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Meaty Ideas

THE BALTIMORE SUN

ATGLEN, Pa. - Between Genesis and the early Clinton years, countless men and women with knives faced myriad chickens in pursuit of innumerable meals to please, perhaps even surprise. Consider this in light of U.S. Patent No. 5,346,711, giving the holder exclusive rights to a chicken breast.

Well, a way of cutting a chicken breast. The patent, issued September 1994, says: "Method of Making an Animal Muscle Strip Product."

Little poetry there, but inventor Eugene D. Gagliardi Jr. has a better idea for a name. He suggests "Fing'r-Pick'n-Chick'n," and hopes to sell it to owners of a few hundred Kentucky Fried Chicken franchises out West. Hence, aboard a recent Delta Airlines flight from Philadelphia to Salt Lake City for the sales presentation sat Gagliardi, 72 years old, a gray-bearded and vigorous living American archetype: the genius tinkerer.

There's no counting the number of college students, frantic parents, terminal bachelors and other harried souls who have Gagliardi to thank for their sustenance. After all, he invented Steak-umm, that frozen beef sliced thin as a Visa card that cooks in a few blinks.

And who knows how many rushing motorists have praised in their hearts the creator of KFC's Popcorn Chicken - at long last a fried chicken that can be eaten at 60 miles per hour?

Gagliardi again.

And again, if you consider Hot Thighs, which strutted out some years ago at Hooters as a spicy alternative to the Buffalo chicken wing. Meatpackers, too, might praise Gagliardi for his role in creating new beef shoulder cuts, transforming meat that would otherwise become hamburger into more profitable London broil and sirloin tips.

"I was always different, I was always trying to find a different way," says Gagliardi, by way of explaining something of what he's been doing since his first experiments at his father's West Philadelphia butcher shop in the 1950s.

Gagliardi gave up a measure of his distinctiveness just weeks ago, when he ceased to be one of a dwindling number of independent innovators in the food business. While he'll continue to work much as he has in the past, he sold his company, Visionary Design in Atglen, Pa., and all his patents to Packerland Packing Co. Inc., a Wisconsin-based beef division of the industry giant Smithfield Foods Inc.

"I wanted the opportunity to work for one company and put my efforts in one direction," says Gagliardi, adding that the big company's money and access to a wider range of markets could cut the time it takes to put his creations into consumers' hands. Aside from Gagliardi, Visionary Design has two employees.

"When you have a big company behind you, things can happen faster," says Gagliardi, who cannot disclose the amount of the Packerland deal, but says it's been in the works for a few months.

In a statement released by Smithfield's public-relations department, Packerland president Rich Vesta says Gagliardi has been "an innovator and a pioneer in the meat industry for his entire career. ... We hope to turn his wealth of ideas into new products for our customers."

Gagliardi will continue with current projects, which typify the sort of stuff from which he's built a national reputation.

Mark W. Thomas, vice president of consumer marketing for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, says he considers Gagliardi a "creative genius," not least for his fresh ways of looking at the same old carcass.

Thomas Slaughter, who owns a clam-processing plant and product-development company in New Bedford, Mass., is working with Gagliardi now on a number of new items using reconstituted seafood. He refers to Gagliardi as "one of the most brilliant people in protein in the country."

Gagliardi in striking ways has been "in protein." He's been in it up to his elbows.

He has sliced it, chopped it, ground it, filleted it, finding that this would not quite do. He has pushed protein beyond recognition and pulled it back again. For example, Steak-umm.

What is this stuff, anyway?

If you saw it in the raw mass, in the blocks from which the slices are cut, "You wouldn't know it was meat. You'd think it was red dough," says Gagliardi.

Similar to hamburger meat yet smoother, more even in color and consistency, the stuff has been sliced fine enough and mixed at just the right temperature so that the muscle proteins bind to each other without additives. Chopped to a fare-thee-well, the meat nevertheless holds together.

Into one end of the hopper goes beef, with its fat, its gristle, with much of the stuff that can ruin the experience of eating a Philly cheese-steak sandwich. Out the other end comes a "steak," approximating the look of a whole muscle, yet it can be bitten as neatly, chewed as evenly as a slice of Swiss cheese.

A technician at a New Jersey radio station once told Gagliardi how Steak-umm kept him going in college where cooking was forbidden in the dorm. Absent a stove, though, how exactly had the young man prepared the meat?

"He said, 'I put it between foil and ironed it,' " Gagliardi recalls.

Such ingenuity can only inspire awe, although Gagliardi's vision was not immediately embraced.

His father, for instance, at first had no use for the notion of a reconstituted steak. In Gagliardi's memory, the forever stern Eugene Sr. - the man who had handed him a sharp knife and put him to work at 6 years of age - dismisses the project, standing in the family butcher shop and tossing a lump of this red dough at the young man, saying, "Nobody would eat that crap."

