Politics

Democrats Are Coming to Replace Your Hamburgers … With Better Hamburgers

A man uses a long knife in front of a row of slabs of hanging meat.
Pat LaFrieda Jr., meat man and Democratic donor. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Mike Lawrie/Getty Images and recep aktas/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

On Thursday of last week, a clickbait post on the Daily Mail site cited a University of Michigan study about the connection between cattle farming and climate change to assert that President Joe Biden’s greenhouse gas goals “could” require Americans to reduce their red meat consumption to the equivalent of one burger each month. This specious claim exploded across Fox News’ weekend programming; at one point the network ran a graphic asserting as fact that “Biden’s climate requirements” would force Americans to “cut 90% of red meat from diet.” From there the idea of a Biden Meat Threat was spread by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and likely 2024 presidential candidates Nikki Haley and Donald Trump Jr.

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It is sort of equally funny and chilling that someone like Haley, who seeks to be the most mainstream possible kind of Republican, would spend her time participating in a meat panic that has even less of a connection to reality than “death panels” and gun seizures had to the Barack Obama agenda. You could also read it as an act of desperate overcompensation: If anything, the consumption of hamburgers by Democratic voters is a symbol of the Republican Party’s most pressing long-term problem.

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To understand why, consider the two Pat LaFriedas. Pat LaFrieda Sr. is the onetime proprietor of a meat wholesaler based in New York City’s West Village. (His late father, who founded the business, was also named Pat LaFrieda. We are going to ignore the oldest Pat LaFrieda for the purposes of this story, going by the appellations the living LaFriedas currently use.) Pat LaFrieda Jr. began working for the company in the 1990s and turned it from a modest family business into a worldwide brand name by selling and marketing fancy custom ground-beef blends to restaurants and burger joints—most prominent among them the Shake Shack chain.

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Shake Shack, which started as a single location in an actual shacklike, LaFrieda-supplied structure in New York City, now has more than 300 locations across the world and more than 200 in the United States. In the U.S., its stores are clustered not just in urban centers but in the lifestyle-oriented suburban areas that are flipping from red to blue. Name a suburb that has gotten press for being crucial to Biden’s 2020 win, and there is probably a Shake Shack there. When the New York Times wrote in September 2020 about the possibility that Biden would flip Arizona, the article was illustrated by a picture taken in the town of Gilbert—home to one of the state’s five Shack outlets. Georgia has four Shake Shacks; in the suburban Atlanta precinct of Georgetown Square, home to the Perimeter Mall location, Biden beat Hillary Clinton’s vote share by 10 percent. Take this article, replace “restaurants that serve avocado toast” with “restaurants that advertise a ‘proprietary short-rib blend,’ ” and you have in large part explained the 2020 election. (To be clear, I am that article’s author. My motto is never do the same work twice.)

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This shift has apparently occurred in microcosm even within the LaFrieda family. LaFrieda Sr., according to FEC records, has donated to the Republican Party, and Donald Trump in particular, from an address in suburban New Jersey. His son, however, has given more to Democrats from his New Jersey address and from the company’s recently built suburban Jersey headquarters. Shake Shack founder Danny Meyer is also a big liberal donor, which makes for its own contrast with McDonald’s tycoon Ray Kroc, a Republican and major Nixon contributor. The Republican Party is losing its hold on a certain type of more cosmopolitan Business Guy who likes to eat a certain kind of meat—and, in response, has to build up its margins among the kind of macho kitsch enthusiasts who can be persuaded that the Democrats would actually prefer there be no meat at all.

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