When she was a girl, Suzanne Strassburger sold Girl Scout cookies, but she wasn’t happy about it. “I didn’t want to sell cookies,” she says. “I wanted to sell steaks.”
For show-and-tell, she’d bring cuts of meat to school, sometimes cow brains and eyeballs. “Some kids were shocked, some were very intrigued,” she says evenly. “The teachers loved it. It was so different from what anyone else brought.” After school, she liked to invite her friends over for snacks. “Most kids would give their friends frozen pizza or a bagel with cream cheese,” she says. “I’d cook them steaks.”
And so it went. In college, she brought coolers of beef to tailgate parties. Not ground beef. USDA Prime, dry-aged, New York strip steaks. People thought she was rich. They didn’t know her family has been in the meat business since 1865 and that prime, dry-aged beef is its specialty.
After college, Strassburger took a share in a summer house. “Some people brought groceries, some brought alcohol,” she says. “I brought meat. People started calling me Suzy Sirloin. Some people thought Sirloin was my real name.”
Her real name, I point out, sends its own message. “Yes, even better—it has burger in it,” she says with a dignified nod. “So I’m very lucky.”
When Strassburger gets to her office at Strassburger Meats in Carlstadt, she still feels lucky, even though it is 4:30 am. She used to get in earlier. But at 46, as president and sole owner of the company, she has certain privileges. “Every 10 years I give myself an hour,” she says.
Also on hand will be her younger sister, Andrea, 40, whose title, chief culinary executive, doesn’t really describe her job. A deft cook and butcher, Andrea (pronounced on-DRAY-a) speaks softly, smiles warmly and carries a big cleaver.
“Andrea has the most important job in the company—she’s the money collector,” says Suzanne. The three of us are having lunch at their favorite Carlstadt restaurant, the palatial Il Villaggio on Route 17, which serves Strassburger beef.
“Andrea is very tough,” Suzanne continues. “But all the chefs and butchers have a crush on her. Sometimes they’ll text her a heart with an ‘I miss you.’”
How does that go over? I ask Andrea.
“I call them the next day,” she explains, “and very nicely say, ‘Please do not do that. We do business, and that’s all there is.’”
Does that end it?
“No!” they say in unison, laughing.
They wipe off their grins. “If they’re going to get fresh,” says Suzanne, “you have to put them in their place. I’ll say, ‘Look, let me make myself clear. I’m here for business. This is not a pickup bar.’”
Like their better-known competitors—DeBragga & Spitler and Pat LaFrieda, both also based in Hudson County—the Strassburgers are purveyors, not ranchers or packers. Wholesale meat prices vary daily, depending on weather, time of year, cost of feed, foreign demand and other factors. Purchasing is done mostly over the phone, often with the same person year after year. Personal relationships are key.
“I’m trying to save a nickel,” Suzanne says. “If you’re buying a load of meat, 40,000 pounds, a nickel a pound saves a couple thousand dollars.”
Suzanne and Andrea are the fifth generation of their family in the meat business. In the late 1800s, their great-grandfather Harry Strassburger, the son of an Alsatian immigrant, set up Strassburger Meats in the Bronx with his wife’s father, a long-time manager for Armour and Company. Strassburger Meats later moved to the 125th Street Meat Market in Harlem. Suzanne apprenticed there in her teens. After college, she worked various jobs in catering and the meat business before settling in at the family firm, which by then had moved to West 14th Street in Manhattan. In 2002, Suzanne succeeded her father, Peter, as president. In 2006, she moved the company to Carlstadt.
“We love it here,” she says. “You don’t have the crazy hustle-bustle of New York; the parking’s great; there’s plenty of great food around; and in the summer, the Good Humor man comes around.”
Strassburger Meats supplies several top New York steakhouses, including Keen’s, Smith & Wollensky, Frankie & Johnnie’s and the Dutch. In New Jersey, its main clients are Il Villaggio and the Wayne Steakhouse in Wayne. “We are looking to expand in New Jersey,” Suzanne says.
She has not put the nickname Suzy Sirloin out to pasture. Instead, she gave it to the line of organic ground beef and natural beef, lamb, veal and pork she created in 2011 to sell in boutique markets. It’s also available on Amazon. “I wanted to make the meat department less intimidating to women,” she says. “It seems to be working. We’ve doubled the business every year.” In 2012, Williams-Sonoma began selling Strassburger’s prime dry-aged steaks online. Four 20-ounce porterhouses are $249.95, plus shipping.
Building their business on prime beef—less than 2 percent of American beef is graded prime—raises expectations when either sister entertains. “I baked a ham one year,” Andrea recalls, “and people were like, ‘We’re leaving.’” She told them that she had painstakingly glazed and decorated the ham. “They were like, ‘No, really. Where’s the beef?’”
Strassburger has been down that road. “I have friends,” she says, “who open my freezer and just take meat. They say, ‘Well, you can get more. You have the best meat. I want yours.’”
Doesn’t that bother you?
“No,” she says. “I love it. I’m so excited that they enjoy our meat so much.”
If you’re in Carlstadt and see a tall, athletically built woman wearing a 10-gallon hat, it’s probably Suzanne. She was the starting striker on the volleyball team at Catholic University in Washington, D.C., where she earned her bachelor’s in sociology in 1989. (She keeps her tournament MVP trophy on her desk at her apartment on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.) Having grown up in Chappaqua, New York, she considers herself “an East Coast cowgirl. I wear the hat,” she explains, “as a tribute to the hard-working ranchers who supply us.”
