Long thought to be extinct, like dinosaurs or the passenger pigeon, Trump Steaks are alive and well at some of the real estate mogul’s properties. So indicated the GOP front-runner at a news conference March 8, when Donald Trump pointed a finger at a gorgeous pile of vacuum-sealed meats and declared them “Trump Steaks.”
Journalists quickly discovered that those particular Trump Steaks were impostors. The beautifully marbled cuts actually had been bought from a reputable south Florida meat company for the members-only restaurant at Trump National Golf Club in Jupiter, Fla., where the news conference was held. Reporters could plainly see the Bush Brothers Provisions Co. logo printed on the packages.
But so what. Maybe these were just poor props for the press? Maybe Trump buys beef from specialty wholesalers and repackages it as Trump Steaks, similar to his business model for Trump Water? I mean, the guy sells image as much as products. Does anyone expect Trump to run his own meatpacking plant?
Of course, the bigger question is this: Why do we even care whether these mastodons known as Trump Steaks still roam the earth somewhere in the vast Trump empire? Blame Mitt Romney, the former GOP presidential candidate who taunted the current presidential candidate in a speech on March 3. Romney belittled the billionaire’s vaunted business acumen, specifically mentioning the failure of the prime Certified Angus Beef steaks that Trump had hawked for a New York minute in 2007 via QVC and the Sharper Image. Yes, the Sharper Image, the gadget company better known for electronic ephemera such as a Bluetooth-controlled miniature dinosaur.
A brief refresher for those not attuned to Trump’s meatier business affairs: Trump Steaks was a branded line of hamburgers and steaks supplied by Buckhead Beef, a specialty meat company. Trump Steaks prices ranged, according to a report by ThinkProgress, from $199 to $999, depending on the cuts and the amount purchased. Even at the time, the steaks were fodder for “Saturday Night Live” comedians: “When you think of high-end, delicious beef, the first two things that pop into your head are the Sharper Image and Donald Trump!” said Trump impersonator Darrell Hammond.
The Trump Steaks promotion with Sharper Image died in the summer of 2007, just months after it was launched, while the one with QVC ended “in the same period of time,” says Nehl Horton, a spokesman for Sysco, the giant food-service company that owns Buckhead Beef.
“We have not been selling these kinds of steaks for almost 10 years now,” Horton adds.
But at that Florida press conference, held a few days after Romney’s, Trump indicated that his steaks never truly went extinct. They just went into hiding — at some Trump properties, where patrons could still buy the meats.
“We have different suppliers. We sell the steaks largely to our hotels and our clubs and things like that,” Trump told Anderson Cooper in a combative interview the day after his press conference. “It’s a small business.”
The GOP candidate’s ongoing defense of his seemingly moribund meat company generated another wave of ridicule, nearly a decade after the original release of Trump Steaks. President Obama mocked the notion that Trump Steaks was a true business accomplishment, while “SNL” used a raw Trump Steak as a hilarious prop in a skit about violence at the candidate’s rallies.
Hoping to locate and dine on this rare species of steak, I first emailed and phoned Hope Hicks, Trump’s campaign spokeswoman. She never responded. So I started dialing Trump-branded hotels and clubs — all the places that had restaurants with steaks on the menu. I called Trump Tower in Manhattan, Trump International Hotel in Las Vegas, Trump International Hotel in Waikiki, Trump International Hotel and Tower in Toronto and others. I even called private country clubs, where middle-class schmoes like me can’t eat dinner without an invitation from a member.
I talked to kitchen workers and hostesses. I sweet-talked anyone who picked up the phone. They were all polite and eager to help me find answers, even when they had no idea what a “Trump Steak” was. They all said, save for one person, that their restaurants do not serve Trump Steaks. And that one person? He was a kitchen employee at Champions Bar & Grill at the Trump National Doral in Miami. “We’re not allowed to discuss anything of that nature,” he told me.
BLT Steak, the chain owned by ESquared Hospitality, runs steakhouses at Trump properties in Waikiki and Miami and will open a third in Trump International Hotel, the controversy magnet set to open this fall in the District. BLT Steak couldn’t distance itself from Trump Steaks fast enough.
“We have no confirmed menu as of now” for Washington, emailed BLT Steak spokeswoman Rachel Wormser, “but currently do not and have no plan to serve such an item on any of our menus.”
So where do the steaks at Trump properties come from? As Trump rightly told Cooper on CNN, the meats come from many different places, according to the people I spoke to at restaurants on Trump properties. Pat LaFrieda Meat Purveyors in New Jersey sells steaks to the Trump Tower Grill. Desert Meats in Las Vegas sells to the DJT restaurant in Trump’s Sin City hotel. Excel Fresh Meats in Kansas sells to the Wai’olu Ocean View Lounge at Trump’s Waikiki property. Bush Brothers, of course, sells to the Trump National Golf Club in Florida (as well as two other properties in the area).
Three other restaurants on Trump properties couldn’t name their exact suppliers, but employees indicated the steaks come from companies that stamp the meats with their own brands, not “Trump Steaks.”
The meat industry is a complicated business. Some of the suppliers listed above are part of massive multibillion-dollar companies such as Sysco and Cargill. Sysco, for example, owns Desert Meats, and Cargill owns Excel Fresh Meats. Wholesalers and specialty steak cutters will sometimes offer “co-packing” services, in which the meat companies create branded products specifically for an outside party. Back in 2007, Buckhead Beef was the co-packer for Trump Steaks before the whole business went belly up.
Both Sysco spokesman Horton and Mike Martin, a spokesman for Cargill, say their companies have no co-packing agreements with the billionaire to produce a line of Trump-branded steaks. Pat LaFrieda, chief executive of Pat LaFrieda Meat Purveyors, did not return repeated calls for comment.
Does that mean, then, that there is no such thing as a Trump Steak? Not necessarily. What it probably means is that there are no products branded as Trump Steaks for retail sale. If there were, the steaks would have to follow U.S. Department of Agriculture labeling laws for retail meats. Among other things, the label for Trump Steaks would need to include not just the name of the cut, such as rib-eye or New York strip, but also a plant number, identifying the federally licensed facility where the meat was inspected.
No such product was unearthed in my search.
Then again, steakhouses regularly buy meat from wholesalers and specialty cutters and resell the cuts as “signature steaks” or something similar. Those pricey steakhouse rib-eyes and porterhouses, in fact, may even be cut, trimmed, graded and aged to a restaurant’s specifications. So in that sense, the signature steaks at, say, Del Frisco’s Double Eagle Steak House or Capital Grille are unique to those restaurants.
Jessica Bush, a fifth-generation family member involved in Bush Brothers, the wholesaler that sells to Trump’s resort in Florida, puts it another way. “Once they purchase the steaks, they’re theirs,” she says about buyers like Trump. “Once they leave our facility, they can do whatever they want with them.”
And Donald Trump has taken to calling them Trump Steaks. In fact, if my Nexis search is accurate, the businessman may have just started calling them Trump Steaks earlier this month, not long after Romney ridiculed the meats as just another failed Trump venture.