The Man Behind the Shake Shack Burger: Pat LaFrieda

February 20, 2018

We are privileged enough to live in a city where restaurants compete with one another to make the best burger.

 

Some of the best contenders are Minetta Tavern, Burger and Lobster, Emily, The Spotted Pig, Bill's Burger Bar, and Black Tap. All of the customized burger blends for these restaurants happen to come from one man: Pat LaFrieda.  We sit down with Pat LaFrieda in his location in North Bergen, NJ to chat about the process for creating some of the most iconic burgers in New York City, butchery as a form or art, and what it takes to be successful as a small family business.

 

 

Bvster:

 

How has the meat industry changed since you started with your dad back in 1994?

 

Pat LaFrieda:

 

Well the cliche middleman has disappeared from this industry. When I first started with my dad, we had to buy all of our meat from the 14th street meat market. That's how we started our day and that could be a six hour process getting through that traffic. I don't think anyone really remembers what it was like, unless you were there at 2:00 or 3:00 a.m. in the morning as you tried to navigate through all those tractor trailers and trucks that were backed up. We used to go to market with actually, stolen A&P shopping carts. You'd go through the market getting wherever meat you needed and you’d buy it from each of the different suppliers there. Then you had to make it back to your location, process the meat, and portion it however the restaurant wanted it. Then the rest of the day you spent delivering it.

 

Bvster:

 

I was actually a butcher's apprentice around the same time at Edward’s Finest in Connecticut. I remember clearly that we used get shipments of cryovac already broken down. Did you guys actually have to take the whole animal?

 

Pat LaFrieda:

 

In my dad's day, yes he used to take the entire animal so that's a big change that's happened. He often says to me you don't know how lucky you are. If I wanted to sell two New York Strips I had to sell two ribeyes, two inside rounds, two bottom rounds, and two chucks. So it was difficult for them. That's why about 10 years ago when a lot of restaurants went back to bringing in whole animals I knew that wasn’t going to last long. They don't understand the economies of scale or the benefits of the beef industry being the perfect example of a capitalist system. The items and the cuts that are in demand get priced accordingly and it brings the price of everything else down. Most recently everyone was worried about China opening and importing all of our beef. But what happened, the Chinese mostly eat offal while Americans do not. So the offal was the first item priced in the animal which brought the other cuts down.

 

Bvster:

 

I have to say I don't miss working in the butcher industry because you're always cold or wet, usually both. I remember one of the best pieces of advice I ever got was from an old butcher whose name was Frank. He said Willie you don't want to be here, go do something else with your life.

 

Pat LaFrieda:

 

That's what my dad told me too. He did not want me in this business at all. I was working on Wall Street and I hated it; I couldn't stand going to work. I begged him to come in because I had the experience of working with him every day off since I was 10. So if I wasn't in school I was with my dad helping him and it always made sense to me. I loved jumping into trucks as a helper, making the final delivery into the restaurant, and being able to speak to the chef if there was an issue. That's also where I really learned how to cook and what restaurateurs and chefs want in meat. It was a great education.

 

 

Bvster:

 

Family businesses can be challenging for a variety of reasons but you've been very successful. Can you speak about the challenges of a family-run business and what working with your family has taught you?

 

Pat LaFrieda:

 

Yes working with family is very difficult; everyone's the chief. The worst feeling in the world is leaving a hard day's work and not speaking to a family member like my dad. I can't go home and sleep; it's impossible.

 

My dad has always started at 3 a.m. As we got busier I knew I needed to start earlier, but out of respect I never asked my dad to start any earlier. I took that upon myself with my crew, so much so that we start 12 hours ahead of him. So I overlap with him in the morning a couple of hours and I overlap with him in the afternoon a few hours but it's not constant all day. I think that's how it works. Throw in my cousin who works midday and none of us are on each other's backs.  We've been there before and it's no happy place.

 

 Burger at Emily in the West Village

Bvster:

 

Almost all of your beef is supplied from the Creekstone Farms in Arkansas City. Can you explain what is so special about them?

