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.
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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“I wrote it,” says Gagliardi of the still-unpublished manuscript.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.”
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.
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.”