Boston Brisket keeps the Irish gray corned beef brisket alive for South Boston's Irish community, and red for the rest of the area.  

This article written by Virginia Lazar appeared in the March 2000 issue of Meat Processing.

When land becomes  very valuable in a city such as Boston, Mass., the city fathers develop ways to utilize it for the highest return.  That was the case approximately 30 years ago in Boston when the Faneuil Hall area near the financial district was deemed too important to remain the home of a number of small meat processing plants and purveyors.  It was an area ripe for high-end development. So in the 1960's many of the meat companies moved to the southeast end, to New Market Square, a triangle of meat and seafood companies, and their old home became the Quincy Market area, a popular place to shop and dine.

"In terms of meat processing, Boston is very old," Jack Epstein, owner and president of Boston Brisket told Meat Processing.  "The first wholesale marketplace in the United States was started on the first floor of Faneuil Hall.  Swift and Armour had a presence there as did many small family-owned businesses making a range of meat products from knockwurst to Scotch hams.  This was just before the advent of boxed beef and the market received approximately 360 loads of hanging beef from the Midwest a week.  The entire animal was utilized here, or at least prepared for shipment.  Products went to New York City, Bermuda, and some were exported to Canada.  There is more meat history here than in places such as Omaha"

  And there's meat history in Epstein's family.  His father Nathan and uncle Samuel were partners in Epstein Co., processors of quality Choice western dressed beef.

His uncle Meyer opened the first company to bone out full loins into boneless sirloin strips and full tenderloins in the Faneuil Hall basement in 1919.  His uncle David's company, the David Epstein Co., cured and barreled plates that were taken by ship to Nova Scotia.  These businesses moved with the others when the Boston Redevelopment Authority relocated them to New Market Square.

Starting Out

   Epstein founded Boston Brisket in 1984 with Charles Kaplan, an accountant who owned New York Beef Co., a boner of Choice and Prime cattle from Laverne, Minn., and Eric Rosengarten, who ran Morrison & Shiff Co., a kosher processor of deli products.  Rosengarten was a German sausage maker.  Both of them taught him a lot about processing.  With one part-time employee on the second floor of some rented space in another part of the market, Epstein began making corned beef.  "This was a golden opportunity for me," he recalls.

    Epstein brought in briskets and trimmed, cured, pumped, packaged, sold, and sometimes even delivered them.  He was processing approximately 250,000 pounds of brisket a year, both gray and red, in 1,000 square feet, and within a year he was able to buy out his partners.  "We worked Monday through Friday and a half-day on Saturday.  During our second week I received an order from the state of Massachusetts.  I think that was the worst week of my life.  We did 10,000 pounds, pumped them all by hand.  We were on the second floor and the elevator broke.  We had to bring barrels down by hand because the landlord didn't want to fix the elevator.  I don't know how I did that!  Then we took more space, started doing more business, expanded our line a little, even cooked brisket and pastrami for a while.  We were cooking in open vats and we had to bring product down in an elevator to be packaged.  There were too many critical control points to watch so we stopped doing it.  We realized that to be in USDA compliance we needed a better facility."

   He bought a building and diversified his product line.  "We got further into raw products, such as shaved steaks, marinated meats, and sirloin tips.  Now we are ready to cook again.  We are talking to people about adding a cooking facility on to this building.  Hopefully by summer we will be making cooked corned beef and pastrami again and doing some smoked poultry items."

   Meating Tradition

   Boston has a lot of meat-related traditions.  One of them is gray corned beef made with salt and water, primarily for St. Patrick's Day's celebrations.  Very few places make the Irish-Yankee style product that tastes uncured and more like fresh meat than processed meat, but it is very popular in Boston and sections of New England.  "The famous Irish restaurant Doyle's Pub in the Boston neighborhood of Jamaica Plain has a St. Patty's Day celebration.  They buy gray brisket from us every week, "Epstein brags.  "Tip O'Neal, former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, used to go there for his St. Patrick's Day corned beef dinner."

   Boston Brisket sells its gray corned beef primarily in New England and in New York's Irish neighborhoods.  "There are Irish people who have moved away from the area and still look forward to it for the holiday.  We have an Air Force pilot who comes here to buy two boxes to bring back to Texas in an F16, and I get calls from Florida all of the time.  Some of my customers buy gray corned beef all year round.  In the winter more regular customers return, and around St. Patrick's day I see people who just buy it that one time of the year."   Though in a normal week Boston Brisket will sell an average of 20,000 - 30,000 pounds of gray and red corned beef, for St. Patrick's Day production explodes to 800,000 pounds.  "We don't use any frozen product for our processes," Epstein boasts, musing further, "There isn't enough of a market of shelf life for gray corned beef to have a major distributor carry it easily.  Eventually, this is going to be another product that falls by the wayside."

Processing Corned Beef

   Red corned beef is the type most people recognize.  It's what sells nationally and tastes more like a processed meat because of its curing ingredients.  Gray corned beef is a regional specialty item.  Both begin with the same muscles, the briskets, a commodity cut.  There are two briskets per animal averaging 10 pounds each.  It is a fatty, tough meat and it is not very desirable in its raw form.  In its prepared form it is tender and tasty, but it needs many hours of careful work by the processor.

   "Today, many of the upscale purveyors prefer selling the single brisket, one very lean muscle as opposed to the commodity 120 trim brisket."  Epstein explains, "because it is leaner and it is easier to cook and slice."  With Excel, Monfort, and IBP in the corned beef business, the pressure on smaller processors is to make a fresher, superior product every day to compete successfully, and to be more customer-centered.

