Pat LaFrieda’s first foray into the meat world began in the summer of 1981 at age 10, when he began learning the tricks of the meat trade from sunrise to sundown under the watchful eye of his forefathers.
Ironically, Pat LaFrieda Sr., the 2nd generation of LaFrieda butchers never wanted his son to become a permanent fixture in the business. With the sole intention to teach his son about strong work ethic, Pat Sr. introduced his son (as his father introduced him) to working in a constant 36 degree environment, standing for hours on end, working under the dangers of band saws and knives – all with the hopes that his son would turn around and get an office job. Fortunately, for the restaurants of New York, his plan backfired.
With only five employees and 40 customers, Pat LaFrieda hit the streets and started selling the brand that has won him accolades within the New York community including, New York Magazine, which dubbed Pat “the magician of meat.”
Today, Pat LaFrieda Meat Purveyors boasts an impressive one thousand customers and is rapidly growing. The business runs seven days a week, around the clock. That unmatched LaFrieda work ethic not only gained notoriety but earned respect; so much respect that in 2003 New York City renamed the street where the shop was located to Pat LaFrieda Lane after the first generation of LaFrieda meat men.
Selling to the finest restaurants around the country including Manhattan, Las Vegas, Philadelphia, D.C., Miami and Chicago, Pat LaFrieda Meat Purveyors is synonymous with quality.
Famous for their “chopped” not ground meat, Pat has created over 50 custom hamburger blends and is the mastermind behind such burgers as the famous “Black Label Burger” at Minetta Tavern, as well as signature custom blends at hot spots such as Shake Shack, Spotted Pig, Union Square Café, Blue Smoke and Market Table.
Pat has moved on to be a media celebrity. In 2012 LaFrieda Meats marked another milestone for the family business when they opened their first retail location at Citi Field – the home of the New York Mets – with a Pat LaFrieda Original Filet Mignon Steak Sandwich kiosk. But it didn’t end there with the Mets opening.
In fall 2014, Atria Books published Pat’s comprehensive, photo-laden first book, Meat: Everything You Need to Know.
In January 2015, Pat opened his first brick-and-mortar at high-end food hall, The Pennsy, located just above Penn Station and in the shadow of Madison Square Garden. The quick service location offers made-to-order signature sandwiches as well as grab-and-go food and drink items.
Please share some of the history of your company.
Pat LaFrieda Meat Purveyors is a third generation meat supplier to America’s best restaurants in the country. We service approximately fifteen hundred establishments, six days a week. Our company recently celebrated its one-hundredth year in business.
Who were/are the visionaries behind the company?
LaFrieda Meats was started by my grandfather, Pat LaFrieda the first, and his brother Lou, who both learned the trade from my great-grandfather, Anthony LaFrieda. My father, Pat the second, starting working there when he was 12 and eventually took over the business. I took over from my father in 1994. Each generation of LaFriedas has immensely contributed something to further the business. If it wasn’t for all the knowledge and faith of my Fathers, I’d never be able to reach where I have.
Danny Meyer once told our publisher that he sent you to Scotland a couple of years ago to fix the beef for the London Shake Shacks? How did you accomplish that challenge?
London’s Shake Shack wasn’t doing well at all with customers or the press, mainly because the meat was just horrible and the burgers just did not taste the same. I went out there and worked with British butcher Randy Garutti. It was definitely a culture shock as they paid no attention to the chopping of the beef, and one of the most flavorful parts, the flatiron, was being cut out. There was a difference in feeding with their cows too that made for leaner beef with less intramuscular fat. So we added the flatiron back in to the cut and adjusted the amount of fat, which ultimately brought the taste closer to the US Shake Shack ideal. Luckily, I was able to fix it in a day and return home.
So how do you read the world’s marketplace for beef? We hear about the Chinese and Japanese buying all of the quality top Lobster. Is there similar demand in the beef marketplace?
The demand will only grow with population growth. China is already short on beef and they’ve been using American product through a black market for a while so that will only grow.
Is that a good thing that had led to the $20 plus burger?
No, the $20 plus burger is neither good or bad, it’s simply what quality costs.
What do you attribute the growth of healthier eating and beef consumption and the bad rap that once accompanied beef?
It’s the purest form of protein. Sadly, it still has the same bad reputation. Just last year, the Journal of Internal Medicine published a piece about how eating red meat was carcinogenic, but what the focus was really on was red processed meat. Every day we continue to work with these hurdles.
I suppose it could be said that Pat LaFreida may in fact be responsible for pushing McDonald’s out of the frozen beef business last month? Your thoughts on what this says?
I don’t suppose that, however, we have set the standard for quality in chopped beef and burgers.
Over the past few years, you’ve moved into the restaurant business yourself. What were your goals for moving into retail? Has it helped give you a different perspective of your customer’s needs?
We actually have turned down countless offers to open restaurants. We only own and operate one, located outside Madison Square Garden at The Pennsy. Event spaces like the US Open and Citi Field are great places for the public to sample our product. Yes, it definitely has helped give a different perspective because there is more exposure of the brand and we are learning how to give our product to customers in a different way and a different location than we ever have before.
Talk about your team including the omnipresent Mark Pastore. How they have helped you accomplish your goals?
Mark is absolutely amazing in sales. He is very charismatic and what he does is an art. He works all day and at night goes out to restaurants, taking clients out and networking constantly. As for the rest of the team, one of the most important things about our business is credit terms and giving or not giving a restaurant a certain amount of credit. Rosa Gomez who runs our accounts receivable has been with me for 14 years and has completely turned around that department. Quality control is also important and Elvira Cunha has really brought it to another level that’s beyond just the USDA. This underscores our dedication to quality and consistency.
