You can now read 10 articles in a month for free on BostonGlobe.com. Read as much as you want anywhere and anytime for just 99¢.

The Boston Globe

Metro

Sept. 1, 1987

How the Hilltop became the biggest restaurant in the US

Frank Giuffrida outside the Hilltop Steakhouse in Saugus.

Globe File/1978

Frank Giuffrida outside the Hilltop Steakhouse in Saugus.

Editor’s note: The article is from the Boston Globe archives. It originally ran on Sep. 1, 1987.

SAUGUS -- Frank Giuffrida is a generous man by nature, and he tells you that in all modesty.

The owner of the Hilltop Steak House would much prefer that the people who work for him talk about his generosity. They are only too happy to oblige.

Continue reading below

“Frank and I set the prices every Saturday,” says John Caccavaro, who runs the Hilltop’s butcher shop. “We fight every week. I want to go up in price, he wants to go down. He usually wins.”

Lenny DeRosa, the head chef, sometimes tours the kitchen with Giuffrida. ‘‘Frank looks at the dishes and says, ‘Do you think we are giving people enough to eat?’ I tell him, ‘Frank, if you put on any more, the food will fall off the plate.’ “

And if you push him, Giuffrida will overcome his modesty and tell a tale of his own. “One time,” he recalls, “my meatcutter went on vacation and I took his place for a few weeks. It wasn’t long before the chef came out back to see what was going on. ‘I knew it had to be you, Frank,’ he said. ‘You are making the steaks heavier.’ ”

Like so much of the Hilltop experience, the stories can leave you feeling a bit bloated. But that’s just the point. Like the salads that are too big to finish, the liberal doggie bag policy, the 12 foot-wide parking spaces (normal spaces are 9 feet), even the elaborate heating system under the driveway that melts snow, the stories speak to the simple and unshakable philosophy of Frank Giuffrida: that if you give your customers a lot, they will pay you back with their loyalty and make you a success.

The Hilltop is that and more. According to an estimate in Restaurants & Institutions, a trade magazine, the Hilltop did more business than any single restaurant in the country last year: $26.9 million. Hilltop managers won’t confirm the figure, but they say their whole operation, the restaurant plus the butcher shop, will have sales of about $45 million in 1987.

The crowds that snake around the building, waiting an hour or more for a table, are as familiar on Route 1 as the life-size fiberglass cows that graze out front. The restaurant’s 1,400 seats routinely fill up and at peak hours, cars pull into the 1,000-space parking lot at 10 to 12 per minute.

Month after month, year after year they return, oblivious to the weather, to the decline in the popularity of beef, to fears about cholesterol, to changes in taste and fashion.

Generosity, it seems, has it rewards.

In the movie “Arthur” there is a wonderful scene in which Dudley Moore tries to explain to his uncle just how small a certain mythical country really is.

‘‘It’s so small that you can take a cab from one side of the country to the other for 85 cents. It’s so small that they just put in wall-to-wall carpeting . . . .”

The jokes go on and on, until his uncle, growing more exasperated, finally blurts out, “We get the point Arthur: It’s a small country.”

The Hilltop is like that, only in reverse. The list of facts and figures about its size are endless. Most of the numbers are impossible to verify, but they are so outrageous they almost have to be true.

A sampling:

- In the summertime a trailer truck loaded with 42,000 pounds of beef comes in 5 or 6 times a week.

- The trash compactor has a capacity of 10 tons.

- The restaurant’s annual liquor bill is more than $3.5 million.

- In a good week the Hilltop uses 10,000 dozen rolls, 3,500 pounds of butter and 200 cases of French fries.

- There is a man in the kitchen who spends five hours a day wrapping

baked potatoes in aluminum foil.

- On a typical Friday customers consume 1 3/4 tons of seafood.

- The giant cactus-shaped sign in front is 68 feet high, 45 feet wide and on a clear day is visible from downtown Tucson (just kidding).

- On Saturday of July 4th weekend the butcher shop did $330,000 worth of business.

We get the point, Arthur: It’s a big restaurant.

‘‘Can I get you something to eat, Tony?”

Frank Giuffrida is doing what he often does: mixing business with lunch. He has a fancy office upstairs in the restaurant, but generally, he can be found in his real office, the one that is separated from the butcher shop by only a sliding glass window. Periodically he slides the glass back, sticks his head into the shop and chats with customers.

The office is simply furnished. There is a desk at each end and a large dining table in the middle. The only objects on the table are a telephone and a tray in the center with napkins and condiments.

Giuffrida spends a good part of the summer at his beachhouse in Seabrook, N.H., so when he comes in, he has a lot to do. Today is no exception. During the course of lunch he will talk to an architect working on an addition to his house, his landscape architect, a sales representative from Pepperidge Farm and another representative from a local fish company.

