A Juicy History of Steak-Umm

Steak-umm
Steak-umm

Eugene Gagliardi, patriarch of the Gagliardi meatpacking business, raised the 22-ounce frozen log of beef byproducts that would shortly become known as Steak-umm and sent it careening into his son’s ankle.

“Nobody is ever going to buy this sh*t!” he screamed, storming off.

"My dad was not supportive," Gene Gagliardi, whose Achilles tendon had been targeted, tells Mental Floss. "I decided to work on it at night."

The elder Gagliardi was not a man given to flights of fancy in the meat business, and now was not the time to try his patience with an experiment. It was the mid-1960s and his company was floundering, having lost some valuable accounts in recent months. What the younger Gagliardi had perceived to be a possible solution was, to his father, a joke. To Gene, it seemed like nothing could be done to please his father—not even his idea to revolutionize the frozen beef business by collecting scraps of unwanted meat and pressing it into a loaf.

The younger Gagliardi would eventually sell Steak-umm to Heinz for $20 million. He was one of the few who saw the potential for thinly-sliced steaks and refused to abandon the idea, even as his ankle throbbed.


Steak-umm Meats via YouTube

When Gagliardi was 6 years old, his father seated him on a pear crate, put a knife in his hand, and told him to start cutting. Chopping beef and poultry was the family business, and the Gagliardi clan—Eugene and his three sons, with Gene the middle child—were prominent meat merchants in the West Philadelphia area of Pennsylvania. There was no time to waste.

In the 1950s, the Gagliardis found success selling portion-controlled meat cuts long before commercial food manufacturers started peddling smaller serving sizes for dieters. They also curated premium slabs of beef and sold them to high-end clientele. When the fast food chains like Burger King and McDonald’s began to proliferate, the Gagliardis earned their business, too.

But by the 1960s, the laundry list of accounts had begun to dry up. Cheaper suppliers were becoming more abundant, and the personalized touch of Gagliardi Brothers was becoming less of a buying influence. With business slowing down, Gene Gagliardi would stay up late at night and think about how to bring his family’s finances back from the brink. That way, maybe his father would allow him to pursue his dream of being a park ranger in Montana.

One of those nights, the then-30-year-old identified a problem with the well-known Philly-style cheesesteaks. The chewy steak cuts were tough to handle for both children and senior citizens, and posed a bit of a choking risk across the board. Gagliardi thought a tender source of the beef would broaden the appeal of the cheesesteak and open it up to a larger market.

"It was tough cow meat back then," he says. "You had to be real careful about feeding it to kids because the meat would drag out of the sandwich. I thought, well, if you can homogenize milk, you should be able to homogenize meat."

Gagliardi thought he could soften up the meat by running it repeatedly through a meat grinder. "I did that about five times, extracting the protein out, and it became a solid mass. I couldn't slice it, so I froze it and then put it back in the fridge for four days to temperate it, then sliced it." Gagliardi had created a tender meat product that could be sold frozen and virtually eliminated the choking hazards of conventional Philly cheesesteaks.

(In a 2012 federal court ruling, a judge would articulate exactly what Gagliardi had done. "[The Steak-umm was] from chopped and formed emulsified meat product that is comprised of beef trimmings left over after an animal is slaughtered and all of the primary cuts, such as tenderloin, filet, and rib eye, are removed,” Judge Lawrence Stengel wrote. “The emulsified meat is pressed into a loaf and sliced, frozen, and packaged.")

Because the beef was so flat, it took only 30 seconds to cook each side. Gagliardi tasted it, found it delicious, and thought he’d solved his family’s problems.

His father was not a fan. After berating his son for even contemplating the idea, he begrudgingly allowed him to peddle it to supermarkets. Gagliardi offered to sell it below cost so stores would carry it. Marketed under the Gagliardi's frozen brand of Table Treats, the frozen meat slices debuted in 1969.

"We actually sold it to school lunch programs," Gagliardi says. "Kids ate it, loved it, then went home and asked for it."

