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The Magician of Meat

At LaFrieda headquarters on Leroy Street: orders being prepared for delivery.  

“No, no, no.”

Pat gestured to my notepad.

“You can’t write that down. It’s top secret.”

Two or three times a year, Mark flies to Chicago, hops a connecting flight into Wichita, then drives an hour across acre after acre of prairie until he reaches the small Kansas town of Arkansas City. It is here where Creekstone Farms, supplier of nearly all Pat LaFrieda beef, is located, and thus where most Pat LaFrieda burgers begin. Creekstone is to the world of wholesale meats what André Balazs is to the world of hotels: a discerning, boutique operation that emphasizes quality over quantity. Whereas larger, commodity facilities slaughter upward of 20,000 animals a week, Creekstone kills just over 5,000—all certified Black Angus—allowing it to more carefully screen each animal for E. coli bacteria. “The place is like a hospital, it’s so clean,” Mark told me one afternoon.

As much as Pat’s signature blends, the use of high-quality, expertly sourced meat is what separates LaFrieda’s product from the majority of ground beef. If you walk into a typical grocery store and purchase a package of ground beef, for instance, what you’re getting will likely be an amalgamation of meat from multiple sources—a mix of domestic product and some from countries like Canada, Australia, and Uruguay, where the price per pound can be significantly less than that of American meat. Furthermore, most ground beef is primarily composed of what the industry refers to as “trimmings,” a euphemism for the tough and fatty edges that remain after an animal has been broken down and the prime cuts of meat removed. Because trimmings are cheap, and because there’s not much you can do with them but throw them into a grinder, they have evolved as the dominant component of ground beef. “If you saw a pile of trimmings before they’re ground up, you’d basically say, ‘There’s no way in hell I’m going to eat that,’ ” Mark told me. “That’s why we don’t touch them.” Instead, Pat LaFrieda has always adhered to a strict policy of using only cuts of whole muscle to make its ground beef. “With whole muscles,” Mark said, “you know exactly what you’re going to get, flavorwise. But with trimmings there’s no way you can have any consistency with your product. On top of that, you can’t quite know what’s in it. Worst-case scenario, you end up with sinew or cartilage being ground with the meat.”

Mark’s main mission at the company, however, is to ensure that New York restaurants fully understand the difference between buying meat from Pat LaFrieda and rival suppliers. He has spent the majority of his ten years at the company courting relationships with the city’s most celebrated chefs and restaurateurs, evidence of which is chronicled in the dozens of photos that hang above his desk: There’s Mark hanging with Mario Batali and April Bloomfield; there he is eating with Jeffrey Chodorow; here he is with Michael White. The night before I met him, he had dined first at Perilla, the West Village restaurant run by Harold Dieterle, after which he headed uptown to Marea, and then he made his way into the Gramercy Park Hotel to check out Maialino, Danny Meyer’s latest restaurant. (Though he lives in Westchester, he has a crash pad in the city.) “Basically, the first thing I do is sit down and make sure we’re supplying all their meat,” Mark told me. “Once that’s settled, I can relax.”

Mark likes to boast that Pat LaFrieda has grown exponentially without employing a single salesman, but Mark’s way of operating is designed to effectively turn his chefs into a pro bono sales force: One chef sings LaFrieda’s praises to another, who tells another, and so on. His promotional savvy has not gone unnoticed by his competitors. “What they’ve done is very ingenious,” says Mark Solasz, who runs Master Purveyors, a supplier in the Bronx with a profile similar to Pat LaFrieda: old school, family run, serving fabled restaurants like Peter Luger and JG Melon. “I mean, we’ve got the best burger in New York,” Solasz adds. “But we haven’t branded it.”

For a business like Pat LaFrieda, growth can present a dilemma, of course: Expand too much, and you risk losing the very thing that makes you special. “We’re running at a nice speed right now,” Mark told me. “We don’t need to get that much bigger.” The facility being built in New Jersey, however, seemed to contradict that. “Oh, no,” Mark said with a laugh. “We outgrew this space years ago. We’re building that to accommodate our existing customers.” He added that while the company may need to hire a few more people to work the phones, it has no intention of hiring a sales staff. “I’m married to this business,” Mark said. “I personally know everyone we serve, and I always will.”