Please enjoy this triple whammy write-up about DeBragga Meats, Certified Angus Beef and Blackbarn Restaurant.
DeBragga Meats, originally named the Brooklyn Hotel Supply Company, was founded by Joseph DeBragga, Emil Guenther and James Heilman in the early 1920s. In the mid 1930s, the company moved to Washington Street’s “meat packing” district of Manhattan. In 1948, the company was incorporated under its present name, DeBragga & Spitler, by Farmar DeBragga (Joseph’s son) and Paul Spitler.
In 1954, Marc Sarrazin joined the firm. Marc trained as a butcher at his family’s hotel and restaurant in the Charollais region of France, which is known for producing some of that country’s finest beef. The joy that Marc took in his work, selling New York’s top restaurants the finest cuts of meat, was evident in the strong relationships the company developed under his sales leadership.
In 1973, Marc Sarrazin became President of DeBragga, and the company became known as one of the finest meat purveyors in the entire industry, working directly with the best restaurants and hotels throughout the New York metro region and the Caribbean. Marc retired in 1992, and stepped aside to welcome his son, Marc John Sarrazin, as President of DeBragga & Spitler. Marc John’s two sons Eric and Peter represent the third generation of a business that traces its roots back nearly 100 years.
About eight years ago, the Whitney museum purchased DeBragga’s Washington Street lease, and DeBragga moved to a 25,000 square foot facility in Jersey City, which operates six days per week (there are no butchers cutting on Saturdays – only packing and shipping).
Today, DeBragga works with large packers like Nebraska Beef and Greater Omaha. DeBragga are purveyors of boxed beef, not wholesalers. The Certified Angus Beef brand is the entry level quality here. There is no choice quality, and there is no commodity pork or chicken. Half of their supply is hormone and antibiotic free. They sell 120,000 pounds of protein a week, and they have 100,000 pounds (roughly 4200 pieces, or a million dollars worth) of inventory in their three dry aging rooms. Take a look:
DeBragga’s customers are less steakhouse oriented, though they do supply Strip House and Gallagher’s. Their major customers are high end restaurants. Jean George, Tom Colicchio, Daniel Boulud and others use DeBragga for their proteins. Blackbarn (below) gets everything from DeBragga. They even started an e-commerce business to sell and ship directly to people at their homes.
CERTIFIED ANGUS BEEF
DeBragga became one of the first distributors of the Certified Angus Beef brand in the early 1980s, just shortly after the Certified Angus Beef brand began (1978).
In the late 1970s, the ability to get a great steak at home or even at a restaurant was hit or miss. The CAB founders wanted to set a standard for what would be considered a premium beef product. They found the best Angus ranchers and meat scientists to help them, and together they created 10 exacting quality specifications to determine what gets accepted into the program. Marbling, of course, is one of those key specifications. Four decades later, their vision to be the best of the best still remains.
All the beef in this delicious meal was Certified Angus Beef from DeBragga Meats. Chef John Doherty of Blackbarn Restaurant has been using CAB from DeBragga from the start of his career, which goes back to the early 1980’s, when he cooked for President Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and even rock gods Bob Dylan and Paul McCartney.
He cooked up a feast to celebrate CAB’s 40th year, and it was incredible. Here is everything:
Rib Eye Carpaccio with Shaved Foie Gras
Bone Marrow with Manilla Clams
Rib Cap Ravioli with Truffle Cream
Spinach Salad with Beef Bacon
Braised Short Rib Stuffed Rigatoni
Dry Aged Strip Loin Roast with Veggies
Tallow Biscuits with Berries & Cream
19 E 26th St
New York, NY 10010
Like all great businesses, there’s usually a great story behind the success. Let’s take Strassburger Steaks, for example.
A girl brings her father a homemade sandwich to the family’s beef plant in the Bronx – I’m guessing roast beef with horseradish sauce on a nice crusty roll. There, she meets her future husband, who is working as her father’s right-hand man. Over 150 years later, that family still prides itself on the traditions of dedicated daughters and great steak.
