Jim Nelson, above, purchased City Beef with Rich Tarantino in 2014.

Where’s the beef?

That indignant complaint-as-question was voiced by 81-year-old actress Clara Peller in a classic 1984 Wendy’s television commercial.

Ironically, “Where’s the beef?” is now a painful question for Wendy’s and other franchise restaurants.

As part of the widespread collateral damage from the coronavirus pandemic, fast food restaurants (indeed, all non-vegetarian restaurants) are scrambling to obtain meat, especially at prices that customers can afford.

How it came to this is no mystery: Meat processing plants — where line workers labor elbow to elbow at conveyor belts and safe distancing is essentially impossible — have been at risk of becoming coronavirus hot spots. Some did and have closed down.

But what’s come as a raw surprise to most citizens is that only a comparatively few huge plants service America’s entire food industry. So when some went offline, nothing took up the slack.

And that collateral damage is being felt from farms to food stores and restaurant counters to home tables.

So, in the midst of this crisis — economically and meat producing —where’s City Beef?

City Beef & Provisions, at 246 Willow Street in Trenton, is a survivor and even a legend in what was historically the city’s meat district. And as good luck would have it, in the midst of all the bad, just prior to the pandemic City Beef was reinventing itself.

Although calf-sized compared to national meat wholesalers, it had aimed to be as solid as any Angus bull. Now its survival and prosperity seem a matter of being as nimble as a deer.

Co-owner Jim Nelson candidly reports that with area restaurants only open for takeout and corporations and schools, with their cafeterias, closed, “our business went down 50 percent.”

But there’s been an upside: City Beef had maintained its traditional individual and family “walk-in” consumer business. It had provided a minority of revenues. But with immensely more people now cooking at home — and with word-of-mouth recommendations from longtime customers — “that mix has changed,” Nelson says.

Walk-ins have become ascendant, helping City Beef reclaim nearly half its lost revenues. Not surprisingly, it’s offering new small sales-friendly products, such as the “Trenton Meat Packs,” a build-your-own mix-and-match that offers 15 percent basic savings plus an additional $10 off for orders worth $60 or more.

At a time when the environmental costs of meat production are being strongly criticized and vegan substitutes are making real sales inroads, City Beef’s unabashed slogan is “It’s Good To Be Carnivorous.

“We’re also offering cooked and frozen meals,” Nelson adds. These feature 18-ounce portions, with a protein of meat or chicken, vegetables, a starch such as rice or potato, and a sauce, at a basic $10 price per product. This price can of course decrease, Nelson adds, if customers buy in higher quantities.

Thanks to its history, City Beef was well prepared to make the most of this increased walk-in trade.

Jim Nelson with office manager Angie Cook, a 12-year employee of City Beef.

“We speak English, Spanish, and Polish,” Nelson says proudly, explaining that Polish-Americans — for whom sausage is a treat and home-making it a satisfying ritual — continue to be among the company’s most loyal customers through generations. And responding to evolving regional demographics, City Beef can also offer Muslim customers beef, lamb, and chicken from halal-observing slaughterhouses.

Of course, Nelson is making a priority of updating the website (www.citybeef.com) to make it as up-to-date on menu items and consumer-friendly as possible.

In January, 2014, Jim Nelson purchased the City Beef business and its 4,400-square-foot building in partnership with Rich Tarantino, a celebrity chef within food shopping TV networks and websites as well as food product development circles.

The seller, Pete Diaz, had come to work at the company in the early 1960s, eventually owning it. Nelson and Tarantino knew that Diaz was not only handing over a firm but a great deal of history.

City Beef was founded in 1955, but its building has an even more aged and seasoned history. It had housed a meat packing operation as early as 1903, when North Willow Street and environs were home to numerous such firms.

Although slimmed by the merciless diet of time and shifting economic trends, the Trenton meat tradition proudly persists. Just as Philadelphia can boast of being the city of true cheese steaks, Trenton is the home of pork roll, with rival producers Case’s and Taylor having heritages from companies founded in the 19th century.

City Beef is stoutly part of that. Today, from its exterior, it might look like a particularly well-stocked and customer-friendly auto parts store, with its white walls and a fenced in parking lot. But the City Beef & Provisions sign is displayed on the building as proudly as the white face and chest of a prize Hereford cow.

Their new venture enjoyed great initial success. But today’s fraught situation has changed many things, and Nelson comes across as a clear-eyed realist in discussing them.

“In general, we’re having difficulty procuring meat, especially beef,” says Nelson frankly. “The prices have skyrocketed in the last two weeks.”

Neither does he try to spin ground chuck into sirloin when asked about City Beef’s business. Wholesale beef prices for vendors like himself have doubled, and chicken has gone up 50 to 60 percent.

“We’re trying to keep it as low as we can,” Nelson says somberly. “But it’s hurting our ability to even quote [prices] to our current restaurant and institutional customers.”

Yet a small pilot flame of hope burns. Says Nelson, “Some people are still buying what we can get.”

