Beeve It to Cleaver: The LaFrieda Butcher Dynasty

Pat LaFrieda “Jr.” is a tall man who sits in a tiny office in a white building filled with meat. He’s there every night, talking on the phone to chefs, riding herd on his white-coated employees outside the door, yelling to the bank of men who sit at computers writing down orders phoned in by restaurants around town.

He’s very happy, and he should be: Just 38, the third-generation butcher is the city’s unquestioned King of Meat. The custom hamburger blends he’s created for restaurants like Shake Shack, the Spotted Pig and over a dozen others have ushered in a Golden Age, of gourmet ground beef. His canny acquisition of a monopoly on Creekstone, an intricately marbled line of beef from Kansas that everyone seems to want now, has given him the inside track into every great steak house and white tablecloth restaurant, more or less; and he’s about to double or even triple his production capacity with a giant new space-age facility being built in New Jersey. No other butcher goes on Martha Stewart, or has his name bandied on blogs the way he does. He claims to have recently turned down a reality show because it wasn’t sufficiently educational.

The office, about the size of a storage unit, with barely enough room for two people to stand side by side, has the temporary-permanent look of command centers no one but their users are ever expected to see. Butcher coats with the name “Pat Jr.” on them hang on one wall below a shelf piled high with meat stickers bearing such logos as “Colorado Lamb,” “KOBE,” “Bell and Evans” and, largest of all, “Pat LaFrieda Black Label,” the house’s most prestigious creation, a dry-aged custom burger blend served only at Minetta Tavern.

Another wall bears dozens of blurry black and white images. They mostly feature LaFrieda’s weirdly charismatic cousin, Mark Pastore, 35, who runs the business side of the company, wheeling and dealing while Pat tends farms and carcasses. Pastore, a mirthful but vaguely sinister-looking fellow with a rich fund of aphorisms, is shown in various comic or triumphant poses with every important chef, restaurateur and food writer in the business: Mario Batali, Danny Meyer, Steve Hanson, Jeffrey Chodorow, Laurent Tourondel, Michael White and Chris Cannon, Rachael Ray, Jeffrey Steingarten, Ben Leventhal from Eater, myself, Frank Bruni, Katie Lee Joel. It’s hard to find Pat in these pictures; the only one that jumps out is one of him standing over a 12-point buck. The rest are all Pastore.

Pastore’s contribution to the decor says a lot about the way the business has changed since it all began in 1922 or thereabouts. (No one is sure of the exact year.) “Back then, you had guys selling meat out of the backs of cars, selling on the street,” says Pat “Sr.,” reminiscing from his home in Bensonhurst. A hale, friendly man with a big frame and thick wavy hair, “Pat Senior” is technically Pat Jr., and “Pat Junior” is Pat III, but everyone keeps them straight with “junior” and “senior.”

LaFrieda père joined the business in 1962, when it was already venerable; his father and uncle had been running it for 40 years. It was one of many small but reliable operations in the crowded throng of the Meatpacking District, where almost 250 flesh dealers operated cheek by jowl. When the others started dropping like so many flies, two things would keep the LaFriedas around. One was that Pat Sr. had the foresight to buy the building, so that the rise of property values made him a millionaire instead of an exile. The other was the family’s monomanical commitment to their customers.

“My name in the industry is gold,” says the current patriarch. “You know why? Because I would do anything, anything, to keep that customer alive and going.” That meant extending credit if a guy was having trouble paying, getting him top product at only a few cents above cost, even doing the portion cutting so he didn’t have to pay a butcher in the kitchen. In the Depression, his father would throw in a sack of beans, to feed the help with. Whatever it took, short of getting burned. “Look at it this way,” laughs Senior. “If they go out of business, then you’re never going to get paid!”

When he was working with his father back in the ’50s and ’60s, the Meatpacking District was in its high summer as a busy commercial trade center. The Gansevoort Market was a disaster area, an unplanned jumble of blood, trucks, workmen, beef carcasses, wiseguys, white-coated meat-cutters, honking horns, envelopes filled with cash, railway rumbles and the controlled chaos of perishable flesh. It was an ad hoc beef bazaar; today it’s little more than a memory.

A few businesses like LaFrieda, DeBragga & Spitler, Giobaggi and Hyland & Robinson are still are to be found, but the days are long gone when whole carcasses arrived in refrigerated rail cars, there to be swarmed upon by meat purveyors of varying wholesomeness. The patent absurdity of the system, with its Rube Goldberg infrastructure, spelled the market’s doom as a commercial center decades before rising rents made it financial lunacy to operate there. The few remaining meat purveyors either own their property, like the LaFriedas, or have affordable long-term leases. The rest are gone.

The pivotal moment for the LaFriedas was Pat taking over the business in 1993. “It was a shaky thing,” Senior says. “I didn’t know if he was going to go for it!” A future surrounded by dead body parts every night is not everybody’s idea of a fulfilling vocation. But after a false start as a stockbroker, Pat Jr. decided to accept his destiny and go to work in the meat business.

The problem was that many of the relationships his father had built over the decades had evaporated, or moved to Boca. Older restaurants had gone under; others were being run by owners who found it easier and cheaper to buy meat from Sysco, the giant supply company that delivers everything from napkins to short loins. Steak houses in particular were vulnerable to the blandishments of corporate operators. The practice of bringing carcasses in on a train and then schlepping them through blood-slicked Manhattan streets was soon replaced with a space-age system by which packers in the Midwest disassembled steers and shipped parts, neatly sliced and ready to cook, in vacuum-packed plastic bags. This was the “wet-aged” or “boxed” meat that all butchers loathe, but steak-house owners adored for its impact on the bottom line. By Junior’s time, only a few wholesale butchers dry-aged prime beef, and the number that broke down whole forequarter carcasses could be counted on the fingers of one maimed hand. And they were almost played out.

