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On a seasonably pleasant late-winter's evening in Manhattan, LaFrieda is dressed casually but neatly in a blue and white checked shirt, a dark blue, half-zip Polo sweater and jeans. Sitting at the pizza bar at Eataly, Mario Batali's massive, white-tiled Italian food emporium and restaurant collection just west of Madison Square Park, he greets a visitor with a couple of moderately sized gourmet pies and a quick invitation to share.
It's no coincidence that LaFrieda has chosen to meet here. The third-generation head of his family's meat-purveying firm, he landed Batali as a customer long before the burly, ponytailed restaurateur had earned national fame as a celebrity chef. Two years ago, when Batali traveled to Italy to scope out the Eataly chain in hopes of opening a location in the States, he asked LaFrieda to accompany him as his meat guy.
And so, bright and bustling, even on a Monday night, New York's Eataly includes a meat section featuring row after refrigerated row of LaFrieda products— sausages, steaks, lamb chops and more—encased snugly in plastic wrap.
Indeed, Pat LaFrieda Meat Purveyors is considered the go-to supplier for New York's finest chefs. LaFrieda himself has earned a measure of celebrity— glowing profiles in the New York Times and New York magazine, numerous local TV appearances, and a reality show—"Meat Men"—that premiered in April on Food Network.
The man even has his own iPhone app.
But after the meetings in Manhattan, he'll head back across the East River to Jersey, where the chill of the company's warehouse awaits. He'll change out of the preppy clothes and into a heavy work jacket and thick gloves, place himself behind a saw, and begin prepping cuts for the next day's deliveries. LaFrieda would have it no other way.
"I do my best thinking when I'm cutting meat and I'm to myself in my thoughts," he says.
Had his father's wishes carried the day, LaFrieda would be comfortably ensconced on Wall Street, far from band saws and bone marrow. The elder LaFrieda had put his son to work as a boy hoping that the grueling work and long hours would compel pursuit of a less-demanding career. After graduating from Albright, where he started in pre-med but quickly found his stride in business, LaFrieda joined a retail brokerage firm in New York.
And loathed it.
Sketchy business practices soured him on the firm within a year, so he quit in favor of a job at the New York Stock Exchange. Between gigs, LaFrieda went back to work at the family business to keep busy.
"It wasn't long before I realized that's what I wanted to do," he recalls. "So I told my father, 'Dad, I'm gonna build the family business.' He said, 'No way.'"
LaFrieda lobbied his aunt—his father's partner at the company—with aspirations of growth and prosperity and found a much more willing audience. "Because of her bullying my father," LaFrieda says, "I started working for my dad." His energy and vision came along not a moment too soon. When LaFrieda was a freshman at Albright, his grandfather, who had cofounded the business, died, sending LaFrieda's father reeling and leaving the company on wobbly legs. Now a year out of school, LaFrieda began the arduous job of rebuilding, spending his nights cutting and packaging meat for anyone who needed it and his mornings delivering to customers.
"We were always the guys that didn't say no," LaFrieda says. "So if a restaurant needed meat on a Sunday because they forgot to order or they had extra reservations, we were the guys to do it. We never said no to anybody."
LaFrieda's workday didn't end when the deliveries were over. After a shower and a change into a shirt and tie, he filled his afternoons pounding the pavement and pitching LaFrieda meats to restaurants across New York City.
The shoe leather paid off, helped in no small part by Batali and dozens of others like him, chefs who went on to open multiple restaurants. From 40 customers when LaFrieda began, the company has grown to more than a thousand, mostly in New York but extending up to Connecticut, down to Philadelphia and Atlantic City, and as far away as Las Vegas and Miami.
Media savvy without being slick, personable while still genuine, LaFrieda recognizes and has leveraged the vast power of marketing to build a brand with considerable equity within the restaurant industry. He credits David Martin, D.A., C.F.A., professor of economics and business, for kindling in him a fire for business and instilling knowledge he applies even today. In particular, marketing classes at Albright, he says, impressed on him the necessity to adapt to new trends and changing times.
"I had to do a paper on why Madonna was so successful and how she changed her image in every album or every decade. Little lessons like that stuck with me," he says. "When it came to meat, when everything in the industry was leaning toward higher-end meats and dry-aging beef, I marketed our company toward that."
The hamburger craze. Small farms. Organic meats. All-natural meats. LaFrieda saw the culinary trends coming and successfully oriented the company in their direction.
LaFrieda's fame and the company's success caught the eye of several television production companies interested in using him, his father and his cousin to showcase the intricacies of operating a meat-packing business and the complex relationships among the family members who run it. He opted for Zero Point Zero, the company behind "Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations." Zero Point Zero's pitch of "Meat Men" landed successfully at Food Network, and that experience led LaFrieda into yet another important realm.
"Sometimes we'd be on our 14th or 15th hour of footage, and the camera crew would be taking a break, but I'd have to cut an order for a customer," he says. "They'd just be mesmerized by me cutting meat, and they'd say, 'Pat, you just can't learn about this anywhere.' And I said, 'I know, we really need to make a book about meat cutting.' They'd say, 'No, with the way technology is going, it's all about apps these days.' I said, 'It's funny you should mention that …'"
Available for $6.99 from iTunes, Pat LaFrieda's Big App for Meat is a guide to more than 200 cuts of meat and includes LaFrieda's tips for home butchers.
Unsurprisingly, LaFrieda has his sights set on the horizon. China is about to open its doors to American meat; when it does, he'll take the 17-hour flight to Hong Kong to meet his Asian partners. The North Jersey facility to which LaFrieda moved the business from the West Village a few years ago is already at capacity, so he's scouting new locations. And he's sniffing around Florida and the West Coast in hopes of turning LaFrieda Meats into a national brand.
"It's something my grandfather always said," Pat LaFrieda recalls. "When I wanted to branch off and do other things, even as a kid, my grandfather would say, 'Stick to what you know. Do it better every day, and tomorrow do it just a little bit better than yesterday.'"
Whatever tomorrow's carnivorous trends are, expect LaFrieda to be leading the way.
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