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Meaty Ideas

Eugene D. Gagliardi Jr. invented Steak-umms, Popcorn Chicken and Hooter's Hot Thighs, and he's still thinking up ways to put protein on your plate.

September 17, 2003|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,SUN STAFF

Such ingenuity can only inspire awe, although Gagliardi's vision was not immediately embraced.

His father, for instance, at first had no use for the notion of a reconstituted steak. In Gagliardi's memory, the forever stern Eugene Sr. - the man who had handed him a sharp knife and put him to work at 6 years of age - dismisses the project, standing in the family butcher shop and tossing a lump of this red dough at the young man, saying, "Nobody would eat that crap."

Yet, Gagliardi persevered with his meat-grinding experiments, trying to get it right. In the popularity of the Philly cheese-steak sandwich combined with persistent complaints about tough meat, Gagliardi heard a cry for a better mousetrap.

Under the family's "Table Treats" label, Steak-umm was introduced to supermarkets in 1969.

At first it was priced to sell at a loss, just to get supermarkets to carry it. In 1980, Gagliardi Bros. - Eugene Jr.'s two brothers were also in the business - sold the product to H.J. Heinz Co. for $20 million. At the time, published reports say, it was the largest selling branded frozen meat product on earth.

If that impressed Eugene Sr., he never allowed as much to his middle son, Eugene Jr.

"There was never a compliment. I waited," says Gagliardi, whose father died in 1991 at 90. Gagliardi wonders if the demanding dad still figures in his motivation: "I'm sure it has a lot do with it. Still trying to prove yourself."

To this day, you'll find Gagliardi working in the converted 19th-century barn that serves as office and test kitchen of Visionary Design. The modest building stands amid some 560 acres of fields and woods that Gagliardi owned before he sold it a few years ago to Chester County, Pa., for eventual use as a public park.

The walls of a third-floor conference room at Visionary Design tell parts of the story. From one end to the other, the walls are covered with framed copies of patents. Gagliardi holds about 30, some in more than one country, mostly on cuts of meat.

No. 5,195, 924, for instance, defines a process by which a muscle near the pork shoulder is first trimmed to a cylinder, then sliced in one piece, as if it were a carpet being unrolled. The result, says Gagliardi: a cut "that looks like a boneless rib and eats like a boneless rib."

There's No. 5,765,768, a metal plate for a machine that combines the functions of a meat grinder and slicer. Gagliardi calls it a "slinder." This, he says, is "the most valuable thing in the whole company," as it's a key element in the process of turning meat and seafood into that protein "dough."

Among the frames find U.S. Patent No. 5,346,711, the chicken-breast cut that may or may not become "Fing'r-Pick'n-Chick'n." When sliced, battered and fried, the chicken breast in this form presents an array of slender petals emanating from a central core. Imagine a sort of chicken flower.

There's a patent, also, for what became Popcorn Chicken. The marinated, battered and fried dark-meat preparation originated with trimmings left over from making Hot Thighs. When introduced in the summer of 1992, it was the most successful promotional item in KFC's history, since rivaled by Crispy Buffalo Strips and Boneless Wings.

KFC has since changed the formula to white meat, and this month introduced a larger version called Bigger Better Popcorn.

Note the absence of a Steak-umm patent. For Gagliardi, this subject is at least as tender as a fine filet mignon.

While the brand name is trademarked, an oversight around the time Steak-umm was born left the product itself - now made by a Connecticut company - unprotected by patent. As Gagliardi tells it, a patent lawyer hired by one of the brothers did not file the paperwork in time.

As a result, one finds in the frozen-food case such knockoffs as Quaker Maid and Philly Gourmet steak-sandwich slices. Understandably, Gagliardi would rather not think about the economic consequences of this little snafu.

Not everything Gagliardi touches turns to gold, of course. John Cope's Food Products, a Lancaster County, Pa., company dropped from its product list about seven years ago both Kornels, a battered, fried corn kernel, and Corn Wheels, a corncob cut in sections for easy munching, especially for children.

Steve Davis, the company's vice president for sales and marketing, says he liked Kornels personally, but the item evidently "did not find consumer acceptance."

Mark Willes, a vice president for sales and marketing at Smithfield Foods, talks about Gagliardi's tendency to sometimes run a few steps ahead of what consumers are ready to embrace. He means that as a compliment, but he says it can complicate the marketing.

"His mind is incredible," says Willes, who worked with Gagliardi on a reconstituted pork product now sold in Wal-Mart and other places as Rack of Pork. "He can see the commodity" in the raw materials.

The latest concoctions from Gagliardi's test kitchen may or may not be coming soon to a supermarket or restaurant near you. He's been testing frankfurter strips and tomato nuggets, both battered and fried. Then there's the piece of meat that sure looks like a steak and tastes like a steak, except it's a reconstituted and reshaped "steak" made from assorted beef cuts.

Hot as the Atkins diet may be, it's unclear if the world is ready for a tortilla shell made from a version of that protein "dough" concocted from an assortment of seafood. And the marketplace has yet to render judgment on a breaded and fried large shrimp - say, 20 or so to a pound - created from seafood "dough" made from tiny shrimp - say, 800 to a pound. Again, creating more value in a less-profitable item.

Gagliardi's been working on both of these products with Thomas Slaughter in New Bedford, moving over the course of decades from turf to surf. Protein is protein.

"It's endless what you can do," says Gagliardi.

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