Puck's Recipe: Add A Dash Of Show Biz And Stir

Puck and Lazaroff's flamboyant eateries are smashes-but are they spreading the recipe thin?

It's opening night, and Wolfgang Puck, the man who brought duck-sausage pizza to Hollywood, is in a frenzy. Sweat rolls down his face as he furiously breads veal, slices lemons, and bastes duck at his just-opened Spago in Beverly Hills. Less than two miles from the original Spago, long a glitterati favorite, Puck's splashy new eatery is already teeming with superstars.

As Puck pulls racks of Moroccan lamb from the oven, the pastry chef shoves a spoonful of Kaiserschmarren, a pancake- like dessert, into his mouth. Puck's wife, Barbara Lazaroff, sweeps in with menus to autograph. Scribbling his name, Puck turns to find Tony Curtis, in tails, seeking Puck's new goulash. "Here, Tony, just like Mom used to make," says Puck in his heavy Austrian accent. "Mom? Mom? I know you're in here," Curtis responds, plucking pieces of beef with his fingers, gazing heavenward for effect.

PIZZA. No one combines star appeal and a flair for fusing flavors the way Puck does: The 47-year-old chef-cum-entrepreneur is as much a fixture in Tinseltown as script meetings. Fifteen years after a group of patrons financed his move from executive chef at Ma Maison to the first Spago, Puck's empire--which includes upscale restaurants, casual cafes, and a line of frozen pizzas--is expected to have cash flow of more than $14 million on revenues of $123 million this year.

That makes him the most successful chef ever to butter a skillet. And, by all accounts, the empire is just starting to sizzle. Together with Lazaroff, who not only designs the vivid interiors but also oversees site selection, architecture, public relations, and marketing, Puck plans to open eight restaurants in the next 12 months. An acquisition is in the works to expand their casual-dining business, Wolfgang Puck Food Co., eastward, adding $50 million in sales.

As if that weren't enough, the pair has also linked up with Walt Disney Co. And next year, Frank Guidara, the food company's new CEO, expects to take it public. Then, claims Guidara, formerly president of the restaurant division of Restaurant Associates Corp., "we are talking hundreds of millions in revenues." The question: Can Puck retain his cachet--and keep his empire from boiling over--even as he woos customers at airports and grocery stores everywhere?

Already, Puck and Lazaroff have a complex web of holdings. Their seven fine-dining restaurants in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Las Vegas, and Chicago are held in separate limited partnerships, half-owned by Puck and Lazaroff, and have annual revenues from $4 million to $13 million each. Two Spagos, in Tokyo and Mexico City, are licensed.

The couple also owns 35% of Wolfgang Puck Food, which comprises 11 Wolfgang Puck Cafes, six Wolfgang Puck Express pizza outlets, two California-Asian ObaChines, Wolfgang Puck Packaged Foods, and a nascent grocery-store takeout business. The venture capital-backed food company is the growth vehicle. While the upscale restaurants average 10% net margins and take three years to break even, Puck notes, the cafes have 18% margins and break even in three months. So far, Puck has stumbled only once: Eureka, a sausage house and brewery in Los Angeles