HOUBBQ News & Info

Are Texas barbecue joints thinking about not serving brisket? Maybe

Truth BBQ slicing the brisket
Truth BBQ slicing the brisket

Texas barbecue has a math problem. Specifically, with the cost of brisket. Both in how much a pitmaster pays to acquire and cook the raw product and in what the customer pays to consume the finished product. 

First, a quick refresher on how brisket is made and sold. Conservatively, it costs a barbecue joint about $10 to produce a pound of high-grade brisket. This includes the wholesale price of raw brisket, the loss incurred when trimming and cooking it and other expenses, like salt and pepper and the wood needed to cook it. 

In order to cover the other costs of running a restaurant, specifically labor and overhead like rent, the pitmaster needs to sell that brisket at three times the cost, i.e. $30. This is just to break even. 

Over the last few years, pitmasters have determined that consumers, at least in Texas, have a price ceiling of about $30 per pound when it comes to buying brisket. Some joints are trying to squeeze out a small profit by selling at $32-$34 per pound. 

So, barbecue joints are stuck selling their most popular menu item either at a loss or just to break even. You don’t need to be a math whiz to realize this is unsustainable. 

This has resulted in the unthinkable: some barbecue joint pitmasters have considered removing brisket from their menus, if only temporarily. No one is willing to go on the record yet, though. 

How did we get here? Essentially, it’s due to the stubbornly high cost of beef, specifically brisket. The economics of selling brisket are broken.

Armchair beef economists may note that the price of raw brisket goes up and down all the time, so what’s the big deal? Indeed, in the past, a spike in beef prices would result in a commiserate increase in barbecue joint brisket prices. When that spike passed and the cost went down, the barbecue joint left their price the same (usually temporarily) to recoup some of the lost profit that happened during the spike. 

No harm, no foul, right? Well, the problem in the last few years is the raw cost of beef isn’t coming back down, or at least not enough. The wholesale price of Prime grade brisket continues to hover in the $4-$6 per pound range, resulting in a stubbornly high total cost of $8-$12. 

Why is the price not coming down? This is the subject of endless debate, but it comes down to Texas barbecue being a victim of its own success. As barbecue has expanded both nationally and internationally, the demand for beef in general and brisket in particular has remained high. 

Additionally, other industry stakeholders, such as cattlemen, have accused the biggest meatpacking companies of colluding to keep beef prices artificially high. In the absence of government intervention in this alleged collusion, or a collapse in demand for beef, prices are expected to remain high. 

Barbecue joint owners and pitmasters are looking at the numbers and looking for a solution. One obvious solution is simply to not sell a product at a loss. In other words, just take brisket off the menu and replace it with something else.

Unfortunately, there aren’t many substitutes for brisket in terms of flavor and tenderness. Beef cheek has been substituted in some cases, though the economics of that cut has its own challenges. 

For now, pitmasters are stuck selling an unprofitable product. To be sure, brisket won’t disappear from menus anytime soon. But as new menu items are developed and consumer tastes evolve, something else may replace brisket as a Texas barbecue staple.