The name "Pat LaFrieda Meat Purveyors" is synonymous with artisan, high-quality beef. Over three generations, the family business grew from retail butcher to supplier of meat blends for distinguished kitchens such as Minetta Tavern, Market Table, April Bloomfield's Spotted Pig, Danny Meyer's Shake Shack, Union Square Café, and Blue Smoke. Under the leadership of Pat LaFrieda Jr., the company collaborated with distribution giant US. Foods to develop a line of Angus burgers, allowing restaurants and carnivorous diners across the country to take a bite of the trendy LaFrieda-trademarked beef. StarChefs.com chats with LaFrieda on the how to take a small family company into the big leagues.
Deanna Dong: Can you tell us a little bit about your history? How did the family business come to be the leading meat purveyor for chef-driven restaurants in New York City?
Pat LaFrieda: This company was founded by my grandfather and his older brother in 1922 in Manhattan. They didn't always want to grow. They had a good amount of business, starting out in retail and then transforming into a restaurant supply company. I was the third generation, but I wasn't supposed to be in this business. I went to college, worked as a broker on Wall Street for a year and joined the family company in 1994. By then, my dad and my aunt were the partners in the business; she was the strong one in our family. So I approached my father and he told me, "No way, this is a hard life, you would just end up rubbing pennies together." But my aunt could see the potential to increase the business, and she supported me getting involved.
DD: How did the family then get involved in the chef-driven restaurant market?
PL: It wasn't so much that we had to change because the product was always high end. It was about getting the message out and explaining our products to the chefs. Our ground beef program hasn't changed in 90-some odd years. It is not ground meat. It is chopped meat without trimmings. The message needed to get out there to the chefs. We were always more expensive, and now we've been successful in promoting our quality products.
DD: What are the biggest challenges to working with chefs? How do you and the team meet those challenges?
PL: The challenge is that our reputation is always on the line. We have so much anxiety on our shoulders—getting the meat [to the chefs] when they need it. It's about the service. We are working 16 to 18 hours day, and the chefs must be able to rely on us to deliver. If we fail them and there's a break in the supply, that's a huge problem.
DD: What is your relationship with your beef farmers? How does this relationship fit in with your overall business philosophy?
PL: We deal with hundreds of small farms from coast to coast. We truly love the idea of domestic beef, but I disagree with the whole local thing. Whether I'm helping a family in upstate New York or in Iowa, it's still meaningful and economical. I love Christmas time because we get these heartwarming cards from farm families around the country.
DD: Tell us about your deal with US. Foods. How did you get the deal? What steps were involved?
PL: US. Foods asked us to do this. They are billion dollar food company, supplying to the entire nation. When they approached us, we were honored. We made a few blends of chopped beef. They tasted them, loved the samples, and chose one to produce. The reception so far has been huge.
DD: What products are available through US. Foods so far? Are there plans to include more?
PL: We have one product made two different ways: an 8-ounce hamburger and 5-pound bulks [of the same burger blend]. They are already asking us about what more we can do. The ball is rolling.
DD: How will you juggle the demand of your chef client community with the demands of a much larger distributor? Will you be expanding the size of the company?
PL: We did exactly that. During the decline of housing market and stock market, we invested in property. We started with 5,000 square feet in Manhattan and expanded to 35,000 square feet in New Jersey, and we built a facility that could handle this business. Investing in ourselves made us able to supply to US. Foods. We allotted space for growth. The economy was bad, everything was bad; the housing market had gone down the toilet. Everyone stopped expanding and investing in themselves. But we did, and four or five years ago, we put our life savings on the line.
DD: Your blends for restaurants are usually very specific with lots of input from chefs. What were your major considerations when creating the blends for US. Foods?
PL: We always try to make one blend taste very different from the next, which is very difficult when we have over 50 blends. I make samples out of different cuts of meat and chefs ask for tweakings. There was short rib blend I loved that I was already eating at home. US. Foods asked me for something new and different, so I presented this blend to them. I think a sign of a good cut is what the butcher takes home. So that was taken into consideration. We wanted a strong blend with a different flavor.
DD: What do chefs and artisans stand to gain from partnering with a national distributor?
PL: My cousin Mark calls US. Foods our broad sword because logistics is the biggest thing you have to overcome in meat. If you make something that's wonderful and great, you have to logistically figure out how to get it to a restaurant before it spoils. You have to use it. It's difficult to get our meats to restaurants around the country. And what a lot of people don't understand is that there are meats coming to us from around the country, and then it goes through to the restaurants. So you can't just send a truck out to a restaurant with a few hamburgers. US. Foods can take our meat and get it into the hands of small restaurants. It wasn't something we could do on our own.
DD: What advice do you have for other smaller artisan businesses looking to make partnerships with larger distributors?
PL: My advice is to stick with quality, and no matter how big you get, your quality needs to remains the same. The moment people get big, they start to dilute their attention. I think at the end of it all, those [businesses] will be fazed out. As long as small producers can grow and keep their quality the same, they will be successful.
DD: What's next for the company? Where do you see yourself in five years and in 10 years?
PL: We will probably build another facility in the near future, and we're halfway through filming the first season [of "Meat Men" for the Food Network].
DD: What is your favorite burger at a restaurant?
Well, it all depends on what I'm in the mood for. If I want a smash burger—patty pushed down on a flat top—I'll go to Shake Shack
. If I want rare on the inside and seared on the outside, then I'll go to the Spotted Pig
. If I want aged meat than it's Minetta Tavern
. Burgers used to be simple, not so much anymore.