We also have seen your booth at the US Open Tennis. How do concession needs different from restaurant needs?
We deliver a lot of product in a very short amount of time at the US Open. It’s the most prestigious sports event in the country and turns into two and a half weeks of chaos for us. But it’s so worth it.
You’ve also brilliantly negotiated the ability to collaborate with competitors like broad line distributors. Why and how are you able to accomplish what can be such a tricky challenge?
US Foods does a great job distributing our products and is a great partner.
You had the opportunity to write a book last year. What were your goals for what you wanted to share with your readers?
I truly wanted to make a guide for the subject matter because I felt that it didn’t exist in a way that was easily translated and understood. It took awhile to find someone who would do this in a way that I wanted. Photography was so important and was really a huge aspect of the book that I wanted to get in front of my readers.
Who are some of the truly creative “burger-artisans” in Metro New York?
Paul Denamiel and his French Onion Burger is amazing. Both Angie Mar at Beatrice Inn and Josh Capon at Burger and Barrel did some phenomenal things with truffles for their burgers.
It’s a tough question for sure, but what are your thoughts on the Impossible Burger?
In my honest opinion, I tried it with my mother, who is a vegetarian and we really liked it. So much so that I asked to be the distributor. Regarding the flavor, a lot has to do with how the restaurant prepares it, and that is really the key. But that’s not what allures me to be the distributor. We are very forward thinkers here. If population growth continues at this rate, we won’t have enough beef and we will need alternative sources of protein and that’s what this is. We have to feed the people and that’s what we do. So we are absolutely all for it.
What are your thoughts on the recent trade deal with China?
China bought our largest pork producer in the country, Smithfield about five years ago. This recent trade deal is not surprising since there is only one reason to buy our largest pork producer — so they can supply themselves. A lot of American beef has been consumed in China via Hong Kong then black marketed into China. This has legalized the whole process now. Short term, it’s great…they are offering a lot of offal and they can get a premium for that. That’s positive because it’ll bring down the price of burgers and anything that isn’t offal. The fear is that long term they are going to be “drinking our milkshake” by taking all of our live animals. That’s where it gets a little iffy with raised and grazed in the US because we’ve always said it should be here, but since we’ll have a deficit we’ll need to take in younger animals from other countries. Why don’t we start to flip these farms back to the US and actually have something to trade?
With an additional 1.4 billion consumers that have gone from locked to open, what does this mean for U.S. Meat Purveyors?
Again, short term it lowers the price, and long-term, beef as a whole will go up.
Thoughts on the original ban in 2003, due to the spread of mad cow disease?
It was absolutely justified. This was a time when we had no country of origin, so when there was MCD, everyone was looking at the US but it was in fact, from Canada. But we weren’t telling them. That’s why there is a lawsuit against the US because we started to brand the meat according to what country it’s from. We lost that, but that is a big mistake. In the long run, maybe the bipartisan debate was right? However, we need to keep traceability. That’s why it’s very important to know there is a split… 30 months and younger, there will be no MCD, 30 months and older, there is a possibility you’ll find it. That’s concerning since that is where fast food companies, prisons, and school systems get their meat. It’s less expensive because they use older bulls and old milking cows.
Will the Chinese consumers finally have access to Pat LaFrieda beef?
Yes, I guess they would. I would love for some of those dollars to go the other way. We saw it happen in the Middle East and it’d be nice to see it in China.
Are we finally done with the age of organic?
It will just naturally die since it doesn’t make any fiscal sense. It has been appreciating but has been replaced with terms like grass fed, and all natural (no growth hormones, etc.).
Is the all-natural approach going to become standard for the industry?
Yes I believe so.
Does organic have a taste profile?
Not anymore than commodity or all-natural beef.
Wanted to get your thoughts on upcoming trends that you think are in the pipeline?
Beef Jerky is growing in leaps and bounds, since it’s shelf stable protein. Home delivery of foods to include meats is another fast growing industry that’s not going to stop. We are seeing it with meal-kits, and I love this platform but livery wars are the next big battle. Who can deliver the cheapest, fastest and best food? We aren’t lazy, just really busy, so the idea that someone will deliver this high quality food is very substantial.
What is your read on where the city’s restaurant industry is heading?
I’m nervous to be honest. With wages getting higher, I think that the public is starting to understand that these wage laws are affecting the prices. There are lots of new restaurants popping up; I mean look at all of Hudson Yards. There is no way that NYC restaurants can live by indigenous New Yorkers themselves. It’s the bridge & tunnel folks. And sadly, it’s getting harder and harder to park in the city so coming in to eat is getting harder and harder. Restaurants need X amount of consumers every night and if they aren’t going to get it, they aren’t going to survive. Everyone needs to really think of a way to get commuters in and out for dinner. Look at Brooklyn. They had these issues too so they decided to open up their own restaurants, which are amazing. That’s a few million less potential consumers every night. We are seeing this spreading to the outer areas a lot now – Harlem, Queens, etc. Every time someone from the parking commission wants to impose another fine on cars coming in to the city, it’s going to affect all businesses including restaurants.
What trend do you want to be gone more than anything?
Well, flea markets that sell food since I feel it’s very unorganized and doesn’t seem very hygienic. Another trend I’d like to be gone is – and this is very controversial – but food trucks need to be regulated and not just able to park anywhere. I have numerous restaurant friends who are tax paying citizens with a brick and mortar, and it’s not fair to them to take their customers in this way. They should all just be lined up after big events, maybe at city parks. Places where it’s harder to get to brick and mortar restaurants.
To learn more about Pat LaFrieda, visit his website.