Hot trends include locally sourced, sustainably produced food that is simple and can be farm-branded.


“There’s no reason why bison couldn’t be a hot trend,” he said.


However, when he informally surveyed 15 chefs across Canada, not one of them said they included bison cuts on their regular menus. Some of them occasionally feature bison as a premium product.


He said the chefs he talked to identified several benefits of bison meat:


  • it is lean and healthy

  • customers like it

  • it adds to the demand for local product

  • it is a beef alternative


McCarthy, who is executive chef at the Saskatoon Club, said there is also a move toward what he calls rustic or artisan food such as stew. Bison is a good fit for that type of meal.


He said the chefs he talked to identified the biggest issues as price and availability of fresh product. 


He called his own suppliers and none of those he deals with had bison meat.


Saskatchewan producer Hubert Esquirol said he understood that bison wasn’t available from suppliers because the volume of sales at restaurants didn’t justify selling it, particularly when the meat would have to be frozen to keep it longer.


McCarthy said packaging to keep food fresher longer is so much better now that it might not be as big an issue. For example, bison steaks in individual cryovac packages would be more appealing for chefs’ use, he said.


An Alberta producer said that one chef now buys an entire animal and uses the entire carcass. Bison broth has replaced beef broth to help keep the bison costs in line.


“The biggest problem is going to be finding a chef who will use it all,” McCarthy said. 


“Storage space is going to be his biggest headache.”


Bison is more expensive than beef for restaurants to buy and consequently a more expensive menu item.


One producer asked if consumers were starting to think more about their health and were willing to pay the premium for bison because of the benefits.


McCarthy said it was likely that certain customers do, but chefs also need to know more about bison, which is where producers and the CBA could help.


His informal survey identified poor marketing to chefs as a concern.


He said there are 28 regional branches of the Canadian Culinary Federation that producers could help educate. As well, chefs at restaurants and hotels are usually willing to meet with producers.


“Get an appointment with the chef and take a steak,” he said. “Or go with your meat rep.”


He said chefs like to put farm names on menus and learn about how the food was produced so that they can tell their guests.


Murray Woodbury, the specialized livestock health and production research chair at the Western College of Veterinary Medicine in Saskatoon, said chefs and consumers should be aware of the value they’re getting when they pay the premium price for bison.


It takes only six weeks to get a chicken to market compared to two years for bison.


“You’ve got to look at what you’re getting, not just what it costs,” he said.