Yet, Gagliardi persevered with his meat-grinding experiments, trying to get it right. In the popularity of the Philly cheese-steak sandwich combined with persistent complaints about tough meat, Gagliardi heard a cry for a better mousetrap.

Under the family's "Table Treats" label, Steak-umm was introduced to supermarkets in 1969.

At first it was priced to sell at a loss, just to get supermarkets to carry it. In 1980, Gagliardi Bros. - Eugene Jr.'s two brothers were also in the business - sold the product to H.J. Heinz Co. for $20 million. At the time, published reports say, it was the largest selling branded frozen meat product on earth.

If that impressed Eugene Sr., he never allowed as much to his middle son, Eugene Jr.

"There was never a compliment. I waited," says Gagliardi, whose father died in 1991 at 90. Gagliardi wonders if the demanding dad still figures in his motivation: "I'm sure it has a lot do with it. Still trying to prove yourself."

To this day, you'll find Gagliardi working in the converted 19th-century barn that serves as office and test kitchen of Visionary Design. The modest building stands amid some 560 acres of fields and woods that Gagliardi owned before he sold it a few years ago to Chester County, Pa., for eventual use as a public park.

The walls of a third-floor conference room at Visionary Design tell parts of the story. From one end to the other, the walls are covered with framed copies of patents. Gagliardi holds about 30, some in more than one country, mostly on cuts of meat.

No. 5,195, 924, for instance, defines a process by which a muscle near the pork shoulder is first trimmed to a cylinder, then sliced in one piece, as if it were a carpet being unrolled. The result, says Gagliardi: a cut "that looks like a boneless rib and eats like a boneless rib."

There's No. 5,765,768, a metal plate for a machine that combines the functions of a meat grinder and slicer. Gagliardi calls it a "slinder." This, he says, is "the most valuable thing in the whole company," as it's a key element in the process of turning meat and seafood into that protein "dough."

Among the frames find U.S. Patent No. 5,346,711, the chicken-breast cut that may or may not become "Fing'r-Pick'n-Chick'n." When sliced, battered and fried, the chicken breast in this form presents an array of slender petals emanating from a central core. Imagine a sort of chicken flower.

There's a patent, also, for what became Popcorn Chicken. The marinated, battered and fried dark-meat preparation originated with trimmings left over from making Hot Thighs. When introduced in the summer of 1992, it was the most successful promotional item in KFC's history, since rivaled by Crispy Buffalo Strips and Boneless Wings.

KFC has since changed the formula to white meat, and this month introduced a larger version called Bigger Better Popcorn.

Note the absence of a Steak-umm patent. For Gagliardi, this subject is at least as tender as a fine filet mignon.

While the brand name is trademarked, an oversight around the time Steak-umm was born left the product itself - now made by a Connecticut company - unprotected by patent. As Gagliardi tells it, a patent lawyer hired by one of the brothers did not file the paperwork in time.

As a result, one finds in the frozen-food case such knockoffs as Quaker Maid and Philly Gourmet steak-sandwich slices. Understandably, Gagliardi would rather not think about the economic consequences of this little snafu.

Not everything Gagliardi touches turns to gold, of course. John Cope's Food Products, a Lancaster County, Pa., company dropped from its product list about seven years ago both Kornels, a battered, fried corn kernel, and Corn Wheels, a corncob cut in sections for easy munching, especially for children.

Steve Davis, the company's vice president for sales and marketing, says he liked Kornels personally, but the item evidently "did not find consumer acceptance."

Mark Willes, a vice president for sales and marketing at Smithfield Foods, talks about Gagliardi's tendency to sometimes run a few steps ahead of what consumers are ready to embrace. He means that as a compliment, but he says it can complicate the marketing.

"His mind is incredible," says Willes, who worked with Gagliardi on a reconstituted pork product now sold in Wal-Mart and other places as Rack of Pork. "He can see the commodity" in the raw materials.

The latest concoctions from Gagliardi's test kitchen may or may not be coming soon to a supermarket or restaurant near you. He's been testing frankfurter strips and tomato nuggets, both battered and fried. Then there's the piece of meat that sure looks like a steak and tastes like a steak, except it's a reconstituted and reshaped "steak" made from assorted beef cuts.

Hot as the Atkins diet may be, it's unclear if the world is ready for a tortilla shell made from a version of that protein "dough" concocted from an assortment of seafood. And the marketplace has yet to render judgment on a breaded and fried large shrimp - say, 20 or so to a pound - created from seafood "dough" made from tiny shrimp - say, 800 to a pound. Again, creating more value in a less-profitable item.

Gagliardi's been working on both of these products with Thomas Slaughter in New Bedford, moving over the course of decades from turf to surf. Protein is protein.

"It's endless what you can do," says Gagliardi.

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