Its eye-raising origins aside, shoppers seemed to embrace the product. It was quick to make—some college students even cooked the slices by wrapping them in foil and ironing them—tasty, and easy to chew. The company even distributed it with frozen rolls for a complete Philly cheesesteak experience. By 1975, Gagliardi was distributing them under the name Steak-umm after a friend suggested it during a quail hunting expedition. By 1980, he says, it was the best-selling frozen meat product in retailer freezers: "Competitors would try to pay off inspectors to find out how we did it."

While the Steak-umm name was trademarked, Gagliardi was unsuccessful in obtaining a patent for the process used to make them. He blamed confusion in filing the papers. "My brother was Mr. Thrifty and went to an attorney who had never filed for a patent before," he says.

Whatever the case, Steak-umm knock-offs became pervasive. When Heinz approached the brothers in 1980 with an offer of $20 million for the rights, it was an easy decision.

The marketing muscle of Heinz further endeared the Steak-umm brand to consumers. Heinz (via their Ore-Ida division) owned Steak-umm through 1994 before selling it back to Gagliardi and his newest venture, Designer Foods. All along, the butcher had been treating his kitchen like a lab, finding new ways to trim meats to maximize profitability for distributors. He wound up patenting several novel methods, including what would become KFC’s Popcorn Chicken in 1992.

Steak-umm changed hands once more in 2006, when Quaker Maid Meats purchased the company. In 2008, they entered into lengthy litigation with Steak ‘Em Up, a Philadelphia-based eatery that Quaker alleged was guilty of consumer confusion. A 2012 federal ruling was in favor of the defendant, who serves authentic Philly cheesesteaks and “thought it was a joke” that anyone could confuse them for the frozen alternative.

At 86, Gagliardi still toils at the butcher’s block, working on food innovation for his company, Creativators. Despite his numerous contributions to food service, he still feels slighted by his father, who passed away in 1991 and apparently never acknowledged his son’s success.

"I never got a compliment," he says.

15 Tasty Bits of Pizza Slang

iStock.com/Radionphoto
iStock.com/Radionphoto

Unless you’ve worked in a pizzeria, your pizza vocabulary is probably limited. But the crust-loving pros who are cooking up your favorite slices seem to have insider slang for everything, including whimsical terms for toppings and one-of-a-kind ways of describing regional pie styles. So if you’re looking up your pizza-talk game with words that go beyond ‘za, here’s a quick list of 15 terms you should know.

1. Tip sag

The dreaded tip sag is what you get when the pointy end of your pizza starts to droop. This most often occurs with top-heavy (and topping-heavy) pies, like Neapolitan-style pizzas with generous helpings of fresh mozzarella piled on top.

2. Avalanche

An avalanche is what occurs when all the toppings slide off your pizza as soon as you pick it up. This tends to happen when a pizza is still piping hot from the oven, so be smart and give it a minute to cool down.

3. Apizza

If you ever travel to New Haven, Connecticut, you might hear the locals order apizza (pronounced uh-BEETS). This refers to the local style of thin-crust pizza, which originated at the famous Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana and has since become the area's pizza standard.

4. Grandma pie

This style of pizza is thick like a Sicilian pie, but with a thinner, denser crust. Although it likely originated in Long Island, you can now find it in pizzerias throughout New York City (and beyond).

5. Party-cut

Man delivers several pizzas to a customer
iStock.com/Rawpixel

Also known as a tavern-cut, a party-cut describes any circular pizza that’s cut into a grid. The portions are smaller and typically square, which helps ensure that everyone at your Super Bowl party will get a piece of the pie.

6. All-dressed pizza

Order an all-dressed pizza in Montreal and you’ll get a deluxe pie with mushrooms, green peppers, and pepperoni on it. In Québec, it's known as a pizza tout garnie.

7. Flyers

Slices of pepperoni pizza are called flyers, reportedly because of the way they’re often tossed around like Frisbees.

8. Guppies

Depending on your perspective, guppies is either a really cute or really gross way to describe anchovies. Other slang words for the fishy topping include chovies, carp, penguin food, and smellies.

9. Alpo

It’s not very appetizing, but crumbled sausage does kind of resemble dog food—hence the Alpo moniker. Other nicknames for the topping include Kibbles ‘n Bits and Puppy Chow, neither of which make the topping sound any more appetizing.

