American bison were nearly driven to extinction in the late 1880s, but their remarkable comeback has allowed the likes of buffalo burgers, short ribs and tenderloin steaks to find homes on 21st century restaurant menus and kitchen tables.
No, it's not a stampede, but the bison industry has something to hang its hat on: U.S. beef consumption has declined 25 percent since its 1980s peak to about 57 pounds per person annually. Meanwhile, demand for buffalo, aka bison, has shot up, registering six straight years of double-digit growth, according to the National Bison Association.
Sales have outstripped supply and sent prices soaring. The association reports the average price paid for a young bull carcass at the start of the year was 89 percent higher than just five years ago. At the retail level, that translates to ground bison in the neighborhood of $12 a pound.
Meanwhile, the number of bison has shown a dramatic rebound. From fewer than 1,000 animals around 1900, the U.S. herd has grown to an estimated 220,000 on both private and public lands. Bison producers are in all 50 states and include 4,400 private ranches and farms.
North of the border, the Canadian herd also is pegged at 220,000, according to the association.
Buffalo burgers have been on the menu of Triangle Char & Bar since its opening five years ago, says Michael Lotz, director of operations.
“We get a lot of athletes that come in here because it's so lean,” says Lotz, citing its 90-10 ratio of lean to fat. (That's a moot point, since the “Home on the Range” burger also comes with cheddar cheese, bacon, a fried onion ring and French fries.) The West Ashley restaurant goes through between 35 and 50 pounds a week.
Still, Lotz is seeing its overall popularity on the rise. “The only reason we know this is because (buffalo) is a loss leader for us.” The bison costs the restaurant $2 more a pound than its beef — both are grass-fed.
If buffalo comes to be regarded as “the other red meat,” the reputation is not undeserved. A 3.5-ounce serving of cooked bison weighs in with 2.42 grams of fat versus 8 grams for the same amount of select-grade beef, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture data on the association's website.
Another difference lies in the fact that it's illegal to use growth hormones in bison. Bison usually aren't treated with antibiotics, either.
Like beef, bison also is rich in protein, iron, zinc and vitamin B12. Furthermore, some tout bison as being a good source of omega-3 fatty acids. Both bison and beef that are exclusively grass-fed have substantially higher levels of these heart-healthy fats than conventional, grain-fed beef.
Many people find the taste of bison on par with beef or better, describing a richer but “cleaner” flavor with a hint of sweetness.
“People like it, it's well-received when we have it,” says Marc Collins, executive chef of Circa 1886 in Charleston. Earlier this year Collins featured bison short ribs on his menu.
“Unless you were looking for it and really had a discerning palate, you might have a hard time finding a difference” between the flavor of the two meats, he says.
The leanness of bison takes getting used to, Collins says. “If you like your steaks on the medium well to well side ... if it's not going to be grain-fed, you're not going to have that extra fat to move it along.” He, like others, recommends less cooking to keep it from drying out.
Jill O'Brien is one of the faces in the burgeoning bison industry. She, her husband, Dan, and another partner are owners of Wild Idea Buffalo Company, which sells 100 percent grass-fed buffalo direct to consumers on its website, wildideabuffalo.com, as well as wholesale to restaurants and stores.
O'Brien strode across the floor of the Charleston Area Convention Center last week wearing floral-stitched, pointy-toed cowboy boots. She was in town for the American Association of Meat Processors Association conference.
O'Brien brought buffalo hot dogs to enter in the association's annual American Cured Meat Championships. “Specialty meats,” including buffalo pastrami and buffalo summer sausage, was one of 20-some categories in the contest.
“I'm a newbie,” O'Brien said inside the exhibit hall where hundreds of cured meats of all shapes and sizes were hidden from view behind a black curtain. The smell was intense, as if the room were sealed inside a Slim Jim wrapper, and the array of bacons, hams, sausages and more was stunning.
The 50-year-old was a long way from home: Wild Idea's ranches are in South Dakota near Badlands National Park.
The ranches support a herd of 700 bison that roam and graze over 95,000 acres, about twice the size of Mount Pleasant, and include both private and leased lands. The company was started in 1997 by Dan O'Brien as a way to keep his ranch going, converting from a cattle operation, and began with just 13 bison calves.
But the owners view their mission as something much larger than just a meat company. Wild Idea took on a partner a couple of years ago, not so much to grow the meat business “but to grow the idea of sustainability, conservation and grassland preservation,” Jill O'Brien says.
“In order to have a larger environmental impact, you need big landscapes,” and buffalo do want to roam, she says.
For she and her husband, buffalo meat is not what they produce; she calls it “a byproduct” of their desire to boost bio-diversity and help the environment.
“Our mission is to leave our little corner of the world a little better than we found it,” she says. “The bison are a tool in that change. It's allowing enough space and room for all things not just to live, but to thrive.”
O'Brien says both of them have other jobs “to support our bad habit ... or good habit, I should say.” A former restaurateur, she does freelance catering, although that is becoming less as Wild Idea's business grows. Dan O'Brien is the author of nine books, both novels and nonfiction, and teaches writing. He has twice received an artist's grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.
“We believe in eating less meat, but of a higher nutritional quality,” she says.
Local demand rises
At Whole Foods Market in Mount Pleasant, meat team leader Roger Ducker “absolutely” has noticed growing demand for buffalo in the nine years since the store opened in 2004.
“The tonnage has increased every year,” he says. “We typically see spikes around New Year's and that early part of the year because so many folks make ... resolutions to eat healthier. They go for the bison because it's lean.”
They have different cuts at different times, but regularly offer popular grilling items such as rib-eye and New York strip steaks, and ground bison for burgers. As sales have risen, he says it's allowed the store to bring in a wider variety of cuts from flank steak to filet mignon in the past few years.
“It's a good alternative for somebody who needs the protein and needs the red meat in their diet. It's a good source for that, it's super-low in cholesterol, really high in iron, it drives that health-conscious customer who wants red meat in their diet.”
Buffalo won't be on everyone's shopping list, no matter how much they aspire to eat better. The least expensive buffalo at Whole Foods, including ground and stew meat, starts at $12 a pound and tops out at $33 a pound for filets.
Wild Idea's buffalo meat also is “quite a bit more expensive” than conventional beef, O'Brien acknowledges. For a more equal comparison, she says the price of their all grass-fed bison should be judged against all grass-fed beef.
“We just don't bring in anybody,” Ducker says of Whole Foods' suppliers. “Sometimes these smaller, sustainable operations have trouble keeping up with demand and it does drive the price up.”
Reach Teresa Taylor at 937-4886.
A herd of bison roams Cheyenne River Ranch in South Dakota in late spring. The herd is part of Wild Idea Buffalo Company.×
Jill and Dan O’Brien are owners of a buffalo ranch he started 16 years ago in South Dakota.×
Bison meat (center), sold at Whole Foods in Mount Pleasant, is in the meat case between grass-fed beef and lamb. Pictured are extra stew meat (front left), ground bison 90 percent lean/10 percent fat (back left), New York strip steak (back right), rib-eye steak (center right) and tenderloin steak (front right).×
Bison meat (center), sold at Whole Foods in Mount Pleasant, is in the meat case between grass-fed beef and lamb. Pictured are bison extra stew meat (front left), ground bison 90 percent lean/10 percent fat (back left), bison New York strip steak (back right), bison rib-eye steak (center right) and bison tenderloin steak (front right).×
Triangle Char & Bar offers a buffalo burger called “Home on the Range.”×