   Epstein told Meat Processing that there is only one proper way to corn beef:  it must cure unpackaged in a vat or a barrel.  "It has to go through a natural process because the meat is a muscle and the muscle's first tendency is to squeeze all the brine out; the brine needs to replace the blood in the muscle, so it has to go through a chemical process that takes at least 24 hours," he teaches, noting that some of his customers require that their product remain in the brine for longer periods.

   Corned beef is not very popular in the summer months, but as soon as the temperature drops into the 40s "I'm sold out of gray corned beef the next morning."  Epstein has a many as 70 1,000-gallon stainless steel tanks holding product at once in the winter months for customer orders. "Were very busy early in the morning and in the beginning of the week.  Then we begin to work on product for the next week.  We do approximately three million pounds a year. "

Holiday Madness

   Getting ready for St. Patrick's Day at Boston Brisket is a 45-days-straight experience at least.  Epstein and his crew begin making red corned beef first because it has sodium nitrite and sodium erythorbate and remains shelf stable for long periods of time.  At the beginning of February they add holiday processing to their regular production load.  Fortunately for the processor some of the parties and events begin two weeks before March 17 so they can make the gray corned beef briskets for these earlier events and then begin processing for the next round of celebrations.  They process carefully, using time-honored sequences, adding extra processes to ensure that the gray briskets won't sour.  Without preservatives, just salt and water, these proprietary processes offer a longer shelf life.  "Our customers are here to pick up the corned beef as quickly as we make it. It gets berserk here with South Boston and its Irish community  right here," he exults.

   Customers for corned beef in this area are numerous, and Epstein’s customer list includes Hilltop Restaurant, Agar Supply, Dole & Bailey, Roxies Market, and other retailers, restaurants, bars, even nursing homes, because corned beef is a traditional meal for a lot of people in Boston. “The Little Sisters of the Poor Orphanage and Women’s Lunch, a lunch program that feeds battered women and children, come in regularly. They don’t buy much during the year but on St. Patrick’s Day we donate corned beef to both groups.”

   Epstein notes that he started buying his materials from a small packer in Omaha, Neb., about a year ago. I used to buy from a big packer on the East Coast. They were supposed to be Choice briskets but slowly the supply became not too fancy. There were mis-cuts; the fat was yellow. You can live with 10 percent of a load that way because you can grind it up, but when it gets to 60 percent you need to deal with it. I stopped buying from them when the plant manager admitted that the better product went to Korea. Now I buy a lot of product from Canada, too,” he adds.

HACCP Implementation  

   Boston Brisket had its HACCP plan ready go by the end of November 1999.  Mark St. Cry created it with the help of Food Research consultant Andrea Fontaine. Two of his eight employees are HACCP certified. Epstein plans have more of his employees take the training, “I think the more people that are certified, the better job they’ll do, especially if we’re cooking.”

   Surprisingly, while many of the very small processors complained about writing HACCP plans for their operations, Epstein is ready to add new processes for which he will need p1ans for their operations, Epstein is ready to add new processes for which he will need new HACCP plans right away.  Boston Brisket will begin cooking product as soon as a small addition on the back of the building is completed.  Food Research helped with planning the expansion as it did with the HACCP plan.  "We'll add cooking back into our operation in two stages," the processor explains, noting they will build a small addition on the back of the building with a small smokehouse and recessing area. Plans call for total segregation of the raw areas of the plant and the new cooking areas. They will have separate entrances, and the cooking area will have its own chilling and packaging facilities. Epstein plans to build the business slowly.  We may do between 3,000-10,000 pounds a week at first, building up our business for perhaps a year. I want to make mistakes while our production is small and avoid them later. Then we'll add another good-sized addition on the building and have approximately 12,000 square feet of processing space." He's counting on Koch to supply the cookers because he's had successful experience with company's products and service people. "They are quick to please, and there's someone there you can talk to at any time."

   Boston Brisket will cook corned beef, pastrami, and maybe some poultry.  Epstein says he's not really committed to any particular items and wants to be flexible.  We can make anything our customers want, and we'll give them the best product they can find out there so they'll keep coming back.  I'm confident we'll find enough business to keep the plant busy and profitable," he says.

Influencing the future

   The processor feels that USDA's push for HACCP has been beneficial for larger businesses but it has hurt the smaller ones, forcing a number of talented people to sell out or just close their doors.  "It has hurt the industry because it has added to the special burdens that affect small processors.  There will be just too much paperwork for a one- or two-man shop."  Finding quality raw materials is difficult for companies his size because so much of the available top quality product is being shipped to the Pacific Rim.  "I buy my briskets from all over, but for briskets that are going to delis I buy high-end Choice and prime from Nebraska."

   He attributes the uninformed consumer to industry consolidation, and the demise of the neighborhood butcher.  "If you sat a consumer down and had corned round on one plate and corned brisket on another, I guarantee you they would pick the brisket every time."  He reminisces about the days of the small butchers who bought his corned beef by the barrel and kept it in the shop in the brine where it would cure slowly.  "It is a much better product than the vacuum-sealed product of today, because when cured product sits too long in its plastic casing it turns gassy, has a funny odor, sometimes a funny taste.  Customers who have experienced product such as this avoid corned beef from then on."

   Epstein predicts that future success belongs to extremely efficient HACCP-approved plants, and he plans to be one of the successful ones.  "If this cooking operation really takes off, maybe we'll build a new facility somewhere outside of the city congestion.  I'm very excited as I look ahead at what we have planned and how we have the opportunity to grow on our own terms."