 

 

Pat LaFrieda:

 

Creekstone is a special place. Even though it says Creekstone Farms, it's not a farm, it's a slaughtering facility. We like to say harvesting facility these days which sounds nicer, but it is one of the only completely humane facilities. Dr. Temple Grandin, the woman who got into the mindset of cattle, figured out a way of processing beef in the least stressful environment to include no corners. Apparently steer don't like corners so everything is circular as they walk through the system. We know that we're killing an animal but we want to feel good about what we're eating. I have to say if it was my time to go, that's the way I would go. One knock, like the movie No Country For Old Men, and it’s done.  

 

 

Bvster:

 

You mentioned recently on Instagram that you really like to hunt and how being a butcher and a hunter is a complete cycle. Can you speak more about that?

 

Pat LaFrieda:

 

Growing up in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn there was no hunting. My dad is an anti-hunter if you can imagine that. Every time I harvest a deer, I think he sends money into the ASPCA. But he's the one who got me into hunting indirectly. When I first started with my dad again Il Mulino restaurant on West 3rd in the West Village, was rated the best Italian restaurant in New York City for over 20 years in Zagat. It was our biggest account and I was still in the Army Reserve in those years. Gino Masci was the owner, who I later came to love, respect and look up to as a father figure. He demanded that I drive him two and a half hours upstate on Saturday night. As everyone else is going out, I'm driving to upstate New York. He abandoned me on the side of a mountain then got into my driver's seat, took off, and came back 14 hours later. All I had was a shotgun; he said hunt for turkey and he bow hunted for deer.

 

When he came back to get me, I was an ice cube but what happened was a miracle. He told me to go up the mountain so I went three quarters up the mountain and sat by some pine trees. I didn't realize the turkeys were roosting all above me. So when the sun came up, they started landing everywhere around me. The first one I saw was the first animal I ever shot. I mean I shot targets at the range in the military but never a game bird.

 

I thought something happened to him and he wasn’t coming back for me. So it's now 6:30 pm, I'm freezing and here he comes driving with the car. He says “Pat, great news. I got one but I can't find it. We have to sleep here tonight”. So I say “Gino by the way I shot a turkey”. He's says “You’re kidding me. No one's ever shot a turkey on this mountain”. So I was like "What did you put me up here for then?"  

 

The next day we tracked his deer and we found it. He gave me the knife and said “Pat, butcher this for me” and I did it, in what to him was record time. I just fell in love with hunting from that moment on. I just thought it was amazing. Going back to Il Mulino, he never wanted anyone to know that he hunted because that was in the West Village, so very controversial especially at the time. We would sneak the meat in and he made us some great venison strip loin. I made my turkey the next day; it was awesome.

 

Bvster:

 

It seemed like hunting came very naturally to you.

 

Pat LaFrieda:

 

It did. I don't know if I would be hunting if I didn’t by accident. Maybe it was the turkeys that roosted above me by accident. If that didn't happen and I just froze all day, I never would have wanted to go hunting again. But it was that one feeling of what sounded like a helicopter landing. Imagine a 20 lb bird landing, that doesn't normally fly coming out of a 40 ft high branch off a tree times maybe 40 or 60 birds. It was really exciting.

 

Bvster:

 

Can you explain how butchering is a form of art?

 

Pat LaFrieda:

 

Butchering is a form of art because when you have that knife in your hands, it's up to you what the final product is going to look like. But we go a little bit beyond. I told you I just filmed The Action Bronson Show and we brought him tomahawk steaks. In the bone with the drum machine we etched in Action Bronson and he went crazy for it. Putting those little customized things in, it's really an art form. We give our staff here total freedom to create and to do things like that. Just like we created different blends of burgers and we really pioneered the tomahawk steak. I keep thinking that trend is going to end but it seems to keep going and going.

 

Back to the artistic aspect of butchering; think about the tying of a butcher's knot and the stuffing of a roast. The men can't wait for the holidays until they get their stuffed crown roast of lamb because it's something different. This is a very repetitive business. Restaurants order the same meat every night so they can't wait to get a little creative and do something else. That really shows you if someone has passion in this industry or not.         

 

Retail butchers, which we are not, get very creative with the terminology more than the cuts. One way to tell if retail butcher is moving a lot of product or if it's fresh is as you walk through the shop how much meat is marinating in teriyaki. As a butcher I feel badly when I see that; I want to help them out. There's a bit of a kinship from butcher to butcher and you never want to see anyone lose money in this industry.

