By Pallavi Gogoi
Serious foodies, start smacking your lips! Following in the footsteps of fashion designers Karl Lagerfeld, who launched a clothing line for cheap-chic retailer H&M, and Isaac Mizrahi, who sells his clothes at discount chain Target (TGT ), celebrity chefs lately have been expanding their horizons. Their handiwork is showing up everywhere from the menus at airport snack bars and food chains such as Au Bon Pain to the product lineup of high-end cookware maker All-Clad.
One of the latest top chefs to go mainstream is Thomas John, who left Boston's Indian fusion hotspot Mantra in July to join bakery chain Au Bon Pain. This career switch came on the heels of pastry chef Claudia Fleming's move from New York's Gramercy Tavern to British sandwich chain Pret A Manger, and award-winning chef Wolfgang Puck's foray into in-flight meals for US Airways (UAIRQ ) earlier this year. Puck, Emeril Lagasse, Rocco DiSpirito and a few other chefs are also serving up their own lines of signature cookware, knives, and other products.
So why are these elite chefs putting hard-won reputations on the line by exposing their skills to the scrutiny of the masses? They say they're enticed by the volume of business, personal exposure, and challenge that the mass market brings. "It's a huge opportunity," says John. "Accessibility [at Mantra] was limited, but now it has grown a thousandfold." A big reason is that the average check at Mantra is $80 per person, vs. just $5.49 for a sandwich of John's creation at Au Bon Pain.
EVERYONE'S AN EXPERT.
In some cases, the chefs are having a real impact. John's first offering at Au Bon Pain was a Thanksgiving sandwich composed of turkey and cranberry cheese with almonds and Dijon mustard in freshly prepared bread, wrapped in parchment paper and baked. It was a hit. During the first week, 10% of the chain's sales came from that one sandwich, and in a couple of cafés the sandwich has become the top-selling item. Now, John is working on several other offerings, including a Spanish tapas-style sandwich with three different fillings.
Chefs have begun to achieve the same iconic status as fashion designers in recent years, partly because American eating habits have evolved. Far more people are willing to venture beyond meat and potatoes to sample bolder cuisine. "Customers really know a lot nowadays about all kinds of food, and they come armed with information from the Internet and TV," says André Halston, who in August became corporate executive chef for organic food chain Wild Oats Markets (OATS ). Prior to Wild Oats, Halston worked at a restaurant chain that he joined after leaving his position as an award-winning chef at the Ritz Carlton hotels.
A big factor in the booming interest is cable TV's Food Network, which has given gourmet food pop culture cachet by pushing the envelope on new foods and playing up the personalities of celebrity chefs. The network has grown in popularity over the years, reaching 85 million U.S. households. It now claims to be the fastest-growing ad-supported cable network in terms of year-to-year subscriber growth.
Emeril Lagasse, whose Emeril Live! is one of the most popular shows on the network, is a prime example of the trend. Named in the late 1990s as one of People magazine's 25 most intriguing people, and GQ's Chef of the Year, Lagasse has partnered with high-end pots and pans purveyor All-Clad to produce his own line Emerilware. DiSpirito has a cookware line under the Rocco name, and TV personality and cookbook author Ming Tsai sells his utensils line under the Blue Ginger name at Target (TGT ).
Times have certainly changed since culinary icon Julia Child rejected all endorsement offers. Child, who died earlier this year, wasn't willing to risk any blemishes on her reputation, but today's big-name chefs have no such inhibitions. Puck, for one, has managed to extend his name from his upscale Spago restaurants to everything from cookware, frozen pizza, and in-flight meals to express diners at airports.
"Puck is creating a lifelong relationship with customers that he couldn't previously reach out to," says Pam Danziger, author of Let Them Eat Cake: Marketing Luxury to the Masses -- as well as the Classes, and principal at brand consultancy Unity Marketing in Stevens, Pa. One key to Puck's success is that he tries to give make each of his brand extensions distinct. "He doesn't just slap his name on the products," points out Danziger. "For instance, he's pretty convincing when he uses his brand of cookware while cooking at the Home Shopping Network."
Still, mass production is not without some obvious risks. The chains that the chefs have joined run hundreds of restaurants. Au Bon Pain has 122 bakeries, Pret A Manger has 150 shops, and Wild Oats Markets has 101 stores. "When you mass-produce something, it gets further away from your direct control, and the higher the chance of a mistake, and that may dilute or even destroy the brand name," says Robert Passikoff, president of Brand Keys, a New York brand- and customer-loyalty consultancy.
Wild Oats' Halston admits that the experience can be quite daunting, given that each region has its own peculiar taste preferences and the fact that he has to train some very inexperienced staff members who might not have developed particularly Epicurean tastes. "I have to keep in mind that there's a lot of employee turnover in the grocery store," he says.
Halston takes photographs of each step as he prepares his recipes so the process will be easy to explain to new employees and done the same way at each location. He also makes sure each location uses the same suppliers.
WANT FRIES WITH THAT?
Some chefs bring a sense of mission to their new jobs. "If I can follow my philosophy and make fast food healthier, more adventurous, more distinctive, and more flavorful, I'm happy with that," says Au Bon Pain's John. Wild Oats' Halston is just as passionate about his food. "I bring great-tasting food from my Ritz experience, but here it's at a lower price point, without the frills," he says. Halston plans to expand Wild Oats' juice bar soon and is planning to offer a rotisserie chicken in January that will be accompanied with a ramekin of barbecue sauce and mini corn-bread muffins.
Sounds pretty haute, doesn't it? But you won't have to wait too long for these scrumptious offerings or pay top dollar at a fancy restaurant. However, don't expect haute service. This cuisine may be fancy, but it's still fast food.
Gogoi is a reporter for BusinessWeek Online in New York
Edited by Thane Peterson