Suzanne “Suzy Sirloin” Strassburger and her sister Andrea work with their father, who has passed down to them five generations of work ethic along with a successful and well-respected business. In the story above, the father is Suzy’s great-great grandfather, and the daughter is her great grandmother.
Suzy and Andrea’s own father, Peter “T-Bone” Strassburger, is an innovator and leader in the industry. He started boxed beef in New York (wholesale cuts of beef, like rib and loin, individually packaged and placed into boxes for shipping), and he educated many steakhouses on the virtues of aged beef. In fact, his family was the first to install an aging room in their plant.
But in addition to supplying prime, dry-aged beef to high-end NYC restaurants, Strassburger also sells steaks online at the consumer level. And now Suzanne is also promoting her brand “Suzy Sirloin” to grocery stores around the city. With this venture, she is moving pork and all natural, hormone-free beef as a way to diversify. Smart!
She has a knack for marketing, too. It’s not often you see a woman walking around Manhattan in a big straw cowboy hat, but that’s Suzy’s signature accessory, and it’s even featured as part of her “Suzy Sirloin” logo.
She has said that she wears the hat as a sign of respect to all the hard working ranchers that produce the beef she sells. Right on! I can get on board with that.
Suzy is also a fellow Masters of Beef Advocacy graduate and Top of the Class trainee, like me, so we both like to blab about the benefits of beef, both for society in general and as part of a well-balanced and nutritious diet. You can check out her blog here, but she also founded The Sirloin Report, to which I’ve linked in the past.
I had a chance to interview her on the phone. We started from a string of 10 questions, and chatted from there. Read on below and enjoy! I’ve done my best to distill our conversations down to all the best bits of information.
1) When did you realize you wanted to work in the meat business? Was it something you always knew you wanted to do, or did it take some time to grow on you?
I knew immediately that I wanted to work in the business from the age of three or four. I always thought it was cool that when I asked my dad what he did, he’d respond that he worked for Poppa [Suzy’s grandfather]. Any day off that I had from school, I would be at the family meat factory helping out, answering phones, anything I could do.
Suzy went to college and started working professionally at the company around age 24. She worked literally every job in the business; putting together boxes, packing the boxes, you name it. This allowed her to really understand the challenges faced by each employee. She even worked beside guys in the cooler who had been there since her grandfather was running the place.
Suzy talked a lot about her family’s five and six generations in the meat business (both of her dad’s parents had beef industry families), and a lot about her dad.
Suzy has had some great success, but she says that her dad is a tough act to follow. He had eight plants out west that produced 10 million pounds of beef per week. He was the first wholesaler to box beef and to dry age beef in NYC. He’s still working today at 78 years old, and he always encourages Suzy and her sister to work hard and keep learning. In fact, Suzy went back to school this year and is enrolled in a program at Harvard business school. She’s always staying current and continuing to learn.
2) What is a typical day of work like for you from start to finish?
My work changes from day to day depending on where the business needs me. Some days I’ll be buying, other days selling. I’m also the business’ problem solver, so I have to make sure that everything is coming together and running smoothly.
3) What are some of the challenges and rewards you experience working in this business?
While the work was more challenging when I was younger, assembling the right team and having the right people around really helped. My sister runs the most challenging aspect of the business, which is collections. As for the most rewarding aspect? Enjoying a delicious steak at a client’s establishment.
4) I know you supply one of my favorite restaurants, Keens, with its beef. Do you also supply them with their legendary mutton?
Suzy does not supply Keen’s with their mutton. She deals exclusively in beef.
5) How do your foodservice clients choose their beef? Do they rely on your selection, or do they choose the cuts themselves?
Both. Some clients wish to choose everything, while others have developed long and trusting relationships with my family and rely on our expertise.