 

 

Bvster:

 

One of the main things that sets you apart from your competition is that you create customized blends of meat sold exclusively at one restaurant. Can you talk about how you came up with the idea and why it's been so successful?

 

Pat LaFrieda:

 

If you really want to grow in New York City, you need to provide a different experience from one restaurant on one corner to the restaurant on the next corner. We even had requests from restaurants alerting us that a new restaurant was opening up on their block and that we were not allowed to sell them any product. So early on I realized we needed to customize. The customization actually first came from City Hall Restaurant. It was on 131 Dwaine run by Henry Meer, he owned the Cub Room prior to that. City Hall had a good 15 year run but he had a real hot grill. The actual grill had huge gaps in between each crate and he'd lose a lot of fat. We needed to add brisket to his plans so that was really the first brisket plan. Prior to that, my Grandfather’s plan, which we never changed, included brisket, clod with the flat iron, chuck and short rib. To add more brisket and to break up the ratio a little bit just to satisfy that one cooking surface was the beginning of a revolution for our company. What came of that change were burgers like Spotted Pig, Minetta Tavern's Black Label, and Shake Shack. We developed the whole burger and supply all of the Shake Shacks that we can deliver to. So it's pretty substantial; probably 60,000 lbs of meat tonight so that’s 240,000 burgers just for Shake Shack.  

 

 

Bvster:

 

We interviewed Aaron Kahn from Wurstbar in Jersey City recently. He mentioned that he tried nearly 15 different burger blends before he found the one he wanted. Is that a normal process?

 

Pat LaFrieda:

 

It is. It all starts by asking a chef what is it that you're looking for? They'll normally call and say can I have so and so’s blend? We tell them no, but tell me what you want. Tell me what you're looking for and what you're cooking on. We then develop a few samples and send them to the restaurant. Then they'll make a determination and give us a direction to go into. We can usually get it wrapped up in three layers of samples. We just did it in two layers for a new restaurant. They were able to tell me all the details and we were able to work it out. Burger and Lobster is a great place in the city that does a 10 oz burger. We had to change the formulation of the burger because of the size. So it's not just the cooking surface or the starting temperature of the heat or the starting temperature of the beef, it's also the size.

 

Earlier you mentioned meat to bun ratio. Nothing is original. I don't remember anyone speaking about that before I did. If you bite into a burger and the first bite is bread, you are doing something wrong. We normally ask our chefs tell us about the roll. Do you have control in making the diameter smaller or larger?  If not we'll make the burger wider. That way once it's cooked, if it overhangs a little bit when it's raw, when it's cooked it'll come right into place and just hang over an eighth of an inch. Also the burger will look so much better than if it were to shrink inside a huge kaiser bun or something like that. 

 

One of my favorite burgers is actually from Bill’s. It's three sliders together but one rectangular patty. They actually found the baker who makes the buns for White Castle. The magic is that the bun melts in your mouth. I always order it doubled because that's what's going to give me the right meat to bun ratio. They serve it with a knife and you cut in between the buns so it’s not gimmicky but actually functional. When Steve Hanson asked me to first make that for him I had to sign a contract that I would not make any burgers with right angles for five years. I love Steve, he’s an amazing guy but only he would think of a contract like that.

 

 Slider-Style Burger at Wurstbar in Jersey City

 

Bvster:

 

How important is marbling when it comes to flavor?

 

 

Pat LaFrieda:

 

Marbling is everything. Marbling is how the USDA, for the most part, grades all beef in the United States. The more marbling, the more flavor, the more expensive it is and the higher rating it is. For American beef, you can either have it ungraded, which means it probably has almost no grading, select, choice, or prime. What's marbled beyond that would be wagyu and kobe product which I think is the most misused steak in the history of steaks. It has so much fat content that it's not made to eat like an American steak. Many people can't digest a boneless, 18 oz wagyu steak. The Japanese way is to slice it thin, sear it and have small portions of it which is delicious.