The girls could have gone in other directions. Their older sister, Michele, a sales consultant for interior designers, takes after their artist mother, Barbara, a painter. Andrea worked in SoHo fashion boutiques for a time. But in 2004, “I decided I wanted to be with my family,” she says. “I loved what they did.”
Suzanne always wanted to work for their father. At Peter’s insistence, she started the way his father, Frank, insisted he start—at the bottom, “in the cooler, learning meat.” In her early days, the industry still shipped what are called hanging carcasses, whole sides of beef that get moved around the facility on hooks connected to ceiling tracks. This immersion in macro proved a great way to learn.
“Carcasses are like people,” she says. “They come in different shapes and sizes. They aren’t like pencils in a pencil factory.”
Over the years, carcasses gave way to smaller cuts, shipped as what’s called boxed beef. One day after college, she was in a bucket brigade of workers loading 30-pound roasts onto a tractor-trailer.
“The floor was slippery with fat and blood, and we were falling behind,” she says. “I was a volleyball player, in great shape. I kept yelling, ‘Faster, faster!’ Finally they whipped one at me so fast it knocked me over. I landed in the fat and blood. My hairnet came off. I was a mess.
“I went into the office and said to my father, ‘Can I answer phones?’” That’s when she started to work in the office “and learned how to buy meat.”
Being the owner’s daughter cut her no slack. “Suppliers would try to send you things you didn’t order, or price you higher than you agreed on.” Those she sold to were just as determined to save a nickel.
“I was on the phone with one steakhouse guy in New York, and he was very mean and nasty to me,” she recalls. “I told my father. He called the guy and said, ‘Please don’t talk to my daughter that way.’ The guy said, ‘If she doesn’t like it, tell her to get the hell out of the business.’
“I didn’t talk to that guy for 10 years. I dealt with other people at his company. But today we’re good friends. He did me a favor by talking to me like that, because he really toughened me up. And I never again tattled on anyone.”
These days, Peter and Barbara Strassburger live year-round in Florida. He still talks business with his daughters every day. “Like 11:30 on a Saturday night, when I just want to go to bed,” says Andrea, rolling her eyes.
“Doesn’t matter if it’s 7:30 in the morning or 11:30 at night,” says Suzanne. “He’s very passionate about the business.”
Do you get used to that after awhile?
“Yes,” they reply solemnly, then look at each other and laugh. “No!”
“Just kidding,” they say primly.
That morning, after a tour of the Carlstadt facility, I had asked them to put me on the phone with Peter in Florida.
“I’m 73 and still learning,” he told me. “I never stop. I try to help with purchasing, pricing, things like that. It’s still a family business. In fact, I’m watching you right now on nine security cameras.”
Suzanne herself never stops. In 2010, she earned her Masters of Beef Advocacy certificate from the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA). She created and regularly updates thesirloinreport.com to share information about beef and all aspects of the business. In March, she was heading to Denver for more NCBA training in beef production, animal care, food safety and environmental stewardship.
Both daughters say they never felt their father wished he had a son to pass the business onto. Still, Suzanne admits, “I never really had a woman role model until I was in my 40s.” That’s when she met and became friends with Rosemary Mucklow and Temple Grandin, the only females in the Meat Industry Hall of Fame. Its 58 members include Ray Kroc, Frank Perdue and Colonel Harland Sanders. Mucklow, who led the National Meat Association, and Grandin, whose autism helped her pioneer humane methods of slaughter that are now the industry standard, were inducted in the inaugural class of 2009.
“I absolutely encourage women to get into the business,” Suzanne says.
She bristles, however, when I ask about grass-fed versus grain-fed beef or about Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, the crowded, industrial feedlots known as CAFOs that Michael Pollan railed against in his 2007 polemic, The Omnivore’s Dilemma.
“I am for all meat, whether grass-finished or grain-finished,” she responds. “Every steak has its own merits. These animals are babysat. They are cared for by trained veterinarians. The healthier the animal, the better everything will be, and the better the steak will taste.”
Pollan would probably agree with that last part, I tell her. What’s worrisome are the feedlots.
“The cows have a better life than us,” she whips back. “Trust me, they have great feed, they have health care and housing. There are people who have an agenda. They don’t want just meatless Mondays. They want no meat ever, okay?”
The people I’m talking about, I say, are not against all meat.
“Meat and eating animals is part of evolution,” she counters. “Humans, when they started eating meat, they started standing up, they started hunting and trading. That is when the brain developed. That is not an opinion. That is scientific fact.”
Earlier, I had raised another subject I thought might get her dander up, but it didn’t. None of the three Strassberger daughters are married. Would Suzanne and Andrea someday like to pass the mantle to a next generation?
“I’ve always wanted it,” Suzanne admitted. “But I’ve had so many goals in the business. That’s been my focus. We ask everyone, ‘What is wrong with us?’”
What have you come up with?
“We just haven’t met our matches,” she said with a shrug.
How do guys react when you tell them what you do for a living?
“No matter who it is, people are fascinated by the meat biz. You get asked extra questions, for sure.”
Are guys intimidated by a woman running a macho business like meat?
She laughed. “I try not to date any vegetarians,” she said. “I judge them by how they order their meat. If it’s a well-done hamburger, forget it. It’s never going to work.”Click here to leave a comment