An appetite for inventing
by Kimberlie Clyma
Every invention starts with an idea. An idea, which if the time and circumstances are just right, can grow into a true success story. No one knows this better than Gene Gagliardi, founder of Creativators LLC, a product development company specializing in meat and poultry products. Gagliardi has spent the past four decades cultivating his ideas into products that consumers have enjoyed and manufacturers have profited from. However, in the beginning Gagliardi was just a meat cutter.
He started his meat career at the age of six, cutting meat for his family’s business, Gagliardi Brothers, formerly of Philadelphia and West Chester, Pa. During the 1950s, the company was successful as the primary supplier to McDonald’s and Burger King in the area – in fact, it was around 80 percent of the company’s business.
In the 1960s, however, the company lost this portion of the business. “We had just moved into a new plant at that time, so losing that much business made a very big impact,” Gagliardi says. In an effort to bring in new business and save the bottom line, Gagliardi was forced to get creative. His creativity not only helped save the family business but was the basis for his life’s work.
Mother of invention
“In the 60s, Philly steaks were made out of really tough meat. People liked them, but they were hard to eat,” he says. “I decided to work on this product to come up with a way to make that eating experience better.”
The product that resulted was chopped, shaped, thinly sliced beef called Steak-Umms. Steak-Umms was boxed and sold frozen and called the “clean-bite steak.” Gagliardi explains, “This was invented before microwaves were around, but it was still a 60-second meal – that’s all it took to cook the thinly sliced meat on the stove. It helped turn Philly Cheese Steaks into more than a regional favorite, but something families could enjoy at home everywhere.”
Steak-Umm’s success grew Gagliardi Brothers’ sales from $10 million in 1969 to $63 million in 1980. In 1980, Gagliardi Brothers was sold to the Ore-Ida division of H. J. Heinz. The Steak-Umms brand was later sold to TriFoods International, then in 2006 was sold to Quaker Maid Meats.
Gagliardi’s thirst for invention didn’t end with Steak-Umms; years later in 1987 he formed Designer Foods, which led to his next nationally recognized food invention – popcorn chicken.
“Usually what prompts my ideas is trying to add value to something that’s undervalued,” Gagliardi says. “I would often go into a meat plant and say, ‘Show me your by-products or show me what you’re not making enough money on.’ We had a slogan at that time that said, ‘We make “buy” products out of by-products.’ That’s a surefire way for a company to make more money.”
In the poultry industry in the late 1980s and early 1990s, there was a push to better utilize dark meat. Kentucky Fried Chicken gave Gagliardi the assignment to tackle the dark-meat challenge. However, his big idea – popcorn chicken – wasn’t the first to come out of the development lab.
“Every idea comes to you differently. With popcorn chicken, it was the flipside of the record,” he says. “The original idea I created was called the Hot Thigh. I took the thigh, left three-quarters of an inch of meat on each side of the thigh bone and cooked it. When I was presenting it to KFC, I noticed I was getting a lukewarm response to it. So on the spot I asked my assistant to take the strips of meat that were cut off the thigh when prepping the Hot Thigh, marinade them, bread and batter them and fry them. I introduced them to KFC as Finger Pickin’ Chicken, and they were a hit,” he explained. “The product evolved a bit and turned into popcorn chicken [which is now bite-sized chunks of white meat that are breaded, battered and fried]. But popcorn chicken is still one of the most profitable products in KFC history.”
Gagliardi’s resume of new product success stories might indicate formal research and development training, however, he doesn’t have any. He has gained his training through the years from hands-on experience, though he credits his father with getting the ball rolling when he was just a child.
“I attribute a lot of what I can do today to my dad. He was a very tough Italian man. He had me cutting meat standing on a pear crate at age 6. He would give me a pile of trimmings to cut so I could learn how to handle a knife,” he says. “After that, he would give me different pieces of meat and ask me to figure out what muscles they each came from. I soon figured that out and learned what muscles did what and where to get each muscle and what to do with them. It’s hard to develop meat products if you don’t really understand what you’re dealing with.”
Years after his popcorn chicken creation success after Gagliardi left Designer Foods to form Visionary Design (which is now called Creativators LLC), he was contracted by the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association’s R&D Ranch to “do for beef what he did for chicken,” he said. “The beef council wanted to see what could be done with the forequarter and the round to add some value, instead of just making grounds.”
The result of this R&D exercise was what was later marketed as the Beef Value Cuts, which included the teres major, flat-iron steak, petite tenders and ranch steak.
“The flat-iron steak had a heavy piece of cartilage in the middle. After figuring a way to remove it, you’re left with a new steak called the flat-iron,” he says. The teres major resulted after he discovered a different way to cut the shoulder meat.
Another beef cut that “worked” for Gagliardi also brought him the top prize in the 2008 Big Beef Innovation Contest. While working as a part of Visionary Design, the creative arm of Smithfield Beef Group, Gagliardi developed Texas Hold ‘Ems – a grillable beef short rib that’s scored to the bone. “The meat is presented on the bone with an end portion of the bone exposed. By scoring the meat to the bone, it not only allows the meat to be cooked quicker, it changes the flavor.”
The Texas Hold ‘Ems patent is now held by JBS.
Gagliardi’s Creativators business is run from an office in Cochranville, Pa. He also has a small creative center where he works on new product development. “I can do almost anything in the creative center that can be done in a large meat plant, on a smaller scale.”
Gagliardi thinks he’s best at working with poultry. “I’ve gotten the most patents from poultry products,” he says.
In the 1990s, Gagliardi invented a hot dog designed with lenthwise slits down the sides to address what some claim are choking risks associated with children eating the products. Earlier this year, Rastelli Foods Group began marketing Gagliardi’s patented idea with its Kinder-Cut hot dogs.
Adding value, however, doesn’t mean making a new version of something that’s already on the market. “I see a lot of new and improved things in the market, but it seems like the same stuff,” he says. “My philosophy is that I will not make another version of what’s already out there – no new and improved products. If it’s not totally unique, I won’t make it. If you just make another version, you’re only going to be as good as the price difference. If you create something new and totally unique, price won’t really be a factor.”
Gagliardi admits that he has some new beef and pork ideas in the works but won’t divulge any great details just yet. One idea, he admits, has to do with the burger craze.
“Everybody’s trying to come up with a better, bigger burger, but in my opinion they’re all basically the same,” he says. “I have an idea in the works that is totally unique. The only clue is that it’s not ground.”
His top-secret pork innovation has to do with increasing the value of boneless pork cuts like the loin eye.
“That’s where the money is,” Gagliardi says. “I will continue to work on ideas that will add value to undervalued meats by making them unique, and making it so the consumer will want to buy the product because it has a better flavor, better texture and better taste.”