10. Screamers

Woman preparing a mushroom pizza at home
iStock.com/kajakiki

Mushrooms are sometimes called screamers because of the high-pitched squeal the canned variety lets out when they’re tossed onto a hot surface.

11. Edgar Allan

What does a pizza with pepperoni and onions spell out? A PO pie—which is close enough in spelling to Edgar Allan Poe's last name that it gets tossed around in pizza kitchens on occasion. Sure, P-O or Po would be easier (and quicker) to say, but it’s not nearly as fun.

12. Blood pie

Also known as a hemorrhage, this gruesome term refers to a pizza with extra tomato sauce on it. Now please forget that we ever told you that.

13. Coastline

The coastline is that little bit of exposed sauce you can see between the sauce and the crust.

14. Mutz

A margherita pizza fresh from the oven
iStock.com/svariophoto

Mutz is simply a quicker way of saying mozzarella. Likewise, wet mutz is fresh mozzarella.

15. Roadie

When you get a slice of pizza to-go, that’s a roadie. Enjoy it while it's still hot (but not so hot as to cause an avalanche)! 

15 Delicious Facts About Pizza Hut

iStock.com/RiverNorthPhotography
iStock.com/RiverNorthPhotography

For more than 60 years, Pizza Hut has been slinging hot, cheesy pies to hungry consumers all over the world. (There are more than 16,000 locations worldwide.) Whether you're a meat lover or vegetarian, here are 15 things you should know about the popular pizza chain.

1. It was founded by two brothers who were still in college.

Dan and Frank Carney borrowed $600 from their mother in 1958 to open a pizza place while attending Wichita State University. The name was inspired by the former bar that they rented to open their first location.

2. Pizza Hut franchising was almost instant.

A year after the first location opened in Wichita, Kansas, the Carney brothers had already incorporated the business and asked their friend Dick Hassur to open the first franchise location in Topeka, Kansas. Hassur, who had previously gone to school and worked at Boeing with Dan Carney, was looking for a way out of his insurance agent job. He soon became a multi-franchise owner, and worked to find other managers who could open Pizza Huts across the country.

Once, when a successful manager of a Wichita location put in his notice, Hassur was sent in to convince the man to stay. That manager happened to be Bill Parcells, who had resigned his Pizza Hut job in order to take his first coaching job at a small Nebraska college. Of course, he later went on to coach numerous NFL teams, including leading the New York Giants to two Super Bowl victories. "I might have been wrong there," Hassur said of trying to convince Parcells his salary would be better as a manager than as a coach, "but I'm sure he'd have been successful with Pizza Hut, too."

3. There was a mascot in the early days.

image of vintage Pizza Hut restaurants featuring mascot Pizza Pete
Roadsidepictures, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Before the iconic red roof logo was adopted in 1969, Pizza Hut had a mascot named Pizza Pete who also served as its logo. The mustachioed cartoon man wore a chef’s hat, neckerchief, and an apron while serving up hot meals to hungry customers. Pizza Pete was still used throughout the 1970s on bags, cups, and advertisements, but was eventually phased out.

4. Pizza Hut perfume was a thing that existed.

It was announced late in 2012 that Pizza Hut had plans to release a limited edition perfume that smelled like "fresh dough with a bit of spice." One hundred fans of the Pizza Hut Canada Facebook page won bottles of the scent, and another promotion around Valentine's Day gave American pizza lovers a chance to own the fragrance via a Twitter contest. The packaging for the perfume resembled mini pizza boxes, and a few later surfaced on eBay for as much as $495.

5. They struck gold with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

image of people dressed as the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
Kevin Winter, Getty Images

When a group of crime fighting turtles that love pizza become huge pop culture icons, it's a no-brainer that a pizza company should do business with them. Domino's was featured in the first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles film in 1990, but ads for Pizza Hut were included on VHS when the film hit home video. Pizza Hut also reportedly spent around $20 million on marketing campaigns for the Turtles during the 1990 "Coming Out of Their Shells" concert tour and album release. The partnership continued all the way up to the 2014 release of Michael Bay's Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

6. Pizza Hut Easy-Bake ovens were also real.

Children of the '70s were lucky enough to own small toy ovens shaped like the restaurant in which they could bake tiny little Pizza Hut pizzas under a 60-watt light bulb.

