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How Chefs Go From Restaurant Kitchen to Grocery Store Brand

Inside the world of licensing your name to Big Food

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Jeff Lotman has tried for years to get to Nobuyuki Matsuhisa to license his name. “I don’t believe in ‘no,’” the brand-licensing executive says. “I only believe in ‘No, right now.’ I have chased people for years before they’ve said yes. Chefs are often afraid they can’t get control. They can.”

Where Matsuhisa, the world-renowned chef behind Nobu, has refrained, other household-name chefs have done the opposite, signing over their names to restaurant operators, manufacturers, and retailers, lending their image to everything from sauces (Bobby Flay) to spatulas (Alton Brown), chilled ready-made meals (Jamie Oliver) to pressure ovens (Wolfgang Puck), knife sets (Rachael Ray) to K-cups (Emeril Lagasse).

Lotman, the founder and CEO of Global Icons, a Los Angeles-based licensing agency, has been consulting and acting as a middleman in the business of branded goods and services since the early aughts. His agency works more closely now with corporate rather than personal brands, but he remains an opportunistic observer of the market.

The reasoning, as Lotman explains it, is simple: “Ribs I might not buy, but Bobby Flay ribs, yes, I would pick those up.” Flay is as good an archetype of the multi-interest celebrity chef as any, his empire comprising five restaurants — one of them, Bobby’s Burger Palace, is a nine-year-old chain — 11 cookbooks, and a line of sauces and rubs for meat. Flay has been in the eye of the American public since 1994, and a TV regular since 1996.

“You need profile,” according to Lotman. “No matter how great the chef is, if I haven’t heard if him, I won’t buy. Once you have that profile, you, as the licensor or brand owner, are in the stronger position.”


According to Lotman, one of the biggest growth areas for chefs and culinary personalities recently has been in restaurant licensing. “Restaurants have learned that consumers see this as a good thing,” he says. “It makes them feel good about a restaurant, it drives them back. Fifteen years ago, there were three restaurant brands bearing people’s names. Now, there are about 80.”

Delivered meal kits lately popularized by companies like Plated and Blue Apron represent another possible conduit for celebrity chefs’ brands, says Lotman, pointing out the logic behind an alliance that grants a chef custody over ingredients as well as recipe and instruction. Chefs like Dominique Crenn and Fabio Viviani have signed on to curate meals with Chef’d, a meal kit company based in Southern California, but straightforward name licenses where chefs have even less responsibility are also on the table. “There may be one or two such licensing deals being negotiated behind the scenes,” Lotman says.

For other chefs, there is nothing wrong with more traditional formats, like frozen meals, condiments, and other non-perishables. Jet Tila, star chef of the Asian food world, was born into what he calls “the first family of Thai food in Los Angeles” — his parents opened East Hollywood’s Bangkok Market, a retail and wholesale store, in 1972.

Because he grew up working there, Tila says he is at peace in a stockroom and enjoys thinking deeply about merchandising. “Licensing was always attractive to me, coming from a grocery store family. As a teenager, I managed about 5,000 SKUs, dealt with many importers. It’s in my blood,” he says.

Tila takes particular pride in the development of different ranges and says he tries to maintain close relationships with his co-packers — the contract manufacturers responsible for the production of shelf-ready products.

“I do all the benchwork, with final approval. I will not put my name on something without being involved at that stage, without knowing who the co-packer is. And there could be multiple co-packers, nationally,” Tila says. “I want to walk them all, to see the production from start to finish.”

To date, Tila’s experiences have been positive. He says that Asian food wasn’t always a “comfortable” category for food manufacturers; it was trickier than other cuisines to do properly. “So there’s a lot for us to offer,” he says. “There’s no tweaking of existing formulas. You need a unique formulation.”

Tila has an ongoing partnership with Schwan’s Home Service, one of the largest providers of frozen meals in the U.S. He dismisses any suggestion that, as a chef, he has sold out. “Creating seven or eight frozen meals from scratch on a bench in Minnesota and having those go to thousands and hundreds of thousands of homes is fulfilling from a chef’s standpoint, and from a cultural and scientific standpoint,” he says.

“People from cities turn their noses up at frozen food but a lot of middle America doesn’t have access to this food,” Tila continues. “Middle America consumes different Asian foods than what’s consumed along the coasts. With packaged food and convenience food, I want to satisfy somebody who wants lo mein, but also somebody who wants something more advanced.”

Tila has not come up against very many hurdles, but that may be due to his extensive experience in the business. For most chefs that want to develop frozen foods, there will be tradeoffs, according to William Madden, founder of Right Brain Consulting, a Chicago-based company assisting in food industry contract negotiation and management.

"Say a chef wants to make a circular moussaka,” says Madden, “with fresh sliced eggplant, and ground Australian veal as the base. That’s great in a restaurant, where the veal you end up grinding is a byproduct of chops, and so on. But manufacturers are not making these one at a time. The eggplants, for example, would be instant quick freeze — IQF in industry speak. Every piece of the eggplant will need to be used, not just the solid center. Then it has to be baked in a sheet pan, not a circle, to minimize waste.

