Artisan excellence

by Bryan Salvage
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Thriving, let alone surviving, in today’s economy is no easy task for meat and poultry companies. Yet, Chicago-based Allen Brothers Inc. has been thriving since 1893 by providing high-end products to chefs and restaurants domestically and globally.

Annual sales have increased steadily while its primary business goal of focusing on quality, consistency and customer service remains unchanged. “My father [industry visionary Bobby Hatoff, Allen Bros. chairman who passed away in October], always wanted our business to be the best, not the biggest,” says Todd Hatoff, 42, president, CEO and fourth generation of the company’s founding family.

Allen Bros. offers Prime beef, both dry- and wet-aged, as well as Wagyu beef. Other products include premium pork, veal, lamb, poultry, wild game, seafood, as well as burgers, hot dogs, heat-and-serve entrées, appetizers and even desserts. Servicing major steakhouses, hotels, country clubs and more, Allen Brothers concentrates primarily on the white table cloth restaurant segment. “Beef is our main protein and our biggest category. Within beef, filet is our No. 1 seller,” Hatoff says.

Domestic clients include Gene & Georgetti, Chicago; Nick and Sam’s Steakhouse, Dallas; and Delmonico’s in Philadelphia, just to mention a few. “We have special and unique partnerships with our customers and have helped many of them win awards. Most recently, the Bull and the Bear in New York won a Silver Spoon for their bone-in ribeye,” Hatoff adds.

Allen Brothers is “the Rolls Royce” of steak-cutters, insists Dr. James Marsden, Kansas State Univ. Regent’s Distinguished Professor of Food Safety and Security, associate director of the Biosecurity Research Institute located at KSU and senior science advisor for the North American Meat Association. Marsden has worked with the company on various projects over the years.

“There is nothing like the products they produce,” he says. “Other steak companies buy Allen Brothers products to use as their target standard. Their meat-cutters are like artists. Nobody does it better.”

Allen Bros. enjoys robust retail catalog and internet sales, but Hatoff doesn’t plan to further evolve in the retail arena. He’s confident his company’s points-of-difference over the competition will allow his business to remain the leader of the pack.

“Over the years, many of our competitors have been acquired by larger foodservice companies, such as Sysco,” Hatoff says. “That changes the culture of what they have been able to provide for customers. As an independent Premium steak company, we are able to work with restaurants to customize products specifically for their needs. We hand-select everything and size-up the loins we receive from multiple vendors. We train our employees to look for the right marbling and texture. They also inspect the physical size because when you’re cutting a steak, that’s how you’re going to get a uniform steak. It is a time-consuming, exacting and expensive process.”

Each customer demands different product specifications. “Some of Allen Brothers’ restaurant customers might want to buy whole cuts so we’ll age the product for them [through a patented process] and they will cut it themselves,” Hatoff says. “Other restaurant customers will demand portion-control products and they want everything to look uniform.”

Restaurant customers are always looking for something new to satisfy diners, so Allen Brothers is active in new product development. In September 2012, it introduced USDA Prime Hanger Steaks.

Hands-on excellence

Allen Brothers operates three facilities in Chicago and currently employs more than 100 people. The Thanksgiving-Christmas Holidays are the busiest time of the year for the company and Father’s Day is the second-busiest. The company’s main 35,000 sq. ft. facility is located one floor below corporate headquarters in the heart of the former Chicago Stockyards. All steaks are hand-cut at this facility, which was designed in an “awkward L-flow,” Hatoff chuckles.

Steak-cutting machines are taboo. “We remain a traditional artisan meat-cutting business,” Hatoff iterates. “I can always tell when a steak is machine-cut vs. hand-cut... and so can our customers.”

Thirty-two year company veteran Bob Hererra is the plant’s vice president of operations. “My main responsibility is making sure quality and workmanship are consistently up to par and we take great pride ensuring that our customers receive both the highest quality and consistently cut steaks,” he says.

