Just a few months ago, you had to go to trendy restaurants like the Beverly Hills Hotel's to get your fill of ostrich. Now Pavilions supermarket or Fedco will do.
Since opening the only store in the nation to specialize in ostrich meat a year ago, a small Torrance company called Ostrich Farms has increased its market for the beefy birds tenfold, up from about 75 upscale restaurants to more than 800 restaurants and stores now. Sales have increased from $5,000 a month to $60,000 in June, according to owner Howard Freiberg.
"The meat has gone from being sold only at elite restaurants to diners and fast-food joints," said Freiberg, who has opened a second store near Atlanta and operates ostrich farms in Modesto, Hemet, Santa Ynez and Louisiana with the help of 10 employees.
At first, customers were mostly upscale venues such as Caesars Palace in Las Vegas and the Beverly Hills Hotel. But in less than nine months the distributor list has grown to include stores such as Pavilions, Fedco and, most recently, Sam's Wholesale Club, which is scheduled to begin selling the meat this month.
Ostrich tastes much like beef but has half the calories--and is quadruple the price. The meat sells for about $19.95 a pound for steaks and $7.95 a pound for ground. With an eighth the fat of beef and less cholesterol, it has received the support of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration through a "Heart Smart" endorsement.
Marketed as a healthy alternative to red meat, ostrich has grown dramatically in popularity. Just three years ago, there weren't enough birds to build a profitable meat market, according to the American Ostrich Assn. in Fort Worth. Because breeding pairs fetched about $50,000, it wasn't profitable to send the birds to a slaughterhouse, where they were worth only $1,000.
But in the last year, the price of a pair has come down tremendously. Nowadays a set of ostriches costs $5,000 to $7,000. An increase in the number of farms, from 400 in 1987 to nearly 10,000 today, likewise will help force prices down.
Although ostrich meat sales barely make a dent in the $90-billion meat and poultry market, meat industry officials have taken note of the surging interest.
"Only time will tell how well it will do, but over the last year it's grown tremendously," said Janet Riley, a spokeswoman for the American Meat Institute, a trade organization representing meat distributors nationwide.
The meat has sold best in health-conscious California.
When Sam's Wholesale Club begins selling Ostrich Farms products, Southern California stores will be the only ones in the 400-store chain where they will be available. Sam's buyer Ed Byrdle said if the meat sells well, it will be added at other stores.
"We knew it would sell in California because we felt like the meat was starting to get popular there," Byrdle said.
Vons Cos. added ostrich to all 32 stores in its Pavilions chain. "It's selling very well," said Vons spokesman Doug Hendrix.
Fedco began offering ostrich in July at all of its stores, and within about a week had sold about a quarter of its first order, said Jim Dixon, director of meat operations.
Ostrich can also be found in more family-style restaurants and fast-food joints. At "Y" Not Burger in Torrance, manager Dave Hathaway said customers are buying 600 ostrich burgers a week.
Hathaway said customers are very curious about the meat. When he started selling the burgers, he said, a customer inquired about whether it was legal; he thought ostrich was an endangered species.
Another customer, Martin Byhower, had something of a moral dilemma when he first tried it. A guide who leads bird-watching tours, he was uncomfortable about trying the meat but was intrigued by the its environmental and health benefits. Ostriches are raised on only an eighth of the acreage it takes to raise cattle, and they eat alfalfa pellets instead of grain, which, Byhower says, could be better used to end world hunger.
"I figured I'd try ostrich because if it was something that gave people an option other than beef, I could promote it," he said after his first taste of an ostrich burger at "Y" Not Burger. "Raising cattle for food is an insult to the environment."
Freiberg said he is now negotiating a distribution deal with Trader Joe's. Richard Baltierra, senior buyer for the food chain, said he hopes to have the meat in Trader Joe's stores this month.
"Ostrich is not just a fad. People like the meat and they're buying it," Freiberg said. "A year ago, people would laugh at me when I told them I had ostrich meat, but they don't laugh anymore. A lot of them have tried it."
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A Cut Above?
The 3,000 members of the American Ostrich Assn. supply more than 1 million pounds of ostrich meat a year for domestic consumption, primarily to restaurants. The U.S. has about 10,000 ostrich ranches with a total of about 200,000 birds. About 500 ranches are in California. Ostrich meat is being marketed for its lower caloric, fat and cholesterol content. A nutrient comparison per 100 grams of cooked, lean meat:
Species Protein (%) Fat (grams) Calories Iron (mg) Cholesterol (mg) Ostrich* 26.9 3.0 142 3.2 81 Chicken 28.9 7.4 190 1.2 89 Turkey 29.3 5.0 170 1.8 76 Beef 29.9 9.3 211 3.0 86 Pork 29.3 9.7 212 1.1 86 Veal 31.9 6.6 196 1.2 118 Duck 23.5 11.2 201 2.7 89 Deer 30.2 3.2 158 4.5 112
* Weighted average from 1993 and 1996 studies conducted by Texas A&M University
Sources: American Ostrich Assn., U.S. Department of Agriculture
Researched by JENNIFER OLDHAM / Los Angeles Times