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The Magician of Meat

At LaFrieda headquarters on Leroy Street: dry-aged prime New York strip steaks.  

Originally located in the meatpacking district, and then for many years on Bleecker Street, Pat LaFrieda Wholesale Meat Purveyors is today housed in a series of low-slung buildings running the entire block of Leroy Street between Washington and Greenwich Streets. It is a 24-hour operation, Monday through Friday, with all of the cutting done at night, once restaurants have closed and had time to survey what they need for the next day’s service. Pat’s father, Pat LaFrieda II, who at age 63 still drives in daily from Bensonhurst at 3:30 in the morning to check up on things, bought up the property 35 years ago, which makes for a low overhead, allowing the company to keep prices relatively reasonable for high-grade, fastidiously sourced meat.

But as the evolution of the Black Label burger best illustrates, what separates Pat and Mark from their competitors is their innate understanding of the fickle and competitive nature of New York chefs, who more than anything want to be able to offer customers something they can’t find anywhere else. To accommodate this, the pair devised an innovation, working with restaurants to come up with a customized “blend”—typically a variation of percentages of brisket, chuck, short rib, and skirt steak—that will be sold to one restaurant exclusively. And so while the burgers at Shake Shack and the Spotted Pig are created in the same machines and delivered by the same vans, the precise components, which are kept secret thanks to thick confidentiality agreements, are wholly unique, customized for each chef’s taste and cooking surfaces.

“It used to be that if you wanted to stand out from the guy across the street, you had to find a different supplier,” Pat explained to me, while taking a break during a recent shift. “What we do, basically, is become a different supplier for every restaurant.” It was nearing two in the morning. Hosea Rosenberg, the winner of the fifth season of Top Chef, had just stopped by to observe the operation. “I think he might be opening a place in New York. People like that come by all the time,” Pat noted proudly, draining his second Red Bull of the night before continuing with the burger discussion. “The whole thing started with Danny Meyer and the Shake Shack. Danny came to us and said he was opening a kind of burger shack and wanted something unique. Danny’s a genius at what he does, obviously, but we thought the idea was pretty crazy. Then Shake Shack opened and the lines were ridiculous. People were waiting over an hour, and suddenly our phones were going crazy.” Pat checked some orders—Dovetail needed more beef cheeks, Marea was short on bone marrow—and went on. “Every restaurant in town was calling us and saying, ‘Can we have the Shake Shack blend?’ ” Pat said. “I’m like, ‘No way, sorry, that’s Danny Meyer’s. I’m not even allowed to talk about what’s in it exactly. But tell me what you’re thinking, and we’ll come up with something special for you.’ ”

While this kind of attitude is good for Pat’s business—what client doesn’t prize die-hard loyalty?—it’s also a boon for burger fetishists, ensuring that no two creations at the city’s premier hamburger palaces taste the same. For those who don’t understand the system, Pat has little patience. After Frank Bruni declared Minetta the best steakhouse in the city, for instance, Peter Luger, the famous Brooklyn steakhouse, contacted Pat LaFrieda about supplying it with meat. “Never, never, never will I cut meat for Peter Luger,” Pat declared. “They have no loyalty. They’re rainy-day customers. They buy from many meat companies. We don’t work that way.” (A Luger buyer says the restaurant uses multiple suppliers in order to serve its customers “the best of the best.” She says the restaurant has used many of the same suppliers for decades.) Similarly, a few days before I met him, Pat had received a call from Old Homestead Steakhouse, the historic restaurant on Ninth Avenue, asking to sample ten pounds of the custom blends used by Bill’s Bar & Burger and Minetta Tavern. Pat was polite when he took the call—“Yeah, sure thing, I’ll send it over”—before tossing the order in the trash the moment he hung up. “We’ve never really done any business with them,” Pat told me. The issue, as he saw it, was an unapologetic lack of original thinking. “Here’s a restaurant that’s been around since the 1800s, right?” Pat said. “And now they’re gonna ask me for two of my proprietary blends.” He shook his head. “Impossible. Never gonna do it.” When Old Homestead called back a few days later, Pat offered to make it a custom blend of its own; Old Homestead happily agreed.