West Chester's Gene Gagliardi Jr.: Steak-Umm Inventor and Food-Industry Innovator

Though he’s got 33 patents in the food industry, Gagliardi is best-known for Steak-Umm, an imitation meat product. And at 82, he’s still ahead of his industry’s curve.

Gene Gagliardi Jr. attacks a few slices of his cash cow. (Photo by Jared Castaldi)When asked where he falls within the hefty history of the cheesesteak, Gene Gagliardi Jr. hands over a copy of History of the Philadelphia Steak Sandwich.

“I wrote it,” says Gagliardi of the still-unpublished manuscript. “And just about everything they’re using today I designed or discovered.”

Let the record speak for itself: Gagliardi owns 33 patents for food or food-industry innovation. He calls himself an inventor, but he’s essentially a meat fabricator, capitalizing on converting excess raw food materials into viable, value-added products and profit. Gagliardi has embarked on so many ventures that he actually needs to check what’s printed on some of his two-dozen business cards to remind himself. Twelve hang in a frame on his office door at his current incarnation, Creativators LLC (Creative, Innovative Concepts for the Food Industry) in Cochranville. “Those are the 12 oldest cards,” he says. “I haven’t even put the new ones up.”

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Most prominently—and profitably— Gagliardi is the creator of Steak-umm. At its height, his family’s meat-processing plant in West Chester was slicing a million one-ounce Steak-umm slices a week. Along the way, there’s also been KFC’s Popcorn Chicken, Spare the Ribs, Bojangles’ Buffalo Bites and various Value Cuts for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association. KFC sold 15 million pounds’ worth of Gagliardi’s invention in its first five weeks. Eventually, eight companies were making it. That alone rocketed Gagliardi’s then-Designer Foods from $1 million in annual revenue in 1991 to a $33 million a year later.

“I’d never done a patent with meat, so I thought, ‘How can this be?’” says Philadelphia’s Les Kasten Jr., an attorney who began working with Gagliardi in the mid-’80s. “Meat is meat, God and nature provided. But it turns out that the patent is not on meat, but on a method of cutting and processing meat to achieve a certain result.”

The 82-year-old Gagliardi has been cutting meat since he was 6. He was sitting on a pear crate when his father, also Gene, first handed him a knife. Back then, Gagliardi Brothers occupied the corner of 60th and Vine streets in West Philadelphia. The family began there in 1924. By 1968—the same year Steak-umm emerged—the neighborhood had changed, and the Gagliardis moved out.

Of Eugene’s three sons, Gene was the middle sibling, between the oldest, Nick, and the youngest, Ralph. Gene respected his dad, but he also resented him. Eugene brought his namesake into the meat business, and then never let him leave. While his two brothers went on to college, Gene became the worker bee. “He referred to me as a good bull,” Gagliardi says of his father’s opinion of him.

During his high-school years at  , the family lived in Penn Wynne. Gene should’ve graduated with the Class of ’48, but he flunked salesmanship (of all subjects) his senior year and was held back. Summer school, right? No, his father needed him. Gene graduated with the Class of ’49. “I grew up on the Main Line, so everyone was always asking, ‘What are you doing this summer—going to the Shore?’ I said, ‘No, I’m going to the sh-tore,’” he recounts.

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More than once, Gene told his father he wanted out. He wanted to be a forest ranger in Montana. “That went over like a lead balloon,” he says. “I couldn’t be what I wanted—yet everything I ever did was to please him.”

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In many ways, Gagliardi Brothers was ahead of its time. It catered to Philadelphia celebrity types—Joyce Brothers, Phil Sheridan, Wee Willie Webber, Sally Starr and the like. Gene’s father shopped for the best meats, seafood and vegetables, then resold them to his upscale clientele, providing a delivery service, as well. Gene and his uncle, T.C. Matthews, did the backroom butchering. “I spent every weekend on the block,” he says. Gagliardi’s father died in 1991, after a stroke literally left him speechless. By then, his son was well into his innovative efforts. “I told my wife, Joan, that he’d be dead in a week, and he was,” says Gagliardi. “He always had to tell you [how it should be], and when he couldn’t …”

When Gene began experimenting with the Steak-umm concept, his father wasn’t supportive. He once chased his son down with a 22-inch-long frozen, molded log, throwing it and hitting Gene in the Achilles. “No one is ever going to buy this sh–!” his dad screamed.

At the time, regular steak-sandwich meat was too tough for children and the elderly. “I thought, ‘If they can homogenize milk, well, I can try to do something close to the same with meat,’” he says.

He also convinced his friends at Amoroso’s Bakery of the need for a good hearth-baked roll. Sold on the idea, Amoroso’s began shipping about eight trailer loads of frozen rolls per week with Steak-umm.

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Today, Gagliardi doesn’t make a dime on Steak-umm. Pursued by many major food-industry players, the family sold in 1980 to H.J. Heinz for $20 million. At the time, Steak-umm was the best-selling frozen, raw retail meat product in the world. When Heinz had it, the food giant was still making Steak-umm in the West Chester plant where the Gagliardis moved to in 1968. Quaker Maid Meats in Reading was the latest to buy the trademark and assume its ongoing production. The company declined comment for this story. “Everyone’s making it now,” Gagliardi says of all the Steak-umm knockoffs.

Yet, regardless of price, Steak-umm is still preferred over other brands due to name recognition. “It was the quickest meal in the world prior to microwaves,” Gagliardi says. “Thirty seconds each side. I’ll never forget what one guy told me about eating Steak-umm in his college days. In the dorm, he’d put it between tin foil and iron it—30 seconds each side.”

Looking back, Gagliardi regrets the sale to Heinz, though it was a windfall at the time. “All the big companies were looking at us,” Gagliardi says. “We were scared to death—so it was a case of
capitalization—and we sold. After Heinz took over, they destroyed it.”

Because of the payout, when news broke that the Philadelphia Phillies were being sold after the 1980 World Series, the Gagliardis were rumored buyers. It wasn’t the first time Gene Gagliardi falsely made news. The FBI once showed up in West Philly, thinking the blond-haired, blue-eyed boy was the Lindbergh baby. “My mother went berserk,” he says.

Today, Gagliardi is thrilled that Quaker Maid has taken over Steak-umm. As an expert witness, Gagliardi helped the new owners in an unsuccessful lawsuit last spring against the Philadelphia cheesesteak operation, Steak’Em-Up. The suit claimed that the name infringed on the classic Steak-umm name.

With three kids and six grandchildren, Gagliardi has a substantial family. Not one of them is interested in carrying on the family name in the meat industry. He credits Joan as his biggest cheerleader. “She’s always believed in me, sometimes more than I believed in myself,” he says.

As for recent trends in the food industry, Gagliardi says it’s all about scaling back. “Everything is a burger,” he says.

And so, he’s working on a new burger—minced, not ground. Varieties include beef, chicken, seafood, pork and turkey. He’s also after a safer hot dog and something called Chipkins for Herr’s. “He enjoys what he’s doing,” Kasten says. “There’s stuff in his head that just comes out.”

To learn more, visit creativators.com.

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