From celebrity chefs to home barbecuers, one name stands far above the crowd when it comes to the nation’s taste for meat
by Laura D.C. Kolnoski • Photos BY Amessé Photography
Pat LaFrieda Jr. works the night shift, with arguably the most vital job in the place. Arriving at the gleaming Pat LaFrieda Meat Purveyors’ North Bergen headquarters at 3:00 p.m., he typically toils until 6:00 a.m. overseeing the meticulous custom hand-cutting of the nation’s best-quality meats to deliver fresh daily to about 1,000 restaurants (and roughly 1,500 total customers), six days a week. In between, as LaFrieda’s CEO, he communicates with customers, consults on menus, and more.
It’s a tall order, but a tradition he takes very much to heart. The legendary family-owned company sells 800,000 pounds of mouth-watering deliciousness weekly. The LaFrieda name is on every product heading out on a fleet of trucks, and has been since 1922. Pat’s father, Pat LaFrieda Sr., is still on the scene, working days and keeping a knowledgeable eye on operations. The hands-on elder LaFrieda acted as general manager/contractor when the company’s state-of-the-art plant was built in 2011. Cousin Mark Pastore runs the company’s business side.
The family’s storied history, which began in Italy, has become lore. In the late 1800s, young Anthony LaFrieda— Pat Jr. and Mark’s great-grandfather— ended up on the losing end of a fistfight outside a Naples butcher shop. When the kindly butcher saw Anthony sitting on the curb, crying over his swelling eye, he brought him inside, handing the youth a steak to put over the bruise. When Anthony lamented that “my father is gonna kill me for getting into a fight,” the butcher responded by giving him a job to placate his papa. The skills and trade Anthony learned have now been passed on through four generations, beginning with Anthony’s emigration to the United States in 1909.
He opened his first butcher shop in 1922 in Brooklyn, running it with his five sons, including Patrick LaFrieda the first (Pat Jr. and Mark’s grandfather). One milestone in the family business occurred in 1950, when a meat workers’ strike halted deliveries to New York City restaurants. The LaFriedas seized the opportunity and began servicing those eateries themselves. They opened a new shop on West 14th Street, in the city’s Meatpacking District, on the second floor of a building with no elevator, which meant the boys had to carry the 200-pound saddles of beef on their backs. Pat LaFrieda the first and his son (known today as Pat Sr. though then just
18 years old) took full ownership of the company in 1964, changing the name to Pat LaFrieda Meat Purveyors.
The business thrived and moved several times until 1980, when it took over a block-long property on Leroy Street—now named Pat LaFrieda Lane—where it remained for 30 years. It was there, at age 10, that Pat Jr. began learning the trade. Despite his passion and dexterity, Pat Sr. had other plans for his son. To discourage him from the grueling butcher business and steer him toward college and a white-collar career, Pat Sr. had his son accompany him on the very night shift Pat Jr. works now, hoping the cold temperatures and hard work would make a convincing argument. What transpired was just the opposite.
“It backfired,” said Pat Jr. “After graduating Pennsylvania’s Albright College, I went to Wall Street as a broker in a suit and tie, selling intangibles to strangers over the telephone. I hated it. This business was the only thing that made sense of what I wanted to do.” He finally convinced his father to let him don a butcher’s apron, and he joined the family business in 1995. A new era was about to begin for the LaFriedas.
A Modern Twist on an Ancient Profession Spells Success
It wasn’t long before Pat Sr. recognized that his son was destined to follow in his footsteps. Using his business savvy, Pat Jr. acted on his vision of working directly with restaurants to provide the best possible products—cut and portioned to their exact specifications. In a classic example of product extension, the LaFriedas began helping their customers develop products that allowed chefs to showcase their creativity.
“It was this vision that led to the creation of the first custom burger blends that made us famous nationwide,” Pat Jr. said. The company’s custom “Black Label” burger, served at New York’s Minetta Tavern, made both establishments culinary stars, as did the LaFriedas’ association with celebrity chef Danny Meyer’s Shake Shack. More than 10 years ago, Meyer approached Pat Jr. to create a specialized “secret” burger recipe exclusively for the fledgling chain. Soon legions of meat lovers were waiting in long lines to devour Shake Shack burgers.
