Meat Market: Pat LaFrieda Reflects on Four Generations of Butchery


When I meet Pat LaFrieda for lunch, I’m thrown for a moment. This man, part of the family behind Pat LaFrieda Meat Purveyors, is perhaps the best-known butcher in the country (or at least, in our part of the country), supplier of beef to the the city’s top restaurants, and creator of hamburger blends that sometimes command more attention than the restaurants that serve them. But he doesn’t look like a butcher. He’s tall and fit, and in his blue collared button down and (presumably) expensive jeans, he looks more like the type of executive who’s become accustomed to playing by his own rules.

As if reading my mind, he offers, “People always tell me I don’t look the part. I tell them there’s a shorter, rounder, older version of me that they could talk to instead.” That would be Pat LaFrieda Jr., who still cuts meat from 3:30 in the morning until 3:30 p.m., when he turns the facility over to his son.

Pat the third is a fourth generation butcher; his great-grandfather, Anthony, came to the States in 1906. He’d begun to learn the meat business in his native Naples, and here, he had the opportunity to step out on his own in 1922. All five of his sons — including Pat Sr. — worked for the company, and in the ’50s, they started selling to restaurants during a labor strike. That set the course for the company — today, Pat LaFrieda Meat Purveyors sells predominantly to restaurants, doing retail via its website and for just a few select grocers, like Eataly.

Pat Sr. stood at the meat table until he died in 1989, says Pat III, and then he turned the business over to Pat Jr. In the meantime, Pat III went to school for finance, eventually taking a job on Wall Street (perhaps that explains his appearance). “I hated it,” he says. “I was selling intangibles to strangers over the telephone.” So he begged his dad to let him work for the family business, and eventually prevailed thanks to an aunt, Lisa, who, Pat III says, was well-connected and very convincing.

Since joining the business, the youngest Pat has seen the LaFrieda name make its way onto menus and into the lexicon of devoted food fanatics. But he insists that the company runs much the way it always has, with an eye for quality, a penchant for transparency, and an understanding of its own limits.

Talk to me a bit about your family’s legacy and what that means to you.
My grandfather was named Patrick — I’m the third, my father’s the second, and there’s a 9-year-old boy, my son, who’s Pat the fourth. I didn’t want to let my dad down. He let me work for the business, and now I have to over-prove myself. In America, it’s historically been the third generation that failed in family business. Part of that is because big business kills a lot of small business, so you see less small business prosper after that many years. But also, the third generation gets a little lazy. Being able to keep the work ethic is hard. I get a lot from my family, but I also joined the Reserves — and that’s definitely a place for motivation. Talk about sleep deprivation. My dad’s already telling me that the fourth Pat has to take over the business. I want to give my son the opportunity to make that decision for himself.

Is it difficult working with your family?
It’s stressful. The last thing you want to do is argue with someone you love. I hate arguing with my dad about meat sourcing at 3:30 in the morning when we’re already shaky from all the caffeine. The last thing you want to do is go home and leave each other that angry — you don’t get rest. You think about it for the rest of the day. That’s the most challening part. My dad’s fear is saying, “I’m proud of you, you did a good job.” He doesn’t want to me be complacent. Hearing him say it to my mom or others, that’s enough for me. He’ll spend his last years standing next to the butchering table. My grandfather had a cane, and he’d stand next to the butcher table and cut meat with the cane resting against his leg. He’d grab the cane when he got a little wobbly. He also drove with the cane. When my mom heard that, she wouldn’t let me ride with him. But he was a great man.

Tell me a little bit about the evolution of the beef industry over the years you’ve been in it.
Even in 1994, the 14th Street Meat Market was still significant. Most people went there to get their meat. It would take you three hours to drive through it; there’d be traffic all morning, and there would be a place just for veal, beef, poultry. We had to go through each one for each category then go back to LaFrieda, portion it, and start making deliveries. In my dad’s day, the Highline is where the beef came in. To this day, he doesn’t go up there. He has these memories of carrying saddles of beef down those steps as a kid. And if he had two restaurants buying strip loins, he had two rib eyes, two inside rounds to get rid of — so a lot of cuts went to waste. But it started to evolve. Now, the product goes from farms to a slaughter room to, at the slaughtering facility, a place where it gets cut down to smaller portions and sections, and depending on what parts of the country want those sections, it gets shipped from there.

So the industry has changed a lot — and it can’t really change much more from the way it is now. It’s truly a capitalist market. New York buys a lot of filet and ribeye; California likes flatirons and inside rounds. Now those different sections go to different markets. You only buy what you’re going to use. The fact that we deal directly now with farmers and slaughterers gives us a completely different edge. So as time went on, that 14th Street Meat Market had to get kicked out. Very few of the companies there owned the properties, which were undervalued. Rents went from $40 per square foot to a $1,000 per square foot. We saw businesses go out of business that had been there for two or three generations.

When I started, no one really cared about where the meat came from — now, we’re seeing our names on menus. Our role in the industry has changed dramatically. We’re the behind-the-scenes people. Take the burger at Shake Shack — that’s my burger. It’s still my grandfather’s recipe, tweaked a bit for a flat surface.

What’s your take on nose-to-tail cooking and today’s in-house butchery?
When I first started, every restaurant had a butcher that worked in the morning. That butcher would make the appropriate portions for that restaurant and utilize the waste. There are very few restaurants now with in-house butchers. We became, not intentionally, the butcher for the 1,200 restaurants we supply; we do all the work. When I started, we didn’t portion steaks in individual sizes. We didn’t form hamburgers. My dad said, “No way, what are we going to do next, cook it for them?” Now we have six major machines making butchers.

As for nose-to-tail, unless you want to help a small farmer who needed to sell a whole animal, there are difficulties with it, with getting rid of all the parts in an efficient manner. You’d never do it for pricing. The only way I see a use for it is for the restaurateur who wants to raise his own animals. But those who just to do it to be trendy, it never lasts long. Meat usually ends up at my place because they don’t know how to butcher it. My first run in with local beef was with Jimmy Bradley. He said, “Can you come here? A small farmer upstate sold me a whole cow.” I went with my knives, and it turned out to be half of a steer. At the end, he said, “Can you please take it and put it in your fridge for me?” He never did that again.

What do you look for in good quality product?
That’s subjective. The most valued beef has inter-muscular fat — that’s where you get the most marbling. We have a grading system — utility (which is dairy cows) then select, choice, and prime, and prime has the most marbling. That’s only 4 percent of the beef out there. Getting the most amount of that 4 percent possible, especially in New York City, is important. Evaluating is like looking at tuna — you’re looking at a cross-section, and you’re looking for as much fat as possible. And then not every restaurant can afford prime beef. And some dishes are better with different grades. If I was making carpaccio, I’d want select — I don’t like raw fat.

Any thoughts on grass-fed beef?
I personally don’t like grass-fed, but I led the grass-fed movement, in a way, over the last decade. Bill Kurtis, who owns Tallgrass Beef out in Chicago, and I hired a salesman to sell his grassfed beef. A lot of restaurants took samples, but it didn’t take off. Grass-fed has meant a lot more to retail customers than restaurant chefs. I probably have 500 pounds in my entire warehouse — out of a million pounds of beef. There’s not much demand for it.

Tell me about your burger blends — how do you come up with so many different blends?
So often in New York City, two customers on the same street don’t want same meat from the same meat purveyor. Everyone needs a niche. I wanted to make that point of difference so that you could go to Spotted Pig and have a short rib burger and it would be dramatically different from the burger at the Little Owl, but we could still provide the meat. The first person to ask me for something different was Henry Meer at City Hall New York — he was looking for a fattier, buttery flavor. That’s brisket, so I increased the amount of brisket in that mix. He loved it, and it did really well. Soon after, Shake Shack needed a tweak in the recipe.

Historically, chopped beef is made from whatever is left over. My grandfather never permitted that. He said, “You can’t hide your secrets in chopped beef,” and he put the trimmings in the fat barrels to get rid of it. He wanted specific cuts so the flavor was always the same, and well before the burger craze, chefs would come to LaFrieda for burger meat because we were known for it. So we were positioned perfectly when this hamburger craze came. Customizing made sense — it didn’t matter to us. We start by asking, what’s your favorite steak? What do you like to eat? The most common flavor request is something that tastes like a ribeye. We have different coarseness levels, too. Different grinds taste vastly different, and that customization is key. We do more than 100 different blends.

What’s the LaFrieda home blend?
The original is still what I take home. It’s what my grandfather made, and it’s still the most commonly sold item. It’s chuck, brisket, and short rib. It sounds very simple, but in that group, within those parts, you get different muscle groups, and most purveyors pull out important ones and sell them as steaks — flatirons and boneless short ribs. We don’t.

Talk to me a bit about the Shack burger, and maintaining consistency there as the chain expands.
A year ago, when Shake Shack opened in London, it got killed in the press. The burgers looked gray, like cardboard. So Danny Meyer said, “Pat, would you please go to London and oversee what they’re doing to this burger?” I visited the meat purveyor, and it was immediately like, “Where’s the source material? What are we starting with?” I expected them to slice some into steaks, but they showed me trimmings. It was like, wait, where’s the flatiron? Where’s the first cut of the brisket? They said, “Those are expensive steaks.” Guys. This was well described to you — specifically, you have to use these whole cuts in the Shack burger. If you want to continue to sell to these guys, you have to do it this way. They made the changes.

We won’t supply the meat for the Shack burger all over the world because the best burger to eat is something that’s fresh. It only makes sense for someone in London to make the product there. We’re already working six days a week making fresh product.

What’s the biggest obstacle facing your industry?
Logistics, and making deliveries in New York City — I don’t think New Yorkers appreciate how difficult it is. We spend over $100,000 a year on parking tickets.

I always thought that beef, as an American export, was a great thing — it’s one of our last exports. We produce very little of anything for exportation. But we are so prized for our beef that it’s driving the prices up. China bought Smithfield pork two years ago, and now, a lot of that pork leaving here. What the general public doesn’t know is that Smithfield buys from small and larger farmers — it’s keeping small farmers in business. And now it’s owned by China. I don’t want us, as a country, to lose our foothold on our food supply. Because what comes after that?

Could you name some underrated cuts of beef?
The chuckeye steak — where the ribeye is cut from the shoulder, there are two more steaks. Many chefs like the ribeye cap, but there are two great steaks to take that are just as valuable as the ribeye, and because that’s where the industry cuts it, it’s often sold as ground beef. Chuck roast shouldn’t be braised — that’s a grilling steak.

The flatiron, too. It’s coming up in price, no doubt. Blindfolded, over and over, most people can’t tell the difference between the New York strip and the flatiron. Flatiron is in the shoulder, and it tastes like the New York strip for one-third the price, so it’s a great alternative.

You’re releasing a book next month called Meat: Everything You Need to Know. Talk to me about that.
The book is beautiful. In the last 10 years, I’ve gotten 20 pitches from different publishers to write a book. It never felt like it was the right time. But there started to be this thirst for knowledge that was lacking — people were asking me about different cuts. Forget about the art of butchery. I’d have culinary graduates beg me for internships so they could watch, because they didn’t know where different cuts were coming from. Chefs would come in for a tour and say, “Pat, where’s the filet from?” So I thought, okay, it’s time to write a book. There is no consumer-friendly book on the cuts of meat, and I thought I could translate that into a book.

It was harder than I thought. I wanted to do diagrams of the animals, whole and split open. The photographer shot down at animal, so you can actually see where muscle structures are from. That’s what Atria [the publisher] said they could do with me. Most people want the diagram. And then the more I gave as far as meat goes, the more they got family memoirs and family recipes, so you see some third, fourth generation recipes, which was huge to them — now huge to me. Talk about legacy. This is really an American story. The family memoirs stress what made us, as a small business, successful.

What’s the future of this industry?
We have to be very careful with where we source beef, and with selecting meat in general — it should be domestic. I see the restaurants touting local nose-to-tail beef steak, but they’re serving a New Zealand lamb chop. I love New Zealand, but how green is that? We’re bringing product from around the world over here? When you support domestic product, you’re supporting small farms. That’s more important than nose-to-tail.

What are your goals?
We’re very happy sustaining where we are — we have no plans to dominate the world. One of the things we do is deliver fresh meat six days a week, so we get a certain extension at arm’s reach, and we’ve covered that. My grandfather always said to my father, who then drilled it into my head, “Stick with what you do, and do it better and better every day.” That’s our mantra.