Inside, it’s clearly a destination for both retail vendors and citizen-customers seeking beef, pork, veal, and chicken in all their permutations. There is a loading dock whose interior space doubles as a sales point for walk-up customers as well as big bulk purchasers, overseen by the busy and appropriately cluttered office. In the back of the building, cool work rooms, walk-in refrigerators and freezers, and a room-temperature kitchen are arranged in a simple and efficient layout.

“This is the heart of the traditional City Beef,” says Nelson with affection, opening the door to a space off the loading dock and across from the office. A rack and rail system, securely bolted into the ceiling, rings the room. This is where, for decades, countless tons of beef were delivered, hung up, and then moved around before being sliced by City Beef butchers into the company’s multitudinous products.

The basic beef no longer arrives in heavy sides, but Nelson clearly has no plans to remove these direct tracks to the past. “Well, I like ’em,” he says with a smile.

The smile may have also been connected with a transaction earlier that day. City Beef had just filled a contract for 68,000 cheese steak sandwiches. (Yes, that many.) The order was from a vendor with hearty sales on the QVC shopping channel. City Beef created the entire combination, hard-froze the items, then shipped them to the client for eventual distribution to end consumers. “And they sold out!” Nelson exclaims.

Another potential retail client approached City Beef earlier this year, saying, “I make a really good meatball. Help me make it on a product basis.” How many businesses can boast of taking up the challenge — serious but savory — of building the better meatball?

The path of individual customers to City Beef’s loading dock has been kept clear and well used, even widened, by a steady pilgrimage of valued “walk-ins.”

“When Rick and I bought the business, we put in this production room,” says Nelson, leading the way into an expansive space in the center back. A commercial kitchen was also added, allowing City Beef to create platters and ready meals with vegetables and a starch (rice or potatoes) along with the meat protein — another product that is proving perfect for the ramped up individual customer and family trade.

The meat cutters are certified butchers. City Beef & Provisions is fully licensed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and given a close examination — each and every working day — by a USDA inspector (with one instantly spotted in a preparation room, clipboard in hand, looking over an employee and his work area). “If they didn’t come in here, we couldn’t be open,” Nelson says. The Mercer County Department of Health also makes inspections.

Jim Nelson was born in Lansdown, Pennsylvania, in 1959. His father was a teacher and, later, elementary school principal. His mother had also taught but later devoted herself to homemaking.

Before City Beef, Nelson worked for 22 years in finance at General Electric Health Care, the last six as a finance manager executive. He retired at age 45.

Then, by serendipity, he advised a relative on the financial aspects of a food business. Advising on the culinary side was Chef Tarantino. Both were looking for new entrepreneurial opportunities, and word came through food industry contacts that City Beef & Provisions could be for sale at the right price.

Carlos Nazzario, left, and Jim Nelson discuss pre-packaged meat products.

Over the years City Beef’s main customers have been restaurants, small food stores such as bodegas, nonprofit community and faith groups holding fundraisers or other events, and some institutional clients (such as school and corporate cafeterias). Most have been within a 25-mile radius of City Beef itself. Nelson says that City Beef has regular customers among the churches of Princeton and Trenton, for whom he always arranges deliveries.

Additionally, even large food trade purveyors like Sisco and U.S. Foods, plus emerging regional outlets like Restaurant Depot in Langhorne, Pennsylvania, have become City Beef clients. “Sisco doesn’t cut meat, for example,” says Nelson. “We’ve always had that service available.”

Of course, Nelson and Tarantino have been keen to sell well beyond Bucks and Mercer counties. Their initial expansion was largely driven by retail clients who need a specialized product. For example, one food industry entrepreneur wanted to sell beef jerky dog chewy treats. But he needed to partner with a food production facility. Calculating the expenses versus the potential gains, City Beef won the contract and invested in the necessary specialized equipment.

What does the future hold for the food industry overall? Nelson says it might be grimmer before it gets brighter.

One reason is connected to the news reports that many USDA meat inspectors, although not worried about checking small operations like City Beef, are concerned about contracting the coronavirus while working inside huge meatpacking plants.

Should their concerns become justified, they may start refusing to inspect any such facilities. (Nelson says he has personally heard such rumblings “from informed industry sources.”)

But, for now, there is hopeful news on North Willow Street. Between office staff and product handlers, City Beef has a total of 15 employees. Of these, Nelson says, he has only had to lay off two.

Nelson freely acknowledges that for a compact operation like City Beef, the ongoing epidemic could still prove disastrous.

“If someone on staff gets the coronavirus, we’re in trouble.” But, he adds, “We’ve had no cases of coronavirus with customers or employees.”

That may bring a future for City Beef & Provisions as hopeful as a well-marbled steak is delicious.

Says Nelson, “We’re just trying to be inventive and do the best we can.”

City Beef & Provisions, 246 North Willow Street, Trenton. Monday through Friday, 7 a.m. to 4 p.m., and Saturday, 7 a.m. to noon. 609-392-1492 or www.citybeef.com.

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