The LaFriedas grind more than 50 different special burger blends nightly, including organic, all-natural, pasture-raised, and grass-fed beef, pork, poultry, veal, lamb, and buffalo. Kobe beef, at about $26 per pound, is the most expensive, while dry-aged beef is the most popular.
“We work with small farms from around the country to seek the best meats from the best growers,” Pat Jr. said. “Customization is key in any business. If you’re willing to customize, you make the product unique to that business.” Among their appreciative New Jersey customers are Brando’s in Asbury Park, Fromagerie in Rumson, Osteria Cucina Rustica in Marlboro, Blu Grotto at Monmouth Park Racetrack, the Saddle River Inn, the Farm and Fisherman Tavern & Market in Cherry Hill, the Burger Brothers Restaurant Group, and the Hamilton Inn in Jersey City. Home deliveries and gifts feature fresh and dry-aged beef, roasts, burgers, sausage, veal, lamb, poultry, as well as such enticingly named packages as “Burger Bash,” “Mom’s Favorites,” “Dad’s
Favorites,” and “Grilltopia.”
“Orders come in all night long,” Pat Jr. said. “We have adjusted our schedule to ensure our meat goes out early every morning.”
The company’s reputation soon caught the attention of the Food Network, which refers to Pat Jr. as a “Magician of Meat who has revolutionized the burger and meat industry.” In 2012, the family trio appeared in Meat Men, a six-episode series produced by the same people who produced chef Anthony Bourdain’s TV show. Meat Men gave viewers a peek into the lives of the country’s most famous and respected butchers. Pat Jr.’s first cookbook, 2014’s Meat: Everything You Need to Know, followed. More than 45,000 copies were printed, and a sequel is already being discussed.
Amazon calls Meat, which offers 75 recipes, including traditional LaFrieda family favorites, “the ultimate book of everything meat.” In it, Pat Jr. shares his meticulous techniques and tricks of the trade, as well as his meat philosophy. Other recipes come from such noted chefs and restaurateurs as Lidia Bastianich, Josh Capon, and Michael Toscano, giving home cooks the opportunity to make recipes using everything from LaFrieda’s custom burger blends to chicken and roasts to classic Beef Wellington with Mushroom Cream Sauce. Detailed, step-by-step color photographs and diagrams, personally created and overseen by Pat Jr., accompany the recipes.
The opportunities keep coming. The Vornado Corporation asked Pat LaFrieda Meat Purveyors to participate in the new Pennsy food court location at New York’s Penn Station “because they wanted to change the demographics in the area in front of Madison Square Garden,” Pat Jr. said. “The goal was to improve food quality in the area. Who can say no to that?”
Pat Jr. stressed that his company doesn’t own any restaurants and “will never compete with our customers. The Pennsy for us is a showcase, so the general public can see and sample some of our products.” Six years ago, the New York Mets asked the company to bring its steak sandwiches to the Chop House at Citi Field.
The future looks bright for the dedicated LaFriedas. New technological innovations at the company’s New Jersey plant—insulated cinder block on the building’s exterior, for example, and upgraded interior insulation—have improved operations. New packing machine technology has speeded up production and allowed delivery to such dining meccas as Las Vegas, Miami, and Chicago. In six years, the staff in North Bergen has grown from 70 to 200 employees.
As growth and fame continue, the family is creating an additional new facility on the site of a former scrap metal yard two blocks north of the current headquarters. The three-floor building will be used for processing, production, storage, and offices. The entire operation follows strict U.S. Department of Agriculture guidelines—a USDA representative must be on the premises whenever meat is being cut, Pat Jr. said.
While Pat Sr. was at first hesitant to have his son join the family butcher business, he now feels it was the right decision and is understandably proud of what LaFrieda Meat Purveyors has achieved in the fast-paced, competitive food world. His hopes for the future of the legacy form that began in Italy and became a true American success story?
“He hopes,” Pat Jr. said, “the business carries over to yet another generation.”
Pat LaFrieda Meat Purveyors
3701 Tonnelle Avenue, North Bergen / 1.888.LaFrieda (523.7433) / lafrieda.com