Suzy also explained that this loyalty and trust goes in the other direction too, from her to her beef suppliers. When times get tough and beef is hard to come by or expensive, Suzy has long standing relationships in place that allow her to still get her hands on the best supply.
6) Do you find that your clients and customers are well versed in beef nutrition, safety and the various niche labels, or is that something about which you constantly have to educate?
Suzy is constantly educating people about beef. She and I both went through the MBA and Top of the Class programs with the NCBA, so she, like me, is constantly providing useful information to people, both client and consumer alike. But there’s one thing she likes to say about food safety:
Buy it cold, serve it hot and keep it clean!
7) Is there a particular region of the country or breed of cattle from which you like to source your beef? I know food trends are pushing hard for “local” products, but doesn’t the best quality beef come from the Midwest and Texas?
Suzy supports ranchers and farmers from all over. She tries to make sure the client is happy. Whatever the client wants to serve at their restaurant, she will help to make it happen.
8) How often do you interact with farmers, ranchers, and other producers before the beef gets to your operation?
The reason Suzy wears her cowboy hat all the time is because she believes that beef and her business is ultimately all about the ranchers and farmers. She visits ranches and farms often, and many of her close friends are ranchers, farmers and butchers. She surrounds herself with people who are working with the animals daily. Not only does Suzy understand what goes into beef production, but she respects the process and doesn’t take for granted what these hard working families do for the American food supply.
9) I’m a big fan of dry-aged beef. Do you find that any particular cuts take to this process better than others, and are there amounts of time that are too long or too short for producing good flavor?
We dry age middle meats like shells [bone-in strip loins], short loins [porterhouses and t-bones], and ribs. We typically age them for three to four weeks, but it really depends on what the customer or client wants.
After we chatted for a bit about her family’s important role in the world of dry-aged beef, Suzy astutely pointed out that no two aging rooms are alike. The way the beef turns out all depends on how often people walk in and out of the room, the air circulation, the lighting, temperature, humidity, etc.
10) What’s your favorite cut of beef and why? Grilled, smoked, or seared in a pan? And how often do you eat beef in any given week?
A grilled, prime, boneless New York strip steak is my favorite. And I eat beef 14 times a week.
If you dine out often in this great city, you’ve no doubt seen the name Pat LaFrieda featured prominently, in bold or italics, beside some of the best beef offerings at the finest restaurants.
The name has become synonymous with top notch quality beef, along with other proteins like lamb, poultry, game and pork. Personally, I can vouch for this. Many of my favorite dry-aged, high end cuts of steak and delicious burger grinds come from LaFrieda. In fact, the best steak I’ve ever had in my life was a LaFrieda tomahawk from Osteria Morini, and I’ve eaten a lot of fucking steak!
Currently, the LaFrieda business is a 36,000 square foot processing facility in New Jersey that ultimately feeds 300,000 carnivores a day. But it wasn’t always like that. So, what happened, and what makes LaFrieda beef so great?
Like all great success stories, LaFrieda’s started with a vision. Or perhaps it was a lack of vision, to be precise. You see, in late 1800’s Naples, a young Anthony LaFrieda was popped in the face during a street fight, resulting in a black eye. A butcher came out of his shop from nearby and slapped a cold steak over Anthony’s eye to soothe the pain. But that butcher ended up giving Anthony a job, and that’s when the family business took root.
Anthony learned the art of butchery in Italy and brought it with him to the US in 1909. Eventually he opened a meat shop in Brooklyn, 1922. He ran it with his five sons, Pat (the first) being one of them. They began servicing restaurants in the 1950’s with a shop in Manhattan’s meatpacking district, and in 1964 Pat and his son (Pat the second) took ownership of the business, calling it Pat LaFrieda Meat Purveyors.
The business grew, and the shop changed locations a few times throughout the west village, eventually landing at Leroy Street for 30 years, starting in the 1980’s. It was there that Pat the third, age 12, began to learn his family’s trade, thereby carrying the business from great grandfather, to grandfather, to father, to son; a four generation meat dynasty!
