More recently however, Frank Valenza, the white-tablecloth restaurateur, has undergone somewhat of a transformation, reflective of his Bronx-based background. He refers to himself as “Kobe Frank” nowadays, and his focus has shifted to developing a foodservice and retail following for a line of premium hot dogs, hamburgers and deli meats made with Kobestyle Wagyu beef. His newest pursuit is fueled largely by his fond memories of growing up in The Big Apple and the cuisine of choice in those days.
As a kid growing up in New York, Valenza vividly recalls the many trips he would take to Coney Island with his father. Without fail, those sojourns would include a trip to a Nathan’s Famous hot-dog stand in the afternoon while Frank and his dad waited for the evening fireworks display to begin.
“I remember biting into those hot dogs and burning my lips,” Valenza says, savoring the memory of the juicy hot dogs and the bold mustard combining and exploding with flavor. As an adult, he is looking to one-up some of the locally famous hot-dog brands by promoting his own brand of Kobestyle hot dogs made from Wagyu beef in natural casings. The high-end hot dogs come at a premium price, and Valenza isn’t shy about charging $9 per lb. for the products that are available by mail order as well as through foodservice distributors.
He got to know the nuts and bolts of the meat business during a half-year “internship” at Strassburger Meats, a New Jersey-based company Valenza previously bought meat from during his many years in the restaurant business. He then took his foodservice background and newfound processing knowledge and went to work with Dairyland USA, a Bronx-based purveyor of meat and seafood products. His employer was supportive when Valenza expressed an interest in developing a line of Kobe-style hot dogs and hamburgers that could be distinguished from brands such as Hebrew National and Vienna Beef. With the goal of rolling out a superior, premium product, Valenza networked with Dairyland’s Wagyu beef suppliers to make a hot-dog prototype. In 2005, Valenza began working with food distributor Broadleaf (USA) Inc., based in Vernon, Calif., to develop the Kobestyle hot dog using Wagyu beef from Australia. After Broadleaf made six attempts to create the texture and flavor profile Valenza was targeting, he finally settled on the product he and a panel of taste experts at Dairyland agreed was the best. The one-third lb. hot dogs were soon being sold through Dairyland and were almost immediately a hit with foodservice customers. A 6-to-1 lb. size and 16-to-1 lb. offering were soon added using the same quality ingredients. Valenza went on to develop a Kobe-style hamburger, which was also added to the Dairyland offerings.
“I was a one-man-show,” Valenza says. “I developed the product, created the point-of-sale material and I rode along with the salesmen in order to start getting it out into the trade,” he says.
One of the first restaurant customers to carry Valenza’s newly developed hot dog was David Burke at Bloomingdale’s, co-located with the famous high-end retailer’s location on New York’s 3rd Avenue. The product was also picked up by the chefs of many fine-dining establishments around the city, according to Valenza. Over the past five years, he says demand for the products has been steady with Dairyland, which still sells as much as 15,000 lbs. of the hot dogs per month and upwards of 60,000 lbs. of the 8-oz. Kobe-style burger Valenza developed.
After leaving Dairyland in 2007, Valenza turned his attention to developing a retail version of the Kobe hot dog that had proven to be a hit in the foodservice segment. Working with Austin Meat Co., Valenza rolled out two sizes of the premium hot dog for retail customers, which include Dean & DeLuca and several other specialty markets in the Northeast. Valenza’s next retail target for his Kobe Frank hot dogs is Costco. He says Austin Meat Co. is working with the big-box retailer to ensure it complies with processing and shipping requirements. On the foodservice front, he’s also negotiating to be the supplier of Kobe-style beef hot dogs infused with cheddar cheese to Jody Maroni’s Sausage Kingdom. “We would private-label for Jody,” Valenza says of the potential partnership.
Before marketing his brand of Kobe Frank beef products to either foodservice or retail customers, Valenza spent the last several years hoop-jumping to get U.S. Dept. of Agriculture approval of his labeling claims that the beef was, indeed, Kobe-style, American Wagyu beef. His new label capitalizes on Valenza’s association with one of New York’s most historically significant restaurants. Each Kobe Frank product label includes a vintage promotional image of a younger Valenza posing in the dining room of The Palace. “That picture is me; that’s my claim to fame. So if somebody looks at my label and says ‘who the hell is Kobe Frank?’, they can turn the package over see a picture of a guy who knows what quality is and that price is no object.”
Austin also procures Wagyu briskets for Kobe Frank’s brand of pastrami and corned beef, which are shipped, processed and cooked by Bronx-based Nations Best Meat Wholesalers Inc. and carry the Kobe Frank label. Valenza’s line of deli products, made from Kobe-style beef, were also rolled out about two years ago and have become mainstays at several specialty neighborhood grocery chains in the region.
The latest chapter of Valenza’s business life is still ramping up, but he has high hopes and plenty of ideas. Looking forward, Valenza is almost giddy when talking about the introduction of several other new, Kobestyle products now being sold under his Kobe Frank brand. The new products include the retail introduction of 6-oz. fresh Kobe burgers, as well as Kobe beef hot links. “These are spicy, hot sausages with cool cheddar cheese, which will be packaged for retail,” Valenza says.
“One of the reasons I chose hamburgers and hot dogs is because there are only 30,000 Wagyu cattle killed per year,” Valenza says, and there is a demand for that limited supply of premium product that is currently produced and processed by just a handful of companies. He’s anxious to tell the Kobe beef story and to give consumers an opportunity to taste its quality in foods familiar to everyone.
“There’s an opportunity to bring American Wagyu Kobe beef to a mass market through their two favorite foods: hamburgers and hot dogs,” Valenza says. “It’s time to get the story out.”