Meat America Gourmet Outlet opened its doors to consumers in Overland Park, KS, in 1996. Customers throughout the greater Kansas City area flocked to the store as word spread of its upper-Choice, restaurant quality beef and superior customer service (BEEF, June 1997).

Many of these customers became weekly shoppers, primarily for beef but also for spices, sauces, meat thermometers and other meat items the store offered.

A lot of customers were part of a growing number who leave supermarkets without buying beef. Research from the National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA) shows that 33% of customers can't find the item they want at the meat counter. Of these, 12% walk away without buying anything.

It's a portion of this market segment that MeatAmerica captured, and it's one that bears watching because it shows signs of growth.

But the Kansas store closed late last month. Another store in LaJolla, CA, closed in late August. Both were victims of the August demise of BeefAmerica, the parent company headquartered in Omaha, NE.

Customers Won Customers walking into MeatAmerica were greeted by personnel trained in customer service who knew meat quality and recognized customer needs. In fact, personnel of all levels often shopped alongside the customers, helping them with every detail of meat selection and preparation.

When Sharon and Don Will drove by and saw MeatAmerica Gourmet Outlet, they stopped in for a trial run. It turned into an ongoing relationship between MeatAmerica and the Olathe, KS, couple.

Sharon and Don follow the professional barbecue circuit and the beef, as well as pork, bought at the store has won them several awards.

The Wills won't let MeatAmerica go easily. They've told Richard Bearde, Kansas City area manager, they'd follow him to whatever meat facility he moves - even 50-60 miles away.

"If I had advice for beef producers, it'd be not to be afraid to charge for quality," Sharon says. "We will pay for it."

Consumers will definitely pay for beef, even in lower-value cuts if they perceive the meat has value. NCBA's meat purchase diary indicates consumer purchases of 80-89% lean far outweigh other ground varieties.

Additionally, NCBA's latest research, Single Source, indicates that cuts such as T-bones, filets and boneless chicken breast get higher ratings on tenderness, taste and quality. There is a correlation between the fact that consumers believe cuts that are more tender are worth more money.

Why A Restaurant? "Why go to a restaurant and order a steak when we can eat better at home," says Gloria Giles, an Overland Park, KS, MeatAmerica customer. "I never order steak in a restaurant anymore." Giles is no stranger to food marketing, either. She grew up in the grocery business. Her father had the first self-service supermarket in the Kansas City area in 1940.

"It's not just the quality I liked," Giles says, "I appreciated the education the staff gave me. They told me what cuts were good and why."

According to the Beef Information Center in Mississauga, Ontario, Canada, 83% of people surveyed say they use cooking instructions. Of those surveyed, 66% prefer instructions to be on the wrapper. While this is a bit different than MeatAmerica's approach, it shows consumers are receptive to education.

Lisa and Tom Schatzle of Olathe, KS, first stopped in the store in mid-March. Tom, originally from New York City, says area manager Richard Bearde got him to try some corned beef.

"I've had corned beef all my life, but never had any this moist, this tender or this good," Tom says.

He and Lisa agree the meat is worth its premium price.

"We thought it would be expensive," Lisa says. "But, we found it to be a great value. I compared a roast from the supermarket and had about 2 lbs. of waste. A similar roast from MeatAmerica had practically none."

This follows current trends in retail cuts. On average, beef sold at retail has 27% less fat compared to 10 years ago.

Did the MeatAmerica crew create new beef customers or move some away from poultry? Perhaps both, perhaps neither.

An important finding resulting from Single Source is that people don't buy beef, they buy cuts. Annette Robbins, director of NCBA market research, says it's important to understand what people believe about cuts. She says the beef industry must become more competitive in all dimensions important to consumers, including taste, convenience, healthfulness, price, quality and value. It's primarily the boneless, skinless chicken breast market that's growing so quickly, she adds.

It's likely MeatAmerica met consumer expectations in all dimensions. Professional meat experts and professional customers made a great combination for the beef industry's first upper-end retail experience. Judging from customer loyalty and demand, the two groups will partner again.

"The customers are the ones who grew this store," says Chris Ludlow, merchandising director. "They're the ones who made it what it was."

Will this formula be recreated in the near future? That's yet to be seen. The recipe is there. It's up to the beef industry to follow through.