 

The first kobe strip I took home and I shared it with my pooch. There I am eating kobe steak with my dog, my dog can only eat a quarter of it and I can only a quarter of it. I was teetering on nausea for the rest of the day. But sliced thin and cooked the way the Japanese intended for it to be cooked is really a completely amazing and very different experience.

 

 

Bvster:

 

You mentioned in an interview with Forbes that you aren’t interested in pursuing licensing deals or opening a steakhouse because you don't want to compete with their clients. Can you talk about the reasoning behind that and how you are able to balance growing a client base while expanding into new business endeavors like the Pennsy?

 

 

Pat LaFrieda:

 

We never want to compete with our customers-it wouldn't be right. We don't have any contracts that forbid us to do it; we have handshakes and that's all you'd need with us. We never want to open up a competitive restaurant next to one of our clients. It's not right and they wouldn't want to buy from us. The Pennsy came along by Steve Roth asking if we would put our brand on the corner of 7th avenue and 33rd Street because he had invested almost five billion dollars on that corner. Every time he went to Madison Square Garden or to the building, someone tried to sell him drugs or scalped tickets. So he really wanted to change the demographic of 33rd Street and 7th avenue.

 

Nike offered them 1 million dollars a month for the space. He said “Pat what do you think, a food hall?” I said give it to Nike, we don’t make that kind of money in this business. But he said “No, no, do you think I care about that? I spent a lot of money on these four corners and I want to change it.” And it's changing and it's really nice.

 

But back to your question, the Pennsy is in a bubble. It's not really on Fifth Avenue and it's not a steakhouse. We sell sandwiches, something that none of our clients really do. The exposure that we get from that one location is tremendous. What do we do with our exposure? We push it to social media. What do we do with our social media? We push people to our restaurants. If you want our product, these are our clients. So it's one circle and we really do it all to help promote because we win only if the restaurants we serve win. If they're successful financially and are able to pay their bills, that's a big win for us. It's an added service that in this industry nobody gives. No purveyors help promote the restaurants they serve.

 

 

Bvster:

 

You have plans to open up another production facility two blocks north of your current location in North Bergen. A lot of our listeners are budding entrepreneurs. Can you share with our listeners what you're looking for in a production facility?

 

Pat LaFrieda:

 

So we're currently sitting in a production facility. We built it seven years ago and after moving from a place in Manhattan, where we were for 95 years. We just outgrew Manhattan; it's not the proper place for food production at any scalable level. So we literally drew a circle around the middle of Manhattan on Google Maps and it brought us to the edges of Queens and the Bronx. We're from Brooklyn so we know the boroughs. But we landed in this part of New Jersey, which is very close to the Lincoln Tunnel. We bought this property, knocked everything down and built from scratch. Seven years later we've out grown it and we need to increase production ASAP. So we actually broke ground today. We will start building within the year. The new facility will have three times the production of this location and we'll keep running both.

 

 Bvster:

 

Awesome. So you're expanding your output and you can widen your delivery range.

 

Pat LaFrieda:

 

We will but a lot more of it has to do with the fact that this is a more regulated business than I think a nuclear power plant. We have a USDA agent with her own office in the building-they're always here. When you get too congested, it could become a food safety issue and they could stop you or slow you down. So before you get to that point, you need to think ahead and get into another location or in our case, build a location. We have to build because the USDA has very stringent guidelines as to how the building needs to be and very few contractors out there know how to build a USDA facility. So my dad wears many hats; he is the G.C. of record, licensed and insured. So he's there to oversee the whole construction, just like he was for this building.

 

Bvster:

 

Awesome. Are you going to design the delivery with different loading docks?  Did you look at ergonomics?

 

Pat LaFrieda:

 

Yes. Actually what we did was we looked at every bit of new technology that would help our teams. So where they would have to lift, conveyor belts will be doing it and they'll have joysticks.  But we're not getting rid of anybody. Whenever an engineer comes in and says you can get rid of six people if you buy this machine, in reality you probably will have to add two more to help clean it, take it apart and service it. But it will take a lot of the physical stress off of everybody from start to finish.