“In an industrial setting, it is cost-prohibitive to do the things a chef is accustomed to doing,” Madden says, noting that most chefs going into licensing deals “don’t understand the physics of a frozen sandwich.” Lettuce freezes, for example, but it doesn’t thaw well. “In a restaurant, a sous chef knows if he screws up because he won’t be the sous chef in the morning,” says Madden. “In co-packing, a chef won’t know something is wrong until a consumer complains.”

Chefs have significantly less control over the final product when a co-packer is involved, and this can be frustrating if they aren’t familiar with the experience. Likewise, it can be frustrating for co-packers whose chief goal is to produce food at volume safely and efficiently. “Chefs don’t like being told ‘no,’” Madden says. “But if you explain that this is protection from damage to 30 years of a Michelin-rated reputation, some get it.” Others decide it’s not worth licensing their name or trusting a co-packer.

Another concern is profit. According to Lotman, food licensing, where margins are tight, doesn’t give chefs too sizable of a cut. “It’s not as though you’re selling a t-shirt,” he says. “Star Wars, for example, could get 12 to 14 percent from a t-shirt. In food, you’re looking at 3, 4, or 5 percent, and 5 percent is really high in food.”

Robert Irvine Foods

Licensing in the food business can be unattractive to other chefs for different reasons. “I have to own it,” says Robert Irvine, an English-born chef and TV personality whose LLC, Robert Irvine Foods, employs seven full-time staff. “The reason I want that is because I want the person I partner with to work as hard as I work.”

With the introduction of his product line (dominated by pizza, cheesecake, and rapeseed oil), Irvine wanted to market to households as well as to hotels, casinos, schools, and the military, with which he has a particular affinity. Irvine's CEO, David Longstaff, was hired in 2014 after 30 years in the army.

The business is split 50/50, domestic retail to military. A portion of proceeds goes to an eponymous foundation that supports military personnel, first responders, and their families. In this respect, Irvine emphasizes the idea of patronizing an individual, and his mission, rather than a brand.

“TV can work with you or against you,” Irvine says. “A brand can be successful with your photo and your name on it, or it can go the other way. Is it egotistical? Do I feel good that my picture is on everything? No. It’s about cutting through.”

Irvine is preoccupied with his “legacy” and the idea of leaving something behind. He says he could have quite easily sat back with his TV money and “had quite a nice life.” The decision to start the business was not without careful deliberation. “Giordano’s, Papa John’s, Tyson Foods… you have to be able to play in that space. I’m not just giving my name to it for a cut; I want to become synonymous with quality. I do not want to rip people off.”

The aim for Robert Irvine Foods is to have “touchstones” in every aisle of the grocery store, says Longstaff, its CEO. “It happens that we get licensing invitations and requests and I say no all the time,” Longstaff says. “Rarely does a month go by.”

Away from Robert Irvine Foods, however, the licensing out of Robert Irvine’s own name is handled by a branding agency. Last September, coinciding with the debut of his talk show, Irvine partnered with a New York City-based agency, the Brand Liaison. The agency goal was to, per its news release, “lock in partnerships for cookware, food preparation, storage, and other kitchen products, as well as healthy meals, snacks, and fitness products for the Irvine brand.”

Certain cachet-heavy names crop up in rotation in conversations about personality-branded products: Ina Garten, Emeril Lagasse, and (“the king,” per Jet Tila) Austrian-born American, Wolfgang Puck.

Wolfgang Puck Foods

Joe Essa, the president of Wolfgang Puck Worldwide, has worked with Puck for 18 years. A team of six, including Essa and Puck, act as managing partners: three on food, three on business. The licensing aspect of the business takes up the majority of Essa’s working day, split 60/40 between restaurants and food and homeware.

Essa manages inbound interest and plots new agreements and partnerships. In the casual dining space, airport locations are lately big business for Wolfgang Puck. Time is divided between existing partners’ demands and propositions and the pursuit of new contracts and opportunities.

Puck generally tries to support his partners, Essa says, but that doesn’t mean that a Guadalajara restaurant logically follows one in Cancún — everything is meticulously assessed on its individual merit. “We end up having to say ‘no’ more than not,” he says.

On the products side of the business, Essa explains the same relationship dynamic obliquely. Some partners have been around for a long time; Wolfgang Puck first put out a line of pizzas in 1987.

Campbell’s is the licensed partner for its canned organic soup line; Woodway Beverages for its iced coffee; WP Productions for homeware, and so on. Each partner is capable of many more things; the possibilities are myriad. Essa estimated that 20 percent of opportunities assessed are pursued.

“That’s probably the main reason we have remained relatively small,” says Essa. “We try to be thoughtful about where we go with a business Wolfgang Puck has built for himself and his family over 30 years. Fortunately, it’s very easy to look at people’s operational track record. A lot of people just want to lock up the name. To stick the name on something and have it sell.”

Siobhán Brett is an Irish writer based in New York.
Editor: Daniela Galarza

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