By Bob Wilhelmy
“Ridiculous” is the word Donny Arnsperger of Walt’s used to describe beef prices these days. Yet, the steak prices at Walt’s Hitching Post remain moderate when compared to the fine-dine market in general, Arnsperger stated. How is that possible, we wanted to know?
“We’re lucky. I can basically hedge the price we pay for the high-end beef we buy. I am able to do it because we have the financial buying power to lock in a price for months. I give them (the purveyors) a big check (amounting to tens of thousands of dollars) up front that locks in the price for months out,” Arnsperger said. This type of negotiated price allows Walt’s to achieve a better price per pound at the time of the purchase. That price often is lower than the going rate on the open market at the time the contract is inked. Plus, moving forward, the purchase contract specifies the same price per pound throughout the length of the contract. A win-win—for Walt’s, and for its patrons, Arnsperger says. More about that in a minute.
What Arnsperger and Walt’s co-owner, Bronson Trebbi, are able to do through this strategy is what big beef buyers such as Costco and Kroger are able to do, which is to influence the price in their favor. This they can do, while small-quantity, week-to-week buyers pay the higher cost when the market fluctuates upward, and, consequently, must pass the higher cost on to their patrons if trendlines continue upward.
According to Arnsperger, he learned the lesson of long-term strategic buying at the School of Hard Knocks. He explained that he has been involved with the sizzle of steak eateries since 1991—thirty-two years! Steak, and especially filet mignon and other high-end cuts, has always been a premium-priced product in the restaurant industry. His experience in an environment of smart restaurant people taught him the finer points of supply; how to get the best for less, if you will. An example he cited is Walt’s price for filet cuts, which has gone through the proverbial roof in the past couple of months. Walt’s price for this “delicacy” is locked in for the next three months, taking them past Independence Day.
In the world of premium beef, July 4 is something of a watershed day, Arnsperger claimed. It is then that beef prices begin to trend downward heading into autumn. The rationale is that the big summer backyard events—Memorial Day, Father’s Day, Independence Day—are winding down, vacations swing into a higher gear, football practices start to eat into family time, and the like. All of which means less demand for beef in family and event meal planning. Less demand and more supply equal lower price. At least, that trend has been a feature of past cycles. The rub these days is that supply-chain foibles have turned past patterns into lurching uncertainties.
Regardless of what happens with supply, Arnsperger stressed that a filet or any other steak cut at Walt’s is a better value because of the full-meal nature of each entrée on its menu. Every entrée you select at Walt’s includes your choice of potato, a house salad, and a basket of the eatery’s famed salted rye. In other words, it’s a meal, not just a steak.
If possible, these days seafood may be even trickier to buy at the best price and best quality. “We don’t go after the high-priced fish; we simply refuse to participate in that,” Arnsperger said. Instead, he looks for excellent fish with proven quality as an entrée. As of this writing, Walt’s is focused on buying grouper and halibut, both wind-caught, both sustainable, and both proven to have a following among patrons—people like it!
In buying seafood, the strategy is relatively the same, but the difference is that Arnsperger buys from perhaps ten purveyors. “You could be lazy and just call up one guy and take the price he gives you. I shop around, find who has the best price, and then negotiate it the same as we do for beef. ‘Hey, I’ve got this big check here for you, and I want fifteen, maybe twenty cases at that price per pound.’ It may take us a while to use what we’ve pre-purchased, maybe fifty pounds a week, but that good price is solid for months out,” he said, emphasizing that buying power talks.
The result is dishes such as this delectable-looking halibut entrée, served on a generous scoop of cheesy-good scalloped potatoes, and topped with a sauté of spinach. Looks delicious, doesn’t it?
As is the norm, Arnsperger extended Walt’s thanks to all those in the Jewish community who dine at the restaurant, either regularly or for special occasions. “Our Jewish patrons have meant so much to us over the years, and we’re deeply appreciative for their support,” he said.
See you at Walt’s Hitching Post!