Although multiple tables exist in the main plant, two main tables are in the updated cutting room. One table is for cutting tenderloins; the other is for cutting ribs, strips and sirloins. “We separate wet-aged from dry-aged. We have enough vacuum-packaging machines to cover all of our main cuts,” Hatoff says.

A nearby 15,000-sq.-ft. facility is working to take and process holiday orders while its 20,000-sq.-ft. plant on Western Ave. ages much of the products and fulfills orders for the company’s retail catalog and Internet business.

Hatoff proudly describes his meat business as artisan, and it requires talented, knowledgeable meat-cutters. It takes three years of on-the-job training before an Allen Brothers meat-cutter becomes a full-line butcher. “It’s better to train someone who is inexperienced vs. trying to retrain someone who was taught to cut the wrong way,” Hatoff says.

Allen Brothers has contract-packing agreements with vendors who create value-added meals for retail (via its catalog business) from its meat products, such as chili, meat lasagna, pot pies and beef stroganoff, just to mention a few. Lavish gourmet desserts are also provided by other niche vendors.

Food-safety leader

Although expert hand-craftsmanship is key to company success, equally extraordinary technology is used to enhance food safety. Advanced oxidation technologies utilized are designed to control bacteria in the plant environment. These are UV [ultra-violet]-based systems that generate low levels of vapor hydrogen peroxide, Marsden explains. Manufactured by RGF Environmental in West Palm Beach, Fla., the units are also used in the company’s two dry-aging rooms. “They control mold and undesirable bacteria during the aging process and accelerate the development of the aged-beef flavor,” Marsden says.

Allen Brothers also operates a Cozzini-built unit that utilizes an RGF UV panel for the surface decontamination of beef subprimals prior to blade tenderization. “This is an issue that is growing in importance as the safety of non-intact beef products is being challenged,” Marsden says. “The system used at Allen Brothers eliminates most bacteria on the surface and reduces the risk of translocation from the surface into the interior of the muscle.”

Combining the strategically placed air-treatment units and the system for treating beef subprimals results in safer, fresher products, Marsden continues. “The systems were scientifically validated at Kansas State Univ.,” he says. “We also conduct periodic in-plant validation studies to show that the systems are working properly.”

Meat products are either shipped refrigerated or frozen. “We flash-freeze our frozen steaks in less than 20 minutes, which ensures a quality dining experience,” Hatoff offers. “I have witnessed multiple taste-tests of steaks comparing our refrigerated product to our frozen product and people cannot tell the difference.”

Filling a deep void

On Oct. 7, Allen Brothers’ chairman, Bobby Hatoff, unexpectedly passed away. “Our employees, customers and vendors loved and respected my father and they all have shown significant loyalty and continued support to Allen Brothers,” Todd states.

Just weeks after Bobby Hatoff’s passing, he was inducted into the Meat Industry Hall of Fame. Marsden introduced his award at an induction ceremony while Todd accepted it on behalf of his father.

“Bobby Hatoff was a visionary,” Marsden says. “He loved the meat industry, Chicago and the Chicago Stockyards. His was the first company in the US to implement systems to address the safety of non-intact beef products. He was the first to evaluate high-pressure processing for pasteurizing ground beef. Bobby was the nicest and most generous person I have ever worked with. He was instrumental in accomplishing the consolidation of NAMP and National Meat Association (forming the North American Meat Association). In fact, without him, it would have never happened.”

Todd reflects on one of many ways his father impacted Allen Brothers: “When society was changing in the late 1970s and 1980s, breaking cattle, which we used to do, was being phased out and portion-control was becoming more popular – portion control is where he wanted to go.”

Todd says eventually he will fill the chairman’s vacancy, but he will also likely retain the CEO position. “My father was chairman...and he still is chairman in my mind and my heart.”

Hatoff recently changed the structure of his work days.

“I work in the office in the morning and visit restaurants at night,” he says. “I am charging forward, but I want to take great care because I want to carry on the legacy that was so important to my father and help ensure that the family vision is fulfilled. Executing on this plan, we think that the future looks bright for Allen Brothers.”

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