7. Their vintage commercials are star-studded.

An 11-year-old Elijah Wood got his start flinging potato salad at his co-star; Ringo Starr and the Monkees marveled at the stuffed-crust pizza; and former Soviet statesman Mikhail Gorbachev had a very odd, political pizza pitch, appearing along with his young granddaughter in a Russian Pizza Hut (though the ad was not set to run in Russia).

8. The Book It! program is 35 years old.

In 1984, Pizza Hut kicked off the BOOK IT! program, an initiative to encourage children to read by rewarding them with "praise, recognition and pizza." It was such a success that First Lady Barbara Bush threw a reading-themed pizza party at the White House in 1989. The program is now the "longest-running corporate-supported reading program in the country" and has reached over 60 million children.

9. They were early to the pan pizza create.

image of someone removing a slice from a personal pan pizza
iStock

Pizza Hut introduced pan pizza in 1980, nine years before their competition, Domino's, added the style to their menu. In 1983, they introduced personal pan pizzas, which are still the coveted prize of the BOOK IT! program and the only pizza option at smaller Pizza Hut cafes (like those inside Target stores).

10. They were also early to online ordering.

In 1994, Pizza Hut and The Santa Cruz Operation created PizzaNet, an ahead-of-its-time program that allowed computer users to place orders via the internet. The Los Angeles Times called the idea "clever but only half-baked" and "the Geek Chic way to nosh." And, the site is still up and running! Seriously, go ahead and try to order.

11. Pizza Hut pizza has been to space ...

image of the International Space Station hovering above Earth
iStock

In 2001, Pizza Hut became the first company to deliver pies into space. Before being sealed and sent to the International Space Station, the pizza recipe had to undergo "rigorous stabilized thermal conditions" to make sure that it would be still be edible when it got there. Pizza Hut also paid a large, unspecified sum (but definitely more than $1 million) to have a 30-foot-wide ad on a rocket in 1999.

12. … but not to the Moon.

In 1999, Pizza Hut's then-CEO Mike Rawlings (and current Mayor of Dallas) told The New York Times that an earlier idea for space marketing was for the logo to be shown on the moon with lasers. But once they started looking into it, astronomers and physicists advised them that the projected image would have to be as large as Texas to be seen from Earth—and the project would also have cost the company hundreds of millions of dollars. Better to stick with Super Bowl ads.

13. They once offered pizza engagement packages.

image of someone proposing marriage
iStock

What's the perfect way to pop the big question? In 2012, Pizza Hut suggested that grooms- (or brides-) to-be order the engagement party package that included a $10 dinner box, a limo, a ruby ring, fireworks, flowers, and a photographer, all for $10,010. In keeping with the theme, only 10 of the packages were offered. But, to be clear—if you bought a Pizza Hut engagement package, you would have spent $10 on food and approximately the cost of a wedding on the proposal.

14. Pizza Hut accounts for three percent of U.S. cheese production.

With all those locations and cheese-stuffed crusts, Pizza Hut needs a lot of dairy. The company uses over 300 million pounds of cheese annually and is one of the largest cheese buyers in the world. To make that much cheese, 170,000 cows are used to produce an estimated 300 billion gallons of milk. Something to think about the next time you order an Ultimate Cheese Lover's pizza with extra cheese.

15. There are a lot of repurposed Pizza Hut locations.

An empty, former Pizza Hut building
Mike Kalasnik, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

Franchise locations of companies are not always successful, and when they close, the buildings are often left untouched by their new owners rather than being demolished and replaced. Because the hut-shaped stores have become synonymous with the company, their former locations are easy to spot. The blog "Used to Be a Pizza Hut" has an interactive map of more than 500 ex-huts submitted by people all over the world. There is also a successful Kickstarter-funded photo book—called Pizza Hunt—documenting the "second lives" of the restaurants.

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