The Business Today
Pat the third’s vision for the business was a bit different than his elders. He wanted to work directly with restaurants to provide them with the best product, trimmed and portioned exactly to their specifications. He even went so far as to begin creating custom burger blends for his customers. He wanted to help restaurants develop products that showcased their chef’s talents, and to treat restaurant customers as if they were also LaFrieda customers.
It worked. This concept made the Pat LaFrieda Meat Purveyors brand a highly sought after commodity among the NYC restaurant elite. But the meat isn’t only relegated to high-priced steakhouses and fancy “white table cloth” joints. You can find Pat LaFrieda custom burger blends and steaks all over the place, from bars to neighborhood mom and pop shops. The concept that Pat the third created allows for all kinds of budgets, since custom portioning and cutting is the specialty.
I mentioned earlier that the operation is now run out of Jersey in a large facility. Well, there, LaFrieda has a full aging room on site, with over 5,000 primals aging at any given time. LaFrieda supplies both choice and prime beef, and grinds upwards of 50 unique burger blends every day. In fact, LaFrieda grinds out 75,000 burger patties every day, in all different sizes, including all different proteins, and within all different niche markets (like organic, all natural, grass-finished, etc.). Amazing.
But LaFrieda beef isn’t only just for bars, restaurants and hotels. Pat the third stays true to his great grandfather Anthony’s original butcher shop business model, as you can order directly from their website for home delivery. In fact a friend of mine just recently ordered up and grilled a bunch of rib eyes for a party he hosted.
I did the same as well, actually. It was tremendous. Take a look HERE, as I documented the whole thing.
LaFrieda currently works with small farms and processors from all around the country to acquire the best meats from the best producers. As my “Meet Your Meat” series continues and develops, I will be featuring some of these farms in similar articles. My goal here is to provide you meat maniacs with a better understanding of where your food comes from, from feed to food, so to speak.
Interview with Pat
I had the pleasure of communicating with Pat via email before publishing this article, and it made for some interesting Q&A. Take a gander below:
Me: Okay, first, some more serious questions. I have this romanticized notion in my mind that you get to hang around beef and taste steak all day long while beautiful maidens fan you and feed you grapes. But deep down I know it can’t be beautiful and dreamy like that. So what is a typical work day like for you?
Pat: Johnny, that is a great question and one that is asked often. When I first joined the family business, my Dad began his day at 3am every morning. Although that sounds early, in order to grow and maintain the customers that we already had, I changed our start time a little earlier every so often. The way NYC works for a chef is a logistical nightmare. With storage space being so tight, chefs normally wait until after dinner service to place their order for the next morning, roughly at 10 pm. Most restaurants want their delivery before 9 am. In between the time that a chef orders and the time of delivery, the butcher needs to translate the order into a computerized system, custom portion whatever was ordered, weigh, package, load and invoice the restaurant before sending the order off in a delivery truck, into the Hell of NYC traffic. That all boils down to me beginning my day at 3pm, running the labyrinth I just described until 5am. Never wanting to disrespect my Dad, I never asked him to start his day any earlier so my last two hours at work are the most pleasurable, being that they overlap with his. A beautiful maiden offering grapes he is not, but funny he is.
Me: I’ve always joked that I must have been a butcher in a past life or something, given how fascinated I am with the art and skill of it. But I’ve actually heard that being a butcher is really difficult work with odd hours. I suppose like any career, there are challenges and rewards. While your current business is much different from the shop your great grandfather opened, what are some of the challenges and rewards you’ve experienced in your lifetime of butchery, processing and meat purveying?
