Meet the Kings of Corned Beef in Detroit

Published on March 17, 2009 - 4:22 pm

by Sylvia Rector : Free Press Staff Writer

March 17, 2009

Across metro Detroit today, thousands of Irish descendants -- and many more who'll wink and say they are -- are sitting down to breakfasts of homemade corned beef hash, lunches of corned beef sandwiches and dinners of boiled corned beef and cabbage.

Other than perhaps a pint o' Guinness, nothing symbolizes St. Patrick's Day in America better than the brine-cured beef briskets popularized by poor Irish immigrants in the early 1900s.

So while it's a great day for the Irish, it's surely Thanksgiving, Hanukkah and Christmas combined for the men who make corned beef.

Here in Detroit, that list includes Jason Grobbel, Tom Wigley and Sy Ginsberg -- the de facto kings of corned beef in a city known for making some of the country's best.

Each company is different, with its own style and market niche. But together they represent some 220 years of brining briskets in Detroit.

Their names are on their packages, and more than any other day of the year, their products are on our plates.

It's a great day to meet the men and companies who make the Irish smile in all of us.

JASON GROBBEL -- President, E.W. Grobbel Sons Inc.

Jason Grobbel never knew his great-grandfather, Emil, who in 1883 opened a city market stall that grew into E.W. Grobbel Sons -- the nation's oldest specialty corned beef producer. But he does remember his grandfather, Cyril, as "a precisionist."

It's a family and company trait. Analytical and detail-oriented, Jason Grobbel's business strategies helped make Grobbel's a national brand, sold in Sam's Club, Wal-Mart, Kmart and other chains.

Based in Eastern Market, it produces close to 20 million pounds -- 10,000 tons -- of brined brisket a year.

Grobbel, 46, of Grosse Pointe, says corned beef has two personalities: "There is the Irish-American corned beef of corned beef dinners, and the Jewish-American corned beef" that became the centerpiece of the New York delis started by European immigrants.

They're made the same way but have different flavor profiles: pickling spices in the Irish-American style and mostly garlic in the Jewish.

His company's strength is the Irish-American version. The family's spice blend is a secret, but it creates a flavor profile so well-balanced, even "people who think they don't like corned beef, like Grobbel's," he says.

SY GINSBERG -- President and co-owner, United Meat & Deli

How good is Sy Ginsberg Corned Beef?

It's so good, it's the only one sold at celebrated Zingerman's Delicatessen in Ann Arbor. And thanks in part to Zingerman's ringing endorsements, Ginsberg's company has corned beef customers from Seattle to Miami and California to New York.

Ginsberg, 64, of Novi more or less backed into the business. He owned a deli, the Pickle Barrel in Southfield, until 1980 but sold it to start a food distribution company. One day it occurred to him he could probably make his own corned beef rather than distributing someone else's, and the rest is history on rye bread.

His company, United Meat & Deli, is both a deli supplier and meat processor, making kosher-style corned beef, pastrami, roast beef and roast turkey. But only one product bears his name: Sy Ginsberg Corned Beef.

It's Jewish style, of course, with "a sweet, garlicky flavor" rather than what he calls "the Irish flavor" with bay, clove and other spices.

Almost all of his corned beef is sold to delis; in an average week, he ships about 125,000 pounds. But for a few weeks before St. Patrick's Day, sales triple as retail customers buy it in metro Detroit's top markets to cook at home. He even adds a spice packet for those who want to go Irish.

TOM WIGLEY -- Co-owner and president, T. Wigley Inc.

Tom Wigley's English grandfather, Job Wigley, came to Detroit in 1924 and started making corned beef in the old Gratiot Central Market. Wigley's has been a family-owned corned beef producer in Eastern Market ever since.

Wigley, 63, of Novi says his company is tiny compared to Ginsberg's and Grobbel's. "Sy and Jason far exceed what we do," he says. "We're just a niche in a niche."

Still, Wigley's has a big local following. The corned beef is mostly sold wholesale to restaurants and local delis that cook it for juicy sandwiches or dinners. The company's two main retail outlets are at Gratiot Central Market and Wigley's Meat and Produce store, at 3405 Russell.

Wigley's product is made in the Irish-American tradition. But, he says, "I like to think our flavor profile is a little bit unique. We've made ours a little bit sweeter" than most other brands.

"It's not just an ordinary product as far as I'm concerned. I put my name on the package, and that means a lot to me."

For the last month, he has been tripling production to meet demand. It's a time of year he looks forward to. "It's always fun. We see a lot of happy Irish people."

What happens after today? "We'll just make more corned beef. Our week-to-week customers will be sold out!" he says.

Contact SYLVIA RECTOR at 313-222-5026 or

Additional Facts About Corned Beef

How is corned beef made? The meat -- usually the brisket, or breast muscles -- is cured by injecting and marinating it with a brine made of curing salts, flavorings and water.

Why is it called corned? The salt once used to cure the meat came in small, hard pellets that resembled corn kernels, so after it was cured, the meat was said to be "corned."

How is corned beef cooked?
Rinse the corned beef and place it in a kettle with enough water to cover it by an inch or two. No additional seasonings are needed. Bring it to a boil, cover the pot, and reduce the heat to a simmer. A 5-pound piece should cook for at least 2 -2 1/2 hours, until tender throughout.

Where can I find corned beef recipes? The Grobbel's Web site,, offers cooking tips as well as numerous recipes, ranging from Reuben soup to corned beef on the grill.

Sylvia Rector


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