For some, the 1960s were the good old days. Acts like The Beatles and Buck Owens ruled the music charts, the Ford Mustang ruled the road, and beef ruled the meat case.

Back then, most consumers considered beef tasty, versatile and healthful. In fact, it was the most frequently eaten meat of that decade. According to a nationwide USDA survey in the 1960s, nine of 10 homemakers served beef two or more times a week.

Like today, ground beef and steak were the most popular variations. In those days, however, shoppers didn't have pre-cooked pot roasts, premium products like Certified Angus Beef®, or even standardized names for the various cuts of fresh meat.

Interestingly, the biggest complaint homemakers had about any meat was prepackaging, a practice some considered deceptive because it hid waste. That was way before the industry adopted a ⅛-in. fat trim as standard practice.

Fast-forward 40 years, and beef is still America's favorite food. In 2003, Amer-icans consumed more than 13-billion hamburgers and, according to research by the NPD Group, steak is one of the top five foods consumers say they plan to eat more of in the next month.

A passion for beef

“Today, consumers have a passion for beef,” says Mark Thomas, National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA) vice president of consumer marketing. “The glow came off a bit in the interim years — the '70s, '80s and mid '90s — but beef holds a place in the consumers' collective mind, today and in the 1960s, that no other food has.”

Today's beef consumers, however, are much more demanding than their 1960s counterparts. Some want less fat; others want more finish or uniform tenderness. Still others want grass-fed or organic beef.

Whatever the individual preference, all consumers want a consistent product, says Jack Allen, Michigan State University professor emeritus in food marketing. Inconsistency in eating experience has been an overriding challenge for the beef industry, and that is less and less acceptable to consumers, he says.

All this begs the question: What is making consumers so darn picky about their beef?

A likely explanation is the phenomenal growth in the foodservice industry over the last 40 years. The amount of beef consumed away from home has increased tremendously.

“There's no comparison to the volume of beef product that is moving just in what we call fast food,” Thomas says. “Add on top of that the growth in steakhouses, which has been huge. There are franchises that have built their entire business around steak.”

Restaurants are equipped with the culinary expertise to discover all the possibilities with beef, and they do a lot of research to learn exactly what their customers want, says Jane Gibson, NCBA's director of trade advertising and public relations.

What's more, restaurants are challenged by their competition to keep customers interested and excited about their menus. And while foodservice changes rapidly, eventually the retail business benefits from foodservice innovations, too.

Foodservice starts trends

“A trend will start in foodservice. The consumer will experience something they really like in a restaurant. Then, they'll go home and try to replicate it,” Gibson says.

Tom DeMott, former vice president of corporate meat merchandising at Safeway, concurs.

“Consumers are having these ‘wow’ experiences at great steakhouses, and they want to have that experience with what they buy at the grocery store,” says DeMott, who is now chief operating officer at Encore Associates, Inc.

In the “good old days,” consumers didn't know whether the beef they bought was graded Choice or Select. They trusted the reputation of the retailer. Not so today.

Competition and branding at the retail level is now very intense, DeMott says, pointing to premium products like Safeway's Rancher's Reserve and Kroger's Cattlemen's Collection.

“Retailers are really trying to differentiate themselves from the competition,” he says.

That's where value-added product development efforts by the beef industry and food manufacturers have really been a step in the right direction.

Whether it takes the form of portioning, flavoring, marinating, aging or cooking, adding value and brand identity to beef is a huge movement right now, Allen says. In addition, food manufacturers are applying technologies like electro-stimulation to tenderize beef, and special cameras to identify tough carcasses.

“Companies are applying those technologies to assure that whatever beef goes out will provide the kind of eating experience that's consistent and is what consumers are looking for,” Allen says.

Case-ready is the future

Overall, this more marketing-oriented approach is moving the industry away from boxed beef, where meat is processed, cut, packaged, wrapped, priced and labeled at the grocery store. Instead, more beef is being centrally processed into consumer cuts at food plants. When the store receives it, it's “case-ready,” meaning it's ready to go into the meat case.

Along with this revolutionary trend comes the potential for better quality control and increased safety, Allen says. In particular, the industry is better able to maintain quality and consistency.

“To accomplish these improvements, the next 40 years will see considerably more collaboration and partnering among all segments of the beef supply chain — from livestock producers to retailers and restaurants,” he says. “Each participant will be rewarded for its role in creating the end product designed to meet a consumer demand.”

That said, the beef industry still needs to become more consumer-oriented with the product, DeMott says. For most of the last 40 years, the beef industry was production-oriented, flooding the market with whatever it produced. Until every part of the beef animal — including the chuck and the round — is meeting a consumer need, the industry still has work to do.

Likewise, Thomas points out that consumers have all the money, and they drive the market.

“It's not what we want to produce,” he says. “It's what consumers want.”

Diana Barto is a freelance writer based in Waconia, MN, and is a former BEEF senior associate editor.

Something different

It's hard not to be biased toward a restaurant chain whose logo is a cowboy hat, but Arby's is a great example of the phenomenal growth in the foodservice industry over the last 40 years.

Built around the American icon of the cowboy, Arby's was one of the first fast-food franchises to offer something besides hamburgers. When its first restaurant opened in July 1964 in Boardman, OH, an Arby's roast beef sandwich cost 69¢.

“We offered one size of a roast beef sandwich, potato chips and soft drinks — an extremely limited menu focused on a superior roast-beef eating experience,” says Chuck Sliker, Arby's vice president of operations services.

At first, Arby's served nothing but beef. Over the years, Arby's changed with the times. The old 10-gal. hat logo has been restyled. And, Arby's has added more menu items, more square footage, more seats, more technology, and drive-thru windows, explains Sliker, who joined the company in 1971.

Arby's stays relevant by constantly evaluating its menu and adding items that respond to the evolving needs and desires of its customers. Menu variety encourages frequency and expands the base of folks who will consider eating there, he says.

“All the chains continuing to enjoy long-term success are those that have consistently spent time, talent and treasure to understand what consumers want and how they want it, and then adapt their menus and operations accordingly,” Sliker says.