Chopped Champ: Burger Man Pat LaFrieda

By creating custom chopped-beef blends, Pat LaFrieda turned the lowly burger into a status symbol and himself into the first celebrity butcher.

Burgermeister: At his North Bergen plant, Pat LaFrieda holds a rack of aged prime rib eyes he uses in his top-level custom hamburger blends.
Photo by Christopher Lane

Pat LaFrieda saw the future in 1996 and immediately took steps to carve himself a place in it. More precisely, he chopped himself a place in it. As he writes in his new book, Meat: Everything You Need to Know, LaFrieda realized in 1996 that “we needed to create a brand, and the way I set out to do that was with our chopped beef.”

LaFrieda knew chopped beef. His family had been New York butchers since 1922, when his great-grandfather, Anthony LaFrieda, and his son Lou, both immigrants from Naples, launched the business in Manhattan. In the 1930s, Anthony’s younger son, the first Pat LaFrieda (so named because he was born on St. Patrick’s Day), broke with the loose standards of the day. Instead of making hamburger from fatty scraps and trimmings, he began making it from clean cuts of beef—“whole muscle,” as it’s called in the trade.

“As my grandfather put it,” LaFrieda says, “you can’t hide your sins in the hamburger.”

By the late 1930s, the first Pat LaFrieda had developed his own blend, equal parts clod [shoulder], chuck, brisket and short rib. He chilled the meat before chopping it because it produced a more even texture. Chefs loved the blend’s flavor and meaty 80/20 lean-to-fat ratio.

The present Pat LaFrieda (he is actually the third, but we’ll get to that) grew up selling that blend, always labeled simply as “chopped beef.”

But in 1996, to kick-start the branding campaign, the brash 22-year-old printed out a label like no other. It listed the specific cuts in the mix, the breed of cow and the USDA grade of the cuts, and specified that the blend used no scraps or trimmings. Above all this fine print was a new name in bold letters: LaFrieda’s Original Chopped Beef Blend. “This might sound basic now,” LaFrieda writes, “but back then nobody had ever done this.”

Fast-forward to today. At company headquarters in North Bergen, Pat LaFrieda Meat Purveyors makes more than 100 different custom hamburger blends a day. It sells mountains of chopped beef as well as other forms of beef, including dry-aged steaks, plus veal, lamb and poultry, to roughly 1,200 restaurants, some as far away as Chicago and Las Vegas. About 80 percent are in New York City.

When LaFrieda moved the operation from Lower Manhattan to North Bergen in 2010, the company had about five clients in the Garden State, notably the River Palm Terrace steak house, with locations in Edgewater, Fair Lawn and Mahwah (voted Best of the Best in New Jersey Monthly’s 2014 Jersey Choice Restaurant Poll). Now LaFrieda supplies about 60 New Jersey restaurants.

“LaFrieda, the company, is probably the top meat purveyor in the country right now,” says meat maven Josh Ozersky, who writes the Eat Like a Man blog for Esquire and is author of the 2008 book The Hamburger: A History. “Part of that is the quality and service they provide. And part of it is because Pat has an incredible work ethic. I don’t know if anybody of his generation runs on that kind of motor.”

LaFrieda, 43, inherited that nonstop motor from his father, the second Pat LaFrieda, who at 68 lives in Mountainside and still pulls 14-hour shifts at the North Bergen facility. (Growing up, he was known as Pat Jr. Today, with his son the CEO, he is called Pat Sr.) Back in 1964, when Pat II was 18, he joined his father, Pat I, in the business and eventually took it over.

Then history repeated itself.

“I had been going to work with my dad since I was 10 years old,” says LaFrieda, who grew up in Brooklyn with two younger brothers and a younger sister. “I knew what he did inside-out. He didn’t send me to college to get me into the meat business. He wanted me to be a doctor.”

At Albright College in Reading, Pennsylvania, LaFrieda relates, “I was a pre-med student, but I couldn’t handle organic chemistry. I ended up with a finance degree and a 4.0 grade point average.”

That got him a job on Wall Street. But, he admits, “it just wasn’t for me.” So a year after his 1993 college graduation, he traded in his wingtips for a butcher’s apron.

“I wanted to go into the family business because this was the business that kept our family financially sound,” LaFrieda explains. “I always thought being the oldest sibling meant being the one responsible for making sure the business would survive.”

LaFrieda’s father agreed to take him in as a partner in 1994, but only after LaFrieda’s Aunt Lisa—Pat II’s sister and trusted adviser (and the company’s longtime switchboard operator)—vigorously endorsed the idea.

“My dad is still head counsel,” says LaFrieda, who is married and lives in Ridgefield. “He’s the company wise man. He’s experienced everything, and he has a great take on any issue relating to meat. However, I have grown this business by defying him.”

