Ostrich-eaters are out in full force on Sundays in New York City.
That’s when the Roaming Acres Farm sets up at the 77th Street Greenmarket, and Lou Braxton sells 100 to 150 pounds of ostrich in one day to Manhattan’s adventurous carnivores.
About noon, a man in a baseball cap approaches, wide-eyed and hopeful. He wastes no time with a greeting. He needs to know if there is ostrich steak.
There is, Braxton tells him, with a hint of a smile.
“And then I met this man,” said Keiran. “But unfortunately he runs out of steaks faster than I can get here so today is a really good day!”Mik Keiran, a personal care aide who lives on the Upper West Side, is relieved. Two months ago, he stumbled upon Braxton’s stand and had ostrich for the first time in more than a decade. He had eaten it once before in a restaurant and still remembered its sweet and salty taste.
Ostrich is finding a place on a growing number of plates around the nation, as more and more farmers’ markets and trendy restaurants add it to their offerings. Some people are drawn to it as a sustainable choice since very little of the animal goes to waste. Others savor it as a healthier alternative to beef, with an 8-ounce steak containing 9 grams of fat, rather than the 15 grams found in a broiled beef steak of similar size.
“It’s the leanest red meat you can eat, and, if it’s prepared the right way, it tastes like a great steak with a bit of a twist,” said Hugo Uys, co-owner of the Paris Commune, a French bistro in New York’s West Village, where ostrich is the third most requested item on the menu.
Its popularity, however, is being held in check by its scarcity. Supply of the hard-to-raise bird is limited, with American farmers saying they sell out their stocks within a few months. Imports, meanwhile, plummeted to 30,000 pounds last year, from about 135,000 pounds in 2009. Distributors say the number of farms worldwide has declined and much of the meat is going to Europe, given its stronger currency.
And dwindling supply means higher prices. In 2008, one distributor charged $12.95 a pound for wholesale meat. This February, it was up to $20.95.
Where it can be found, ostrich is proving to be a big hit.
Bistro SF Grill in San Francisco, for instance, sells more than 20 types of burgers. Among the most popular: ostrich with cranberry sauce, according to Seni Felic, who opened the eatery last year. Many customers who don’t usually eat beef or pork love that they can get red meat from poultry, he said.
Patrons of the Gentleman Farmer in New York City were first introduced to ostrich steak in January. It took a few weeks to catch on, but it soon was a smashing success.
“It is the most popular dish on our current menu,” said Karim Nounouh, the chef.
Ostrich’s low fat content is one reason the meat is so coveted. That’s why Diana Berrent stops by Braxton’s stand every week for a pound of ground ostrich. She had her first ostrich burger a month ago, after discovering it at the farmers’ market. She has been buying it religiously ever since.
“My husband and I are both doing Weight Watchers and it’s delicious,” said Berrent, a photographer. “I’ve become an ostrich devotee!”
On Weight Watchers, three ounces of ostrich burger is 4 points; a ground beef patty is 6.
Ostrich meat, however, is hardly easy to come by. Faced with dwindling or spotty supplies, some restaurants are taking it off the menu.
The Fix Burger in Los Angeles stopped offering the bird last year after its supplier ran out. Eight months later, customers still come in asking for it, said Celestine Joo, the co-owner.
“We bought out our distributor so there was basically nothing we could do,” she said. They have no plans for adding it back.
Bob Johnson raises 200 birds on his Wichita, Kan., farm. The spring annual slaughter used to give him enough meat to sell year-round. But now he is seeing the highest demand in 20 years. Last year, he sold 98 percent of his meat by the end of October.Ostrich farmers across the country say they can’t keep up with the growing demand.
“If we had a thousand birds, we could sell them all,” he said.
Farmers in Florida, New Jersey, Nebraska and Texas all say they could sell many times the birds they have. But even those looking to expand won’t be able to put more meat on the market any time soon.
The birds lay eggs only in spring and summer. Chicks take 40 days to hatch and at least a year to reach slaughter age. If a farmer scaled up this spring, greater quantities of meat would not be available until late 2012, Braxton said.
And if there’s a rainy spring, few eggs even hatch. Johnson has been trying to build his farm to 500 birds for years. In a good year, he says, a farmer can get as much as a 50 to 70 percent hatching rate, but the past few years have been rainy. Last year’s humidity brought him down to 25 percent.
Importers and farmers alike say the difficulty of raising the birds is not good for business.
Blackwing Meats in Illinois gets new e-mail requests for ostrich every week. But Roger Gerber, the company’s president, says he has no choice but to turn them all away. He rations out what he has to loyal customers.
“They order a thousand pounds, we give them 300,” said Gerber.