Uruguayans are really crazy about their meat: They overtake Argentinians as the world's number-one beef eaters, with 124 pounds of beef consumption per capita in a year. (Hong Kong comes in third, and the meat-loving US comes in an embarrassing fourth, according to USDA data.) More than a habit, eating meat is a tradition in South America's most peaceful country—a tradition that is being revitalized.
In the hip and trendy seaside city of Punta del Este, in the southeast region of the country—where Uruguayans, Argentinians, and many Europeans spend lots of money on their summer vacations (most of them owners of luxurious houses in the coastal area)—a steakhouse is selling beef via a drive-thru booth, taking meat consumption to another level by allowing carnivores to get their piece of chorizo or bife ancho without ever stepping out of their cars. Very demanding customers require very specific services.
The idea came from the partners of Las Nenas Steakhouse, a recently opened restaurant in the Playa Mansa neighborhood. They wanted to bring quality meat closer to the fast food chain concept. "Why do we only have to buy crappy food from drive-thru booths?" asks Juan Pablo Imbellone, one of the partners of Las Nenas. "We want to change people's minds about that, by offering really great meat in this format."
Since mid-January, drivers can buy their cuts from a window to eat in the car or to take home. Cuts are sold both raw (to be prepared in the comfort of your mansion) or grilled on parrillas—Spanish for charcoal barbecues—depending on the taste (or hunger!) of the clients. All cuts are kept in a special freezer in plain view of the customers. Grilled cuts are prepared to order on the the parrillas.
A customer can order from many Uruguayan cuts, such as asado de tira (short ribs), colita de cuadril (the tail of the rump roast), and bife ancho (boneless prime rib steak). The drive-thru menu also offers fries, roasted potatoes, boniato (a local sweet potato), and beverages from soda to wine (produced in the national vineyards, of course). The prices of meat cuts range from $10 to $25 US per kilo.
"We want people to replace 'Mc' with 'Meat' when they are thinking what food they can grab to take away," Imbellone says. To make it even clearer, they are also serving some sandwiches made with their meat cuts, such as chorizo al pan—a traditional Uruguayan dish, made simply with grilled sausage and a crusty bread—and sandwich de lomo, a steak sandwich with a thin slab of steak, tomato, lettuce, and onion—a local classic.
Las Nenas also operates as a steakhouse, seating 150 comfortably. Customers can stop in to buy meat, as in a regular butcher shop. All the meat sold or grilled at the steakhouse comes from free-range grass-fed animals bred at farms run by restaurant's partners. The cattle is raised free-range all year long on Uruguayan lands, and certified as organic by USDA, since a large amount of the meat is exported to countries such as the US. Uruguay is one of the largest meat producers in the world— the sixth in beef exports.
"We have a code in each piece of meat we sell that provides information about its origin, with production processes, detailed stories, and how animals have been raised," Imbellone says. According to him, it allows the customer to know everything he wants about the cut he is buying. "This is something unimaginable for many fast food chains: When you buy a hamburger from a drive-thru vendor in a paper bag, you can never imagine where it comes from." Origin data is something that consumers are more aware of nowadays. "Mainly, [these are] the consumers we are trying to attract," he points out.
Las Nenas' partners are also creating an app that allows users to order their beef cuts directly from the beach—or wherever they are—and schedule a specific time to pick up their order when they get tired of the sun. "We want people not to have to think about what they will eat and where they will get food after a beautiful day by the beach," he says. "We know they want a good portion of meat, so this is what we are able to serve them."
Even if it is through the window of a booth.