Food & Drink

Image: Martha cheng

A case study of local beef at Zippy’s

Zippy’s / As the research and development chef for Zippy’s, Wayne Komamura’s approach to local is unsentimental. We were discussing how Zippy’s came to use local beef in their hamburger patties and Komamura’s answers to my questions are markedly different from other locavore chefs (not that he would identify himself as such). On the decision to use local beef, his first response is: “The closer we can source it, the better, meaning that the likelihood of an interruption wouldn’t be as critical…[Also,] the farther the food has to travel, the potential for cost increases. Shipping costs–you always hear about them going up.”

What about the taste of local beef? “Whether or not it tastes better is a subjective matter,” Komamura says. “I’m not about to say one tastes better than the other. My hope is the finished product, as an old-fashioned patty, is good-tasting and well-received.”

How about knowing your farmer, or in this case, rancher? “We’re not particular which rancher it came from. We probably need all of them collectively for the quantity that we require. So if one is short, the other fills in. Essentially, the supply chain remains steady. There is a collection of 13 [ranchers] that constantly feed the supply chain.”

While Komamura’s answers hardly conjure up an inner Alice Waters, Zippy’s business strategy is more than price points and supply chains. “Our business considerations may not only be limited to cost decisions,” he says. “For the lifetime of the company, Zippy’s has always been about supporting your local community because we realize our customer base works for a lot of these local entities, whether they be the farm, the meat companies, the egg processors, the noodle manufacturer.” “Support local” is an oft-repeated phrase in the local business community, but the philosophy that businesses’ suppliers are also their customers may be more true of Zippy’s than, say, Alan Wong’s. Zippy’s is, after all, more of an everyday restaurant than Alan Wong’s.

Making the Local Beef Connection

The Zippy’s menu development process involves a committee that includes the president of Zippy’s, the CFO, the director of marketing, the operations manager, the purchasing manager and the kitchen manager. To say that it’s a calculated, deliberate process is an understatement. And yet, Komamura views the consideration of local beef as something of a lark–a classmate connection to Alan Wong’s that resulted in a local beef tasting invitation at the Pineapple Room. Prior to the local beef seminar, the Zippy’s menu planning committee had decided to redesign their hamburger patty to a more “old-fashioned” taste, but at the time, Komamura wasn’t aware that the Big Island had so much cattle, much less enough to supply Zippy’s.

But as it turns out, Hawaii ranchers needed an entity like Zippy’s, and Zippy’s needed them. “White tablecloth restaurants,” as Komamura calls them, were buying steaks and the best cuts of beef, but no one was picking up the rest. “From an economic point of view, when you process cattle, you get good meats and the other meats,” he says. “Ranchers and processors can’t make an equation work where you’re only selling the middle. Then you don’t have an outlet for the other cuts.” Zippy’s ground beef, it turns out, is the perfect outlet for those other cuts.

If it hadn’t been for that seminar, Komamura says “there’s a good chance that the project would have moved forward and that the beef in it would not have been sourced locally.”

Is This the Future of Local?

So far, the local movement has been driven primarily by the value in the farmer-consumer connection, the notion that smaller is better, and not in the least, by gastronomic pleasure–the perceived (or perhaps not) notion that local tastes better. So Zippy’s approach is perhaps upsetting to locavores. Maybe it’s too impersonal; maybe it resembles the very commodity market that locavores are opting out of.

Or maybe Zippy’s strategy is a sustainable model–one that’s based more on business than romantic notions, one that supports local ranchers or farmers through its sheer volume. One cannot argue that the company’s reach, especially outside of the upper class, is greater than the boutique-variety farm-to-table restaurant.

And yet, the connection between Zippy’s and local cattle ranchers might never have happened without Alan Wong. His restaurant, may not reach the most people, but it connects the right people.