As evidence, LaFrieda cites his own joining the business instead of becoming a doctor, then diving headlong into custom burger blends. LaFrieda made his first custom blend in 1998 for New York restaurateur Henry Meer, who was opening a downtown steak house called City Hall and wanted something sweeter, with a little more fat than LaFrieda’s Original Blend.

Meer so liked the blend LaFrieda made him that he put “Pat LaFrieda’s custom blend of short rib and brisket” under the word “burger” on City Hall’s menu. “That was truly a pivotal moment for us,” LaFrieda writes in Meat.

The next defiant episode came in 2004, when Danny Meyer opened the first Shake Shack. LaFrieda had been selling a custom blend to Meyer’s upscale Union Square Cafe. But for the super-casual Shake Shack—which began as a kiosk in a Manhattan park—Meyer needed preformed patties, which Pat II had always refused to make, saying the best burgers are made by hand. For a few weeks, LaFrieda tried a compromise: He bought circular cookie cutters and had workers fill them by hand “round the clock every day for weeks, if not months,” he writes.

Finally, LaFrieda says, “I bought a hamburger-forming machine, and my father was like, ‘Are you crazy?’ I’ve bought machines behind his back, because I knew he’d never agree.”

The one peremptory move he admits did not pan out was trying to launch a LaFrieda sales site on the Internet in the mid ’90s. “I was about 10 years early on that,” he says.

LaFrieda’s name recognition steadily grew. Ironically, his breakthrough to celebrity didn’t come until 2008-2009, when the economy was crashing. “I had just started playing around with putting aged beef into chopped beef blends,” he writes. Riad Nasr, then chef of Minetta Tavern, asked him to create an ultimate burger.

LaFrieda experimented, finally settling on a blend containing 30 percent dry-aged New York strip steak. It went on the menu as the Black Label burger, where it remains today, a $28 indulgence.

“When the stock market crashed in 2008 and people stopped spending money on high-end steaks, there was a lot of news about LaFrieda,” says John Campbell, chef/co-owner of River Palm Terrace. “He was grinding up this dry-aged prime meat and making phenomenal hamburger blends with it.”

Faced with declining demand for the racks of prime steaks aging in his refrigerated lockers, the butcher had his Eureka moment.

“I thought, A burger is a great way to have a dry-aged experience,” LaFrieda says. “Whereas a dry-aged steak would cost you 50 bucks, you could get a dry-aged burger for $26. Everyone said, ‘You’re crazy! The economy! The economy!’ But the first year Minetta Tavern offered Black Label burgers, in 2009, they sold 13,500.”

The kicker is that LaFrieda also created an unaged short-rib blend for Minetta to sell at half the price of the Black Label. But the prestige burger outsold it 2 to 1, partly because people would order it as an appetizer and have it divided into equal portions.

LaFrieda popularized the gourmet burger, but he didn’t invent it. In 2001, chef Daniel Boulud created, almost for the sheer lunacy of it, what he called the DB Burger. An outrageous $27 (now $35) trophy made of short rib from DeBragga & Spitler—for decades the best known top-tier beef supplier in New York—it was stuffed with foie gras and slices of black truffle.

“I was kind of in shock that he combined those ingredients, at that price, for a burger,” says DeBragga co-owner Marc Sarrazin. “Once I tasted it, though, I was completely sold.”

Like LaFrieda, DeBragga crossed the Hudson, settling into expanded, state-of-the-art quarters in Jersey City in 2011. DeBragga specializes in meats raised without hormones and antibiotics. LaFrieda’s website says its meats are raised the same way.

“DeBragga and LaFrieda are like the Yankees and the Red Sox, or maybe the Yankees and the Mets,” says Ozersky.

LaFrieda’s fame brought him offers to write a book, but he turned a few down before agreeing to write Meat with James Beard Award-winning food writer Carolynn Carreño. In a charming mixed metaphor, LaFrieda says he finally decided that the public “has a real thirst for meat knowledge.”

The oversize book serves up plenty of that in its 256 pages. Profusely illustrated with diagrams and color photographs, including step-by-step directions on everything from making chicken lollipops to butterflying a loin, Meat is a clearly written, engaging and informative hybrid. More memoir than cookbook, the $50 hardcover contains just 75 recipes.

Though he starred in a 2012 Food Network reality show called Meat Men, LaFrieda shakes his head when asked about fame. “I don’t see myself as a celebrity in any way,” he said recently at the North Bergen plant. “I work more hours than I’d like to admit. If it seems glamorous on the outside, it isn’t on the inside.”

Indeed, as he said this, he was nursing what turned out to be a broken foot. A forklift had rolled over it several days earlier, and he had yet to find time to see a doctor.

Tammy La Gorce is a frequent contributor.

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