In the late 1800s, Harry Schweid started selling high quality meats to butchers and restaurants in New York City’s Lower East Side. By the 1930s, his son Sam had his own business in Harlem, selling the best meat around.
In 1978, Schweid & Sons focused their expertise on one thing – ground beef. Still family-owned and four generations later, that passion still carries on with a single-minded dedication to producing the best tasting, highest quality burger. We sat down with Jamie Schweid, EVP of Schweid & Sons to discuss the longevity of the burger and the company’s unique approach to customer service and providing a high quality product.
Once a fast food item, the hamburger is served in almost every restaurant and many use a proprietary burger blend. In your opinion, what caused the hamburger business to increase on a white-table cloth level?
The burger has always been a staple of the American diet. Over the years the price of steak has risen to the point where it has become a luxury item. During the recession, restaurants were promoting burgers on their menu as the affordable beef because of the lower price point and increased margin. While conventional thinking was that customers would only pay 5-6 bucks for a good burger, the market has proven otherwise. $15 has become commonplace in the Metro NY area.
Unlike other meat purveyors, Schweid & Sons only sells burgers. Why?
When my father started the business, he had a very simple philosophy: make one thing but make it great. My father had worked for my grandfather for years and they would fabricate meat. There is so much complexity in that business. His business philosophy was to hyper focus on making the very best burger allowing his business to excel at one thing rather than stretching too much to end up average at multiple things. At some point we plan to diversify into other products, but for now, burger chains are growing and the demand for our Schweid and Sons retail burgers has been incredible.
Talk to us about plant operations. How big is the plant in New Jersey and how much ground beef is produced each week? And as the company has grown through the years, do you need to work with a co-packer to keep up with client growth?
A large part of being successful is being at the right place at the right time. Schweid & Sons is not an overnight success – we have been around for almost 40 years. We were at the right place at the right time and were able to capitalize on the burger trend. Our company has grown every year since its inception because of our commitment to quality and service to our customers. We currently work with a company on the west coast to service our customers there. At our current location in Carlstadt, NJ we have just put in new equipment to meet increasing capacity needs.
How important is pricing and sourcing raw materials and do customers specify a whole-muscle product or do they tend to lean toward a trimmed product?
Sourcing raw materials is the single most important part of our business. My father has preached quality over price from the beginning and emphasized that our point of difference as a company is consistent beef every week. We do not least cost formulate any burgers in the Schweid & Sons brand.
The trend has been more towards whole muscle cuts for the proprietary blends but ultimately there is a big cost difference between whole muscle and trim. The customer is typically unwilling to pay that premium. Besides white table cloth fine dining restaurants, there is so much competition that restaurants rely on price points to be competitive.
We hear you and your brother Brad are a constant source of inspiration and creativity. What are some of the key factors you hold to the highest standard at Schweid & Sons?
Our focus at Schweid & Sons is to always hire the right people to work for the company. When you have passionate people who care about what they are making, the sky is the limit when it comes to creativity and inspiration. When Brad and I come in to work every day, we fully appreciate our business, the people who support it and our family, who inspire us to do great things every day.
I’m sure your father David has been a huge mentor for you. What are some of the lessons you have learned from him to be so successful?
When I first started working for the company, my father had all these sayings. At first I wasn’t sure what they meant or why he was telling me them. But then I realized, while they may have been simple, they were extremely poignant.
“You can’t dance at every wedding” is something he still says today that shapes our business. We can’t be everything to everyone – when you meet with a customer, don’t try to be something you’re not.
You’ve been doing this for well over 10 years, for those that may not be aware, when a customer requests short rib in their blend, are they aware it’s really chuck flap?
I can’t speak for any other companies but we are very clear that the short rib we are putting into the blend is chuck flap. The cost of putting actual short rib in their blend would make the burger difficult to sell. Additionally, I personally think the burger would have way too much juice in it.
Do you receive customer requests like “I want the Five Guys or Bobby Flay burger?”
With all the uniqueness in New York, do you collaborate with customers to create their own burger identity rather than copy someone else?
That is a very common question. My typical answer is to focus on what is going to make you great and not what others are doing. In the restaurant business, you have to execute at a very high level. Five Guys does this in a way that I have never seen before; they are able to motivate thousands of people to prepare the burgers the same way. On the flip side, Bobby’s Burger Palace is able to execute on very complicated burger toppings at a very high level and very high volumes.
Did you think the Five Guys brand would be as successful as it is now back in 1986 if it wasn’t for the partnership with Schweid & Sons? What has the partnership done for each other?
Five Guys is an amazing partner who makes it fun to go to work every day. I like to think we have a small chapter in the Five Guys story and are a part of the success.
The partnership for us has provided with some amazing experiences and some great learning opportunities. To watch a company start with 5 stores and now have over 1,200 stores in multiple countries is the true American dream. Watching this company continue to grow and create a culture that is as great as any in the restaurant world has been fascinating. It could not have happened to better people either. The Murrell family along with the rest of the Five Guys team have been truly a pleasure to work with and quite inspirational.
On the food safety side of things, what enhancements and some of the technology Schweid is using to monitor quality assurance?
Our mindset for quality assurance continues to be about using actionable data to make decisions proactively not reactively. The company has invested heavily in QA software. Over the past couple of years we have almost gone paperless in the data collected for QA, allowing us to better understand our business and make smarter decisions.
What advice would you give a new restaurant operator looking to add a signature burger to their menu?
Be Transparent. The customer is smart and aware of what is going into their food. Using the best quality ingredients and educating the customer on what makes your burger great is the formula for success. And as I said before, don’t worry about what everyone else is doing. Worry about doing the best job you can.