Pat: Space, was always the biggest challenge and it came in more than one form. For storage and portioning meat, we were always tight for space. As our expansion increased from the mid-nineties, real estate prices began to soar so butchers had to operate within the space that we had. Growth was great, but it made our quality of life worse because there was nowhere to put our inventory after a short few years. The thought of leaving Manhattan was a nightmare, but when the city put a bicycle lane through our loading area, we knew it was time to build a new facility out of the city. Another form that space takes is the worst part of the meat business and that’s the time between when we need to pay our farmers and the time in which our customers pay us. The gap is so vast, it would put most out of business faster than we got parking tickets in the bus lane of our loading zone.
Me: I’m always trying to give my readers a better understanding of where their food comes from. What are some of the farms you deal with when sourcing the meat that you process? Anything local or big-name that us steak aficionados might know?
Pat: Long before the recent political campaign, we have always preached to buy domestic, yes, product that is raised and grazed in America. We have the safest meat supply in the world and since meat is one of our last natural resources, with manufacturing jobs plummeting, why would Americas not want to preserve that? I believe that “Local” is a gimmick however. In NYC for instance, NY State does not grow beef anywhere near as good as Kansas, so why would I want to pedal that garbage to prestigious NYC institutions that count on an amazing experience to survive. As for other meat, like rabbits, there is no place better than NY State to source them. That is how we base our sourcing, locating the best in class for each category as long as it’s domestic.
Me: How often do you interact with the farmers who actually raise the animals or run the feedlots?
Pat: We work very close with farmers for our sourcing. My cousin is in Dodge City right now as I write this, to ensure that our product is humanely handled, properly raised and finished.
Me: I’m a huge fan of dry-aging beef because the process concentrates flavor and increases tenderness, along with adding earthiness. Often we see steaks that were aged for 28-35 days on menus, but some places tout steaks that are aged upwards of 100 days like they are delicacies. Is 28-35 days a sweet spot for how long the beef should age, and is there any downside to aging for longer periods of time aside from the normal loss of weight that happens from the dry-aging process?
Pat: We age up to 120 days. As long as the humidity is controlled, the temperature is constant and the air circulation is vast, the meat will not rot. After 120 days, diminishing returns will begin to effect the product in that the funk of the dry age gets a bit bitter. 28 days is the young side of the range and is very universal whereas 120 days is the far end and is intended for those who have acquired the pallet for such.
Me: Okay now some fun stuff. There’s an old myth that a butcher’s favorite steak is the hanger, or “butcher’s steak,” as it is aptly called. Is there any truth to that, and what is your favorite cut? Dad’s, grandfather’s and great Grandfather’s favorite cuts?
Pat: Hanger was a butcher’s favorite because it is the only muscle in the animal that must get removed first before the animal is split. It is not symmetrical so before today’s practice of removing it first, the net result would be an ugly steak that only the butcher would eat because it was not appealing to the public back then. My family’s favorite cut has always been Outside Skirt steak.
Me: Are you like me, in that beef is your favorite meat protein? If not, which is your favorite?
Pat: Beef for sure because it is universal in cooking, with Lamb close behind.
Me: How often would you say that you eat red meat or beef?
Pat: I eat red meat daily. It is an amazing source of protein and crucial vitamins, it was intended by nature for us to eat and I happen to have a decent amount of it at any given time.
Me: Do you have a favorite steakhouse, or place to eat steak when not making your own?
Pat: I’m often asked to pick a favorite restaurant and from the bottom of my heart, I mean what I say when I answer that it truly depends on where I’m standing when I’m hungry, what my pallet is desiring at that moment and the friends that I’m with at that time. If you let that be your guide, you will have many favorites as I do.
Me: And finally, your Sophie’s Choice moment: If you could only have one for the rest of your life, would it be a burger or a steak?
Pat: I had to think long and hard on this one. In my lifetime, I could have answered this question differently every week depending on my last experience before being asked. A few days ago, I would have responded STEAK because I just had a great one at Benjamin’s, then our corporate chef made me a truffle burger yesterday that has had me hungry for another ever since, so because you are asking me today, it’s all about the BURGER.