 

 

Bvster:

 

A lot of what you do has a small business touch to it. Your grinding machines are a third of the size of large production facilities to handle the custom blends and you personally pick out the orders for restaurants. As you previously said in a New York magazine interview “I’m the only guy who gets what the chef wants”. What is your strategy for balancing expansion while still maintaining the individual touches that are essential to the Pat LaFrieda brand?

 

Pat LaFrieda:

 

Accessibility I think is the most important. As you saw when you arrived here at 9:30 p.m, I was speaking to a chef’s wife, actually Geoffrey Zakarian’s wife, about some cuts that they're going to need for a project they have coming up. My cell phone number is still on all my invoices. It wouldn't be on silent right now if we weren’t doing this. So chefs can get me 24/7 to get a question answered. It seems very simple and elementary but try doing that with any other company. It's impossible; you’re going to get a voicemail or a callback a week later.  Chefs need to know things right away and they want answers right away. So we sell two things: we sell meat and we sell service. We're delivering meat to restaurants now so all of our trucks have GPS and a tracking system so we can tell our customers our truck is two blocks away. As technology gets better, service gets better.

 

Bvster:

 

Would you ever consider franchising?

 

Pat LaFrieda:

 

No, franchising is so complicated in this industry because we have about 45 or 50 butchers downstairs cutting right now. Another facility would have to find 40 or 50 trained butchers to work with knives and band saws. It's a dangerous environment so the level of training is very high. I think it's one of the reasons that we stay successful because we stay on top of that. However, the restaurant we've considered franchising a few times but it goes back to how big can we get without competing with our clients.

 

 

Bvster:

 

Have ever thought of doing a West Coast operation?

 

Pat LaFrieda:

 

Absolutely, actually I had a two hour conversation with a potential West Coast partner. We're able to ship our product via private carrier as far as Las Vegas. I can't get them to California; something happens in Vegas with the drivers. They go off the grid and you can’t get them on the phone. I don’t know whether it’s the women, the men or the gambling. Even though it's only four more hours to California, I can’t tell restaurants that I can get the product there. Once the drivers hit Vegas, three days later from New Jersey , I lose them for a day or two and I don't know where they are. So that happened a few times and we had to cut that off. But if we're considering opening in Vegas or outside Vegas, we would be able to do California and Vegas.

 

 

Bvster:

 

Eat my meat-your hash tag is simple and brilliant. Who came up with it?

 

Pat LaFrieda:

 

That's actually my dad's from the 1970s. So when I took over the business, our vans said eat my meat on the back. One of the first the accounts I landed was the Marriott Marquis in Times Square.  My truck backed up into the loading dock and the purchasing agent was female. She approached me and said that's not very appropriate so the next day it was off. My dad was heartbroken. Although we won't ever put it back on our trucks, it's on our t-shirts and aprons; it's the biggest request. Everybody wants that hat or that T-shirt that says eat my meat. After I took it off the van for the Marriott Marquis, my dad had a family argument with me. He said “Pat, I don't get it. All I'm asking is that they eat our meat. That woman has a dirty mind”. It was genius but it’s not going to work; things have to evolve and change.

 

 

Bvster:

 

Do you have a favorite memory of food?

 

Pat LaFrieda:

 

Yes, it mostly has to do with my mom when it comes to food at a restaurant. When we had a family discussion, I'm the oldest of four, my mom would take the reins, call a family meeting, and we would go to Raoul’s. Raoul’s is another restaurant that we’ve serve for over 30 years. The steak au poivre is like no other. It's great because they don't get a lot of publicity and it’s not a flashy place. But when you go inside, there isn’t a seat to be had. It's just low key and the food is down to earth and amazing.

 

Other than that, Sunday sauce in an Italian family in Brooklyn. When you smell that on Sunday, you think I have school tomorrow but at least we have sauce. The sauce is magic especially when you braise beef short ribs in it all day or pork spare ribs along with the pasta. It really comes full circle and is a complete meal.

 

 

 

Pat LaFrieda Meat Purveyors

 

Pat LaFrieda @The Pennsy

2 Pennsylvania Plaza, New York, NY 

 

 

After reading about Pat LaFrieda, are you craving a good burger?

Check out our previous article with Tyrone Green of Dark Side of the Moo, a restaurant specializing in exotic meats. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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