Shedding Mob Rumor, Western Grows
By Theresa Juva and Lee Landor
Neatly stacked loaves of bread and cans of vegetables line the brightly lit aisles of Western Beef on College Point Boulevard. It looks like an ordinary supermarket until shoppers swing around a corner and meet a blast of cold air: the meat room.
Western Beef, one of the largest wholesale meat distributors in the metropolitan area, has earned a reputation for catering to immigrant communities with its diverse selection of food, particularly meat.
Nothing Gets Wasted
When customers enter the meat room at Western Beef, they should be prepared to endure an Artic chill, which might feel great during the sweltering summer, but requires a hat and coat the rest of the year.
Metal racks contain the usual array of meats: jumbo hot dogs, smoked bacon and beef patties. But when customers tread into the aisles filled with large slabs of crimson-colored meat, they find what makes Western Beef so famous.
First, there are the long gray pieces of meat on a foam tray wrapped in plastic: cow tongues, which, without a mouth, are not as amusing when they stick out.
Next are the pink hooves of a pig sitting next to chicken and veal kidneys that look like packages of shiny, red marbles. Cow and pig tails are also on the menu, along with brown gelatin-looking cow livers. On the opposite side of the aisle, there are clusters of chicken feet, complete with claws, and chicken gizzards, the obscure bird organ that filters out the dirt and gravel the animal eats.
Shelves lined with exotic meat in the meatroom of Western Beef’s Flushing location.
Sliced cow hearts and miniature ruby-red chicken hearts can also be picked up in the meat room, but if customers are looking for enough to feed a banquet, gargantuan hunks of pork wrapped in plastic sell for $100.
Tastes from around the globe can all be found under one roof, a unique accomplishment for a company that began as merely a meat production company on Long Island in 1963. By 1975, what was then known as Ranchers Packing Corp, decided to open a retail meat market. When the store went south, Ranbar, a meat and poultry distributor based in Flushing, bought the company.
Ranbar was owned by Peter Castellana, who, according to investor and entrepreneurs Web site fundinguniverse.com, “was convicted in the early 1950s of selling adulterated meat and in 1964 of taking part in looting a company of $1.3 million.” Castellana served four years in prison.
Following the scandal, the company suffered great losses and led to Ranbar filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. But the scandals didn’t end, and by 1978 the company was indicted on more than 50 counts of defrauding the federal government and was fined $520,000.
The winds would shift for Ranbar in the 1980s when the company turned its focus from wholesale meat to retail stores. The remaining packing plant in Flushing became a retail store called “Western Beef,” as other stores continued to spring up around the metropolitan area.
The 1980s also had its share of problems for the Castellana family, beginning with a 1986 report from the President’s Commission on Organized Crime that suggested the company had ties with the Gambino crime family. Despite the bad press, business was booming for Ranbar – it delivered 2.5 million pounds of meat a week to 700 customers in a 125-mile radius from its Queens headquarters.
In 1993, the company officially became known as Western Beef, and by the end of the following year, 14 stores were open in New York City. “The stores, whose goods were tailored to ethnic communities, were open seven days a week. Two had on-site bakeries. Western Beef had net income of $4.4 million on net sales of $274.1 million in 1993,” the investor Web site reported. But rumors of organized crime ties continued to plague the company and by 1995, President Peter Castellana was frustrated that the company’s image was repelling potential investors, so he hired a company to do a complete review of the company’s financial records.
Peter Castellana, Jr., the company’s current Chief Executive Officer, declined to comment on this subject and on Western Beef in general.
A variety of fruit hailing from all over the world awaits Western Beef’s customers.
The investor Web site reported that once the company was cleared of any mob shenanigans, Castellana said he hoped it would initiate a surge in profits.
But whether or not it did, Western Beef is still a strongly felt presence in the Metropolitan area – and an easily recognized one: across its bright orange banner is the company name, with a smiling green cactus wearing a sombrero in the center. And the company has a loyal consumer base.
Western Beef now has 21 high-volume, full-service supermarkets and five food stores, according to westernbeef.com, that cater specifically to each community’s needs.
“Through diligent demographic research, we can reasonably ascertain a neighborhood’s specific needs,” reads the Web site. “By concentrating on the ethnic backgrounds, income levels, population density and food preferences in our neighborhoods, we are able to stock our stores with the brands and sizes of products our customer prefer.”
The busy fish market following its daily routine.
Some of those products, such as “exotic” fruits and vegetables, are specific to the individual culinary styles of various countries, and include yucca, yampi, sapote, appio and ajicito, according to the Web site.
Through demographic research in the neighborhoods it serves, the company learns of other cultures’ cuisines. But having local employees who bring their own knowledge and tastes to the table definitely helps, westernbeef.com reported. Also, on its Web site, the company also provides a link to meals.com, where customers can find menu ideas and recipes, as well as contribute their own.
Despite its ups and downs, the company has achieved its major goal: gratifying a community need. And, as long as it continues doing so, its name will be positively remembered.