Customers love beef ribs. When a pitmaster plunks down a big, thick fatty rib on a plate, cameras are whipped out to document this ultimate carnivore trophy that is the succulent symbol of the Texas obsession with beef.
While beef backs ribs have been found in joints from Fort Worth to El Paso for decades, beef short ribs have historically been served at very few barbecue joints in Texas. The short rib’s history as a popular cut to order is typically traced back to Louie Mueller Barbecue and the famous beef short ribs featured on its menu daily. Louie Mueller, along a small group of joints in Central Texas, like Black’s Barbecue in Lockhart and the Cooper’s chain that originated in Llano, were really the only ones serving up this cut. That is, until a few years ago, when the beef short rib phenomenon took hold of the barbecue world. From South Texas (the Granary in San Antonio now cures them and makes bright pink pastrami beef ribs) to East Texas ( Stanley’s Famous Pit Bar-B-Q in Tyler serves them), they’ve become a very popular menu item and have won over the customers.
But the dirty little secret behind short ribs is that the pitmasters kind of hate them.
The beef short rib is a unique menu item. A single rib (which is how it’s usually ordered and served) can be as large as two pounds post-cooked weight. It is also delicious. Unlike a brisket where there’s a distinct fatty side and a lean side, the fat and collagen in a beef short rib runs evenly throughout the meat, producing that juicy, silken, slightly gelatinous texture. They’re less finicky in the smoker than a brisket is, but finding that right point of tenderness still requires plenty of patience. It also requires a lot of room on the smoker, valuable real estate that has a real monetary cost associated with it.
And speaking of money, the price of beef ribs is also hard to predict. While brisket costs can vary by as much as twenty or thirty cents a pound, Justin Fourton of Pecan Lodge has seen the prices of raw beef ribs go from $3.25 per pound less than a year ago to now more than $5.30 per pound. They were originally $16 per pound on the menu, but he had to make a choice of taking them off the menu or raising the price to $18 per pound. But the customers’ appetite never waned: they’re one of the first things to sell out, Fourton says. Even so, he laments, “They are by far my lowest margin item on the menu.”
The size of beef ribs can also vary considerably. For a while Fourton was getting twelve racks of beef ribs in a sixty-pound box. Then one day a box showed up with just six racks. The total weight was still the same, but every rib weighed twice as much as the each rib in his normal box. This not only caused some sticker shock with customers when a single rib cost more than thirty dollars, it also cut into his bottom line. Pecan Lodge has a menu item called “The Trough” which had a little of every meat on their menu for one price of sixty-five dollars. It includes a beef rib. When the ribs are running at three-quarters of a pound things work out fine, but throw a one and a half pound rib on there and all of a sudden they either break even or lose money on this huge plate of meat.
John Lewis of La Barbecue would just as soon see beef ribs off of his menu. While he loves the flavor and the positive reactions from customers, they just don’t make any money. “With what we’re paying for beef ribs versus what we’re charging, we’re pretty much breaking even on them,” Lewis says. “It’s a novelty.” He also points out that they require a lot of pit space, making every square inch of that break-even space; he’d rather fill the pits with more profitable brisket.