There have been too many a long and drunken night where we've floundered into hofbraus like Lefty O'Doul's with just enough singles to get a corned beef sandwich to smooth out the inevitable rocky morning after, with no idea of the unique history that corned beef has in this city.
So it must have been fate that led us to Debbie Ward in the upstairs office of the city's oldest corned beef plant, adorned with throwback deli photos of sky-high pastrami sandwiches, shamrock clocks, and dated menus of days when the stuff would cost but 25 cents a pound. For the past 103 years, Roberts Corned Meats has been providing corned beef and pastrami to Lefty O'Doul's, Mel's Drive-In, Tommy's Joynt, and a long list of big hitters in the city and around the bay.
"We've weathered the time because we're a specialty house," Ward says.
It all began in 1910 when Ward's great-great-grandfather George Henry Roberts moved from New Zealand to San Francisco to leave the family business of salting beef only to revert to his trade when he arrived in the Bay Area. "They laughed at him for the way he made corned beef," she says.
Ward says that in the early years in San Francisco, those who cured beef placed briskets in large vats of brine and allowed the meat to cure for up to 30 days. Roberts brought the method he took from New Zealand that involves a pump attached to needles that evenly distributes brine into the meat. The process her grandfather introduced takes but three days. "He was the first person to introduce artery brining to San Francisco," Ward says.
Now that process involves an $80,000 piece of machinery that brines about 3 million pounds of beef a year. Months of cooler weather and St. Patrick's Day are the reasons that two-thirds of her business is done between January and March.
"It's not a big summer food. A lady has to heat her kitchen for three to four hours to simmer this big piece of meat," Ward says.
Her hair in a bun, bright red lipstick to contrast with her lightly powdered face, and turtle glass frames with matching hair clip, Ward made us feel as comfortable as a waitress at a roadside diner asking whether we'd like hash browns or home fries to go with my country fried steak.
With a warm personality like that, it's no wonder her tight-knit crew of eight have been working beside her for more than 10 years. "Once people get a job here, they don't want to leave," she says.
But before Ward committed to a life of taking over the family business, she lived her life as a cruise ship tour guide traveling across Europe. She eventually married the ship photographer and became pregnant. On a return vacation home to the city, her father, Jim Dixon, offered her an office job at the factory that she slowly welcomed.
Jim was a true salesman who went door-to-door, taking samples of their meats to hofbraus, delis, hotels, and supermarkets across the city. James' Mercedes license plate is emblazoned "CORNBF," and on her Honda Pilot "CORNBF2."
"Dad went out and sold, sold, sold, sold," Ward says. "They used to call him the king of corned beef."
General Manager Franz Wohlauf says that San Francisco's corned beef ascent came in the '50s, when the slabs were promoted as the Thursday special at the Clift Hotel, then at Original Joe's, because Catholics weren't supposed to eat meat on Fridays and on Ash Wednesday during Lent.
After Jim Dixon retired in 2005, Ward has since taken the helm at the upstairs office, punching in orders for the week, sometimes stepping into the downstairs market to assist anyone looking to purchase the time-tested product, then granting her routine instruction on how to properly prepare a brisket.
Big pot. Cold water. High boil at first. Then simmer for three hours. Let the meat rest. Slice against the grain. Enjoy.