A Juicy History of Steak-Umm
Eugene Gagliardi, patriarch of the Gagliardi meatpacking business, raised the 22-ounce frozen log of beef byproducts that would shortly become known as Steak-umm and sent it careening into his son’s ankle.
“Nobody is ever going to buy this sh*t!” he screamed, storming off.
"My dad was not supportive," Gene Gagliardi, whose Achilles tendon had been targeted, tells Mental Floss. "I decided to work on it at night."
The elder Gagliardi was not a man given to flights of fancy in the meat business, and now was not the time to try his patience with an experiment. It was the mid-1960s and his company was floundering, having lost some valuable accounts in recent months. What the younger Gagliardi had perceived to be a possible solution was, to his father, a joke. To Gene, it seemed like nothing could be done to please his father—not even his idea to revolutionize the frozen beef business by collecting scraps of unwanted meat and pressing it into a loaf.
The younger Gagliardi would eventually sell Steak-umm to Heinz for $20 million. He was one of the few who saw the potential for thinly-sliced steaks and refused to abandon the idea, even as his ankle throbbed.
When Gagliardi was 6 years old, his father seated him on a pear crate, put a knife in his hand, and told him to start cutting. Chopping beef and poultry was the family business, and the Gagliardi clan—Eugene and his three sons, with Gene the middle child—were prominent meat merchants in the West Philadelphia area of Pennsylvania. There was no time to waste.
In the 1950s, the Gagliardis found success selling portion-controlled meat cuts long before commercial food manufacturers started peddling smaller serving sizes for dieters. They also curated premium slabs of beef and sold them to high-end clientele. When the fast food chains like Burger King and McDonald’s began to proliferate, the Gagliardis earned their business, too.
But by the 1960s, the laundry list of accounts had begun to dry up. Cheaper suppliers were becoming more abundant, and the personalized touch of Gagliardi Brothers was becoming less of a buying influence. With business slowing down, Gene Gagliardi would stay up late at night and think about how to bring his family’s finances back from the brink. That way, maybe his father would allow him to pursue his dream of being a park ranger in Montana.
One of those nights, the then-30-year-old identified a problem with the well-known Philly-style cheesesteaks. The chewy steak cuts were tough to handle for both children and senior citizens, and posed a bit of a choking risk across the board. Gagliardi thought a tender source of the beef would broaden the appeal of the cheesesteak and open it up to a larger market.
"It was tough cow meat back then," he says. "You had to be real careful about feeding it to kids because the meat would drag out of the sandwich. I thought, well, if you can homogenize milk, you should be able to homogenize meat."
Gagliardi thought he could soften up the meat by running it repeatedly through a meat grinder. "I did that about five times, extracting the protein out, and it became a solid mass. I couldn't slice it, so I froze it and then put it back in the fridge for four days to temperate it, then sliced it." Gagliardi had created a tender meat product that could be sold frozen and virtually eliminated the choking hazards of conventional Philly cheesesteaks.
(In a 2012 federal court ruling, a judge would articulate exactly what Gagliardi had done. "[The Steak-umm was] from chopped and formed emulsified meat product that is comprised of beef trimmings left over after an animal is slaughtered and all of the primary cuts, such as tenderloin, filet, and rib eye, are removed,” Judge Lawrence Stengel wrote. “The emulsified meat is pressed into a loaf and sliced, frozen, and packaged.")
Because the beef was so flat, it took only 30 seconds to cook each side. Gagliardi tasted it, found it delicious, and thought he’d solved his family’s problems.
His father was not a fan. After berating his son for even contemplating the idea, he begrudgingly allowed him to peddle it to supermarkets. Gagliardi offered to sell it below cost so stores would carry it. Marketed under the Gagliardi's frozen brand of Table Treats, the frozen meat slices debuted in 1969.
"We actually sold it to school lunch programs," Gagliardi says. "Kids ate it, loved it, then went home and asked for it."
Its eye-raising origins aside, shoppers seemed to embrace the product. It was quick to make—some college students even cooked the slices by wrapping them in foil and ironing them—tasty, and easy to chew. The company even distributed it with frozen rolls for a complete Philly cheesesteak experience. By 1975, Gagliardi was distributing them under the name Steak-umm after a friend suggested it during a quail hunting expedition. By 1980, he says, it was the best-selling frozen meat product in retailer freezers: "Competitors would try to pay off inspectors to find out how we did it."
While the Steak-umm name was trademarked, Gagliardi was unsuccessful in obtaining a patent for the process used to make them. He blamed confusion in filing the papers. "My brother was Mr. Thrifty and went to an attorney who had never filed for a patent before," he says.
Whatever the case, Steak-umm knock-offs became pervasive. When Heinz approached the brothers in 1980 with an offer of $20 million for the rights, it was an easy decision.
The marketing muscle of Heinz further endeared the Steak-umm brand to consumers. Heinz (via their Ore-Ida division) owned Steak-umm through 1994 before selling it back to Gagliardi and his newest venture, Designer Foods. All along, the butcher had been treating his kitchen like a lab, finding new ways to trim meats to maximize profitability for distributors. He wound up patenting several novel methods, including what would become KFC’s Popcorn Chicken in 1992.
Steak-umm changed hands once more in 2006, when Quaker Maid Meats purchased the company. In 2008, they entered into lengthy litigation with Steak ‘Em Up, a Philadelphia-based eatery that Quaker alleged was guilty of consumer confusion. A 2012 federal ruling was in favor of the defendant, who serves authentic Philly cheesesteaks and “thought it was a joke” that anyone could confuse them for the frozen alternative.
At 86, Gagliardi still toils at the butcher’s block, working on food innovation for his company, Creativators. Despite his numerous contributions to food service, he still feels slighted by his father, who passed away in 1991 and apparently never acknowledged his son’s success.
"I never got a compliment," he says.