He somehow manages to talk to all of them at once, blending the conversation like a chef mixing up a stew. At one time or another he invites everyone in the room to have lunch, but they all politely decline.

‘‘Leon, have you had lunch yet?”

Giuffrida is treated with great deference by everyone. After all, he is the king of the hill. But he prefers to play the role of a peasant. He is casually dressed in jeans and a sweater. He speaks simply and bluntly.

‘‘You run your business according to your personality,” he says, in his gravelly voice. “I am generous by nature and I say that in all modesty. If I get a deal I will pass it on to the customer.”

The secrets of his success, it turns out, are right on the table. Rising out of his seat, Giuffrida picks up a bottle of ketchup. “Heinz, the best brand of ketchup,” he says emphatically. “A-1, the best steak sauce. Some people skimp and save. Hey, but I don’t want to knock anyone else.”

Giuffrida settles back in his chair and points to his lunch, a cheeseburger. It is made with all sirloin tails. He picks up the phone and calls Lenny DeRosa, who doubles as his personal chef. “Lenny, bring in a raw hamburg.”

Seconds later, DeRosa, a burly man with a handshake that could grind meat, comes trotting in with raw hamburger neatly arranged on a plate. DeRosa is a graduate of the Culinary Institute and has worked at some of the country’s poshest hotels.

‘‘Look at this hamburg,” says Giuffrida. “All sirloin tails. In some places you get bones, gristle, fat.” His face winces with pain at the mention of each. “Other places make the hamburg from the shank,” and to emphasize the point, he throws his leg up on the table and grabs his calf.

Frank Giuffrida has meat in his veins. His parents were in the meat business in Lawrence. His grandparents on both sides were meat people in Sicily. Giuffrida was in the meat business himself when he bought the Gyro Club, a little “gin mill” on Route 1 in Saugus.

Twenty-six years ago, right after he married his wife, Irene, he converted the club to a western-style steakhouse. In the early days, says Irene, he worked seven days a week from early morning to late at night, performing every job but hostess. Irene was the hostess. She remembers how she would fall asleep in a chair each night while Frank was still cutting meat.

The restaurant has grown over the years. The butcher shop, originally just a service to restaurant customers, is now a huge business on its own. But the formula has remained the same: Don’t skimp. Resist the temptation to go up too much in price. Remember that customers, not fancy tables or potted plants, are what the business is all about.

Giuffrida is particularly proud of the Hilltop’s doggie bag policy. Anyone who does not finish his meal is asked if he wants to take the rest home. The waitresses are more than happy to help customers shovel all their remaining steak, rolls and butter into the bags.

‘‘I’ll bet we spend $12,000 a year just on doggie bags,” says Giuffrida, rocking back in his chair. Not satisfied with the answer, he picks up the phone and calls Lenny again. The chef, his tall white hat bouncing, appears in an instant. “Lenny, how much do we spend on doggie bags?” Lenny says the answer is $15,000. (It turns out later the real figure is more like $20,000.)

‘‘Just on doggie bags, $15,000,” says Giuffrida, obviously pleased. Everyone else in the room shakes his head in amazement.

‘‘Tony, did I ask you if you want something to eat?”

Boston Magazine, in its latest Best and Worst issue, rated the steaks at the Hilltop the worst in Boston. “Why are all those people standing in line?” asked the magazine.

The best way to get an answer is also the simplest: ask the people on line. Friday is a particularly good day, because the lines are the longest. At lunch on Friday the restaurant offers its lobster pie, a seafood dish just slightly smaller than the Pacific Ocean, for $6 instead of the usual $13. It brings out the crowds. The restaurant opens at 10:30 a.m. on Friday, 30 minutes earlier than usual.

By 10:10 Arthur Longwell of Worcester already has his place on line. ‘‘I come for the steak,” he says simply. “The price and quality are good and it tastes delicious.” Longwell, who is wearing a safari hat, says he comes to the Boston area for occasional day trips, and whenever he comes, he works in a lunch at the Hilltop.

Robert and Roberta Dubois, a little farther back in the line, come down regularly from Rochester, N.H., about an hour’s drive away. “The lobster pie is half price, so he can eat two,” says Mrs. Dubois, pointing to her husband. The couple also stop off at the butcher shop, where the meat is cheaper than anything they can get at home.

Work your way down the line with the same question and after a while you get the sense you are filming a commercial for the Hilltop Steak House. “It’s well worth the wait,” said Sal Internicola of Winthrop, who at 11:10 a.m. is already facing a 25-minute stint.

Like everyone else on line, Internicola is holding a numbered slip in his hand. Periodically a woman’s voice comes over a loudspeaker and calls off a string of numbers in the style of a bingo announcer. “76, 74, 82, 68,” Sioux City, she says. “76, 74, 82, 68, Sioux City.”

