Local meat carvers in national contest are a cut above

Brian Zupp, 24, of Warren, left, stands outside the cooler at the Texas Roadhouse in Niles where he works as the restaurant's main meat cutter with his boss, Chad Smith, a managing partner with the company.

NILES — Brian Zupp said he realizes  most diners don’t typically give a lot of thought to the individuals responsible for the perfectly cut steaks served every day at the local restaurant where he works.

Zupp, 24, of Warren, was a dishwasher when he started out at Texas Roadhouse in Niles. Three years later, he is the restaurant’s main meat cutter and, along with Michael Wilms of Niles, the eatery’s secondary meat cutter, is advancing to round two of the Texas Roadhouse National Meat Cutting Challenge.

Zupp placed first and Wilms came in second last month at the regional cut-off in Cleveland. The two carvers competed against 11 other skilled meat cutters from nine Texas Roadhouse restaurants around northeast Ohio and parts of western Pennsylvania.

“The customers pay more attention to the person who cooks their steak or serves it,” said Zupp. “They don’t really know what goes on behind the scenes.”

But, he noted, there’s value is what he and Wilms do, and whether it’s a ribeye, sirloin or filet, it all starts with the meat, and the right cut.

“There’s a lot of precision to it, you have to pay attention to what you’re doing,” explained the 2010 Warren G. Harding High School graduate.

Each year, the competition starts as meat cutters from the company’s approximately 450 locations nationwide compete in a number of small local competitions around the country with winners advancing to regional cut-offs. Regional champions are then invited to participate in the Texas Roadhouse National Meat Cutting Challenge in Orlando, Fla.

As the top cutters in their region, Zupp and Wilms advanced to round two, and March 7 and 8, will compete for the chance to make the final cut as they face off against nearly 140 regional winners from across the country.

“It’s very unusual to have both your main meat cutter and the secondary go to the national competition and have them as the top two meat cutters in the region,” said Chad Smith, owner / managing partner of the Niles restaurant, which is part of the corporate chain. “That really says a lot.”

In Cleveland, the regional competition was set up at the Cleveland Heights Community ice rink that for the challenge became a makeshift cooler.

The meat was on ice in a big cooler from where the steaks were pulled.

Participants were required to cut three muscles — a sirloin, a ribeye and a filet — and were given an hour to accomplish the task. The winner, Zupp, was the one with the best yield of those steaks.

In Orlando, the competition will be narrowed to 30, and then the top 10. Participant are each given 30 to 40 pounds of beef to cut. Contestants are judged on quality, yield and speed. The winner is the cutter that creates the greatest number of steaks of the highest quality in the least amount of time. This past April, more than 200 meat cutters from around the country participated in the 2016 competition.

This coming April, the top 10 meat cutters for 2017 will be invited to the managing partners’ conference with all expenses paid for each competitor and a guest. The winner receives a $20,000 check and is crowned Meat Cutter of the Year.

“It’s a great opportunity,” said Zupp, who has never flown before. “I’m pretty excited. This has been a great job for me and opened a lot of doors.”

Zupp typically spends six to 12 hours a day in a 34-degree cooler cutting steaks. Depending on the time of year, he could easily carve anywhere from 150 pounds to 600 pounds of meat.

“Holidays, like around Christmas time, that’s when the demand is usually higher,” he said.

On his busiest day, a Friday, he cut 750 pounds by himself, working a 13- to 14- hour day.

“I love it. I cut steaks all day, every day,” he said. “I had to get used to the cold and being on my feet in the cooler for so long, but it’s worth it.”

As secondary, Wilms  cuts a few days each week.

“It’s an art. Texas Roadhouse has certain guidelines and specs that each steak has to look like, between dimensions and thickness,” Smith said. “That sets us part from everyone else. We guarantee fresh, hand-cut steaks and these guys, Brian and Michael, are the ones here at this restaurant who give us that consistently day after day.”

Smith said it’s one thing for a location’s primary meat cutter to make it to the national competition, but extraordinary for his backup to qualify as well.

“Now, both guys get to go to the national competition and that’s awesome. That’s rare,” Smith said.

Zupp’s first job was working nights for the Tribune Chronicle putting the newspapers together. After putting in some time as a dishwasher at Texas Roadhouse, he realized early on he wanted to “get into that meat room.”

“I never shut up about it. Then one day somebody got a new job and I got the phone call I’d been waiting for and I never looked back,” he said. “Cutting meat isn’t something I set out to do, or planned. But I got the opportunity, so I just ran with it. I don’t regret it one bit.”

Zupp said his goal is to move up in the chain. He’s reached the fifth level of the Texas Roadhouse Meat Hero incentive program, earning various gifts and cash awards.

“I realized this is something I wanted to do and I decided to be the best I could be at it,” he said. “Customers might not know who we are or what we do exactly, but they know when they’ve had a good meal and a great steak. That’s what we give them, and that’s good enough for me.”