“When I entered the business,” says Junior, “the best way to describe my dad was tired. He had gone through the highs and lows. Lost his dad, wounded, tired. It was my idea to build the company back up again.”

He moved mountains to get better product, forge new relationships and modernize, sinking fully half of profits back into the business. First came packaging, with a logo that appeared on every truck, product and worker. Then new equipment: band saws, new hamburger machinery, refrigeration upgrades. The old handwritten carbon copies went out the door, replaced by a computer system.

But the biggest change was Junior’s decision to begin using lamb and veal from small family farms, years before it became fashionable to do so. It wasn’t good enough to hang out in the Meatpacking District, getting the same old feedlot meat from the Midwest; a new generation of chefs wanted heritage breeds, particularly the fattier, more flavorful animals that had lived longer and eaten better than their brethren from the industrial necropolises in the heartland. Humanely raised veal was hard to find at the time, but Junior managed to track down a consortium of Mennonite farms in Pennsylvania, a search he likens to Johnny Depp’s hunt for a Colombian cocaine source in Blow. The efforts paid off handsomely when Mario Batali, godfather of the modern meathead movement, found in Pat a kindred spirit and made him the primary provider of animal flesh to all his restaurants in the early ’90s.

The prestige of supplying Batali, then in his first ascendancy as one of the city’s great chefs, led to Joe Bastianich, Danny Meyer and other elite buyers. When Meyer came up with the idea of the Shake Shack, he had enough faith in Pat to involve him in the creation of a signature burger blend. For all of his innovation as a purveyor, it was as a ground beef virtuoso that Pat LaFrieda III really made his mark on the world of gastronomy. Though ground beef has long been a way to use up scraps (or over-the-hill dairy cows), he used only whole muscles, never trim, with every aspect of temperature and grinding process rigidly controlled. Using cuts the way a composer uses instruments in a trio or quartet, he created distinctive blends for Shake Shack, resulting in two-hour waits (the line is itself a tourist attraction) and followed that up with blends for April Bloomfield at the Spotted Pig (netting a Michelin star) and Joey Campanaro at the Little Owl. He worked with each chef until they got the blend they wanted exactly right—a little more short rib for depth of flavor, brisket for sweetness, highlights of hangar or skirt for mineral notes—then ground the meat himself every night.

On the strength of this now-legendary hamburger program, the LaFriedas became food celebrities in their own right. Star chefs and their chroniclers started calling, and the pictures started going up on the office wall. The culmination to date was the creation, for Keith McNally’s Minetta Tavern revamp, of a dry-aged signature blend that would be Pat’s masterpiece, a $26 “Black Label” burger. LaFrieda had given ground beef the cachet of designer couture.

All this assumes, of course, that beefy genius will rise to fame unhindered. It was their good fortune that their new customers were the darlings of the food media. And then there was the matter of having a partner who was a true old-fashioned operator, as adept at working writers as Pat is at carving an “export” rib rack.

“You can get me on the phone 24 hours a day, you can get Pat on the phone 24 hours a day,” says Mark Pastore. He’s fond of saying that LaFrieda has no salesmen, that their customers deal directly with them. It’s true, but it’s also obvious that Pastore is a consummate salesman. Where Pat is an introvert comfortable in the privacy of an aging box, Mark is outgoing to the point of a social disorder. Every night he’s out shmoozing customers, trying new restaurants, befriending food writers and generally pursuing evil. Before joining the company in 2000, he was a club promoter, and still has something of an impresario’s line of patter as well as a singular (some would say unwholesome) relationship with writers. “There are just so many smart, egotistical, wacky people in the food world. I was interested in how they experienced things. So I became friends with Steingarten, Bruni, Platt, Ben Leventhal, Amanda from Eater, Ed Levine…” Pastore preens. “Because the people we spend our time with are the people that are most truly our family.”

Pastore’s propaganda campaign, though, can only be as successful as the trademark service he provides to chefs and the meat Pat brings in—and both are pressed to accommodate the increasingly rarefied tastes of a dining public they’ve helped to spoil. Today’s top chefs all want small-farm meat, heritage breeds and all-natural breeding programs— but they want a lot of it, and always on time and at a good price. That’s the challenge LaFrieda faces today. When David Chang needs six pig heads on short notice, Pastore has to drive out to a farm in New Jersey to get them; if a customer in Queens wants D’Artagnan foie gras or Heritage Foods Red Wattle pork, they’ll deliver that, too. Back when customers just wanted commodity pork loins, he could just send a guy into the meat vault and have him run it over. Alas, that’s not the way it works in the age of Greenmarket gastronomy.

I ask Pat if his son, five-year-old Pat the IVth, would take over someday. “I see why my dad didn’t want me to take over the business,” he says, hesitantly. “So many hours, and it’s so competitive. To get here required so much just brutal, blue-collar hard work … but I’m leaving his options open.”

If history is any guide, the first name in lamb and veal will carry on, whether from the Meatpacking District, North Bergen or some other location. The family business joins the generations like a short loin to a rib. “You need a son in this business. And you need a grandson,” says Pat Sr. “I’m always thinking about the future. We’ve done this so long we don’t want to stop.”

Photo credit: Jennifer Becker and Carolyn Fong