Sioux City is one of the six dining rooms inside. Patrons holding numbers turn in their slips and proceed quickly to their tables. As they go in, new people show up to take their place. By 11:50, the rest of the world might start thinking about lunch, the wait is up to 85 minutes.

Christopher Hart has long marveled at the Hilltop’s lines. A professor of service management at the Harvard Business School, he has been to the restaurant a number of times, once as a tour guide for a group of Japanese restaurateurs. “They were completely flabbergasted by the size of everything, even the cows,” he says.

Hart is convinced that good food and good prices alone do not explain the Hilltop’s success. “The steak is a good value, but it’s not as if he is giving it away,” says Hart. “The salads with the standard dressing are not going to end up in a book of great salads. You can get a comparable meal at other places in this town.

‘‘To me, the thing has become a ritual, a cultural event. We are talking about a sociological phenomenon.”

Hart may be on to something. People come to the Hilltop the way they would a destination resort -- a poor man’s Disneyland. They step off Route 1 in Massachusetts and walk into the Wild West or at least one man’s version of it. They see familiar faces, they wander around, they make lots of noise and for the most part, seem to have a good time.

But if you bounce this notion off the people in line, they look at you as if you come from Mars or even worse, Cambridge. Says Paul Burke, up from Boston, “The food is excellent and the prices are reasonable.”

Next to, “Why are all those people on line?” the most obvious question to ask about the Hilltop is, “Why aren’t there more restaurants like it?”

‘‘Ordinarily in a capitalistic society when something is so phenomenally successful, it is duplicated,” says Hart, who says there are very few restaurants nationally that can compare with the Hilltop.

If you pose the question to Hilltop’s managers, they answer with a word you can’t print in a family newspaper. The word rhymes with “falls” and translates loosely as guts.

James Shenfield thinks that is as good an answer as any. “Frank Giuffrida has a lot of guts to do what he does,” says James Shenfield, who once studied the Hilltop operation for Campbell’s Soup. “He does what the hotel and restaurant schools would tell you is suicidal.”

What he does, according to Shenfield, is devote a far higher percentage of his budget to food than a normal restaurant would or could. A typical restaurant, he says, figures food costs at 35 percent of sales. The Hilltop, he estimates, may spend closer to 50 percent.

But there is a method to Giuffrida’s madness, says Shenfield. By giving the customer a better deal, and accepting a lower profit margin, the Hilltop generates enormous volume. And unlike most restaurants, the Hilltop has the room to accommodate that volume.

‘‘How many restaurants start with that much land?” asked Hart. (The Hilltop owns 12 acres). “And even if you had it, you would need an enormous market and a tremendous market share to make it work. You are not going to find too many lenders who would want to invest in a situation like that.”

Campbell’s Soup thought it could create a string of Hilltop lookalikes around the country in the early 1970s. The company hired Giuffrida as a consultant and opened a chain called Hanover Trails.

The business never made it. Giuffrida says the Campbell’s Soup executives would not listen to him. Irene says the Campbell’s managers were engineers, not restaurant people. It is also clear they lacked generosity.

“They served a chicken salad,” Irene recalls. “We told them to use all white meat. But the engineers said they could use dark meat, too, and get away with it.”

Shenfield, who has since gone on to his own restaurant business on the West Coast, thinks Campbell’s lacked one key ingredient: Frank Giuffrida at the helm.

Says Shenfield, “The business has been his life, his devotion.”

If Frank Giuffrida’s first rule is don’t skimp, his second one is: don’t borrow. Since Day One the restaurant has accepted only cash, no checks or credit cards. On the flip side, the Hilltop pays it bills promptly. If a truck driver comes in with a load of meat, he goes back home with a check.

‘‘I’ve got no receivables and no payables,” says Giuffrida proudly, rocking back in his chair. “I’m from the old school. Peace of mind means a lot to me. I’m free and clear. I don’t have a mortgage in the world.”

Or in the next one, either. A team of workmen is just finishing up construction of a mausoleum for the Giuffrida family at a cost of $250,000.

The monument company dropped off pictures of the mausoleum just the other day. It is an impressive piece of work. The name Giuffrida runs across the top of the columns and inside there are 16 crypts.

Giuffrida flipped through the color photos and looked pleased by what he saw. And why shouldn’t he? They’ve got his name in big letters out front and there is plenty of parking in the back.

Loading comments...

You have reached the limit of 10 free articles in a month

Stay informed with unlimited access to Boston’s trusted news source.

  • High-quality journalism from the region’s largest newsroom
  • Convenient access across all of your devices
  • Today’s Headlines daily newsletter
  • Subscriber-only access to exclusive offers, events, contests, eBooks, and more
  • Less than 25¢ a week