Would you pay $41 for a hamburger? Probably not. But New York diners are paying big bucks for Idaho-raised Kobe beef.

It may be called the Rolls Royce of meats, but it took a $41 hamburger to catapult Kobe beef out of gourmet magazines and into the mainstream of American culture.

Ken Dey
The Idaho Statesman

And while most people associate the high-priced beef with Japan, few realize it´s more likely to come from cattle raised in Idaho.

The Old Homestead Steak House in New York City created a stir last month by putting a $41 Kobe beef hamburger on its menu. The media frenzy that followed put the spotlight on Boise-based Snake River Farms,
the company that provided the hamburger to the Old Homestead.

“The $41 hamburger really jolted our business. The phone has been ringing off the hook,” said Jay Theiler, marketing director of Snake River Farms. “We had no idea it would get this crazy. We thought: Who would be silly enough to pay $41 for a burger?”

But many were.

In one day alone, the New York restaurant said, it sold more than 200 of the 20-ounce gourmet burgers to customers including “Sopranos” star James Gandolfini and New York Mets baseball star Mike Piazza.

Although it´s the burger that is bringing the most attention to Snake River Farms, a subsidiary of the Agri Beef Co., it´s the quality of Kobe beef that has created a loyal following of steak lovers worldwide who are willing to pay more for what the company calls “butter knife beef.”

The history of Kobe beef, the product of Japanese Wagyu cattle, is far removed from the near mystical status the animals have obtained in recent years. Even the name of the breed, Wagyu, has assumed mythic connotations, when it fact the word means “Japanese cattle.”

The breed made its way from China, across the Korean Peninsula and into Japan during the second century, where Wagyu were used as draft animals to plow Japanese fields. Once the Japanese found that the animals were better on the plate than pulling a plow, the breed flourished in the Kobe area of Japan.

At one time, sampling Kobe beef meant travelling to Japan or visiting an exclusive restaurant or store that imported the meat.

But in the past decade, Snake River Farms and other Kobe beef producers have been raising Wagyu cattle in the United States. Agri Beef Co. brought 120 full-blooded Wagyu cattle and shipped them to the United States 10 years ago to start its Kobe beef business, Theiler said.

Snake River Farms breeds its cattle on the company ranch in Baker City, Ore. Animals are then fed on company feed lots in American Falls and processed at the J.R. Simplot Co. meat-packing plant in Nampa.

Snake River Farms is now one of the major distributors of Kobe beef. The firm sells the highly marbled beef to restaurants and retail outlets worldwide.

Because it´s a privately held company, Snake River Farms doesn´t release sales figures, but Theiler said the company sold just less than 3 million pounds of beef in 2002, an increase of 32 percent from the previous year. The company expects its business to double in the next three to five years.

It was only eight months ago that the company first introduced Kobe beef hamburger to the market, and hamburger sales are now almost a quarter of the company´s overall sales.

“The reality is that it´s as hot right now as it´s ever been, more product in the marketplace and more people exposed,” said R.L Freeborn, president of the American Wagyu Association and owner of Kobe Beef America Inc., a rival producer in Bend, Ore.

Freeborn, whose company distributes products in many of the same markets as Snake River Farms, said raising Kobe beef is a good niche market that has excellent returns on an investment.

“This is the Bentley or Rolls Royce of the meat industry,” he said.

Kobe beef ranges in price from just less than $5 a pound for the hamburger to more than $40 a pound for tenderloin. Regular supermarket hamburger sells for $2 a pound, while tenderloin steak sells for about $11 a pound.

Dave Faulk, owner of the Porterhouse, a specialty grocery store in Eagle, recently became the first Idaho location to carry Snake River´s Kobe beef.

Faulk expects the demand for the beef to grow as more people have a chance to taste it.

“The flavor is intense,” he said. “It´s very rich. A little goes a long way.”

Despite their successes, Lindsay and Theiler are still hoping to see Kobe beef served in a Treasure Valley restaurant. They approached some local restaurants when they first started distributing it, but restaurant owners thought it would be too expensive for local diners, Theiler said.

The price may be higher, Theiler said, but the taste is worth it.

“Getting it in people´s mouths is the key,” he said.

To offer story ideas or comments, contact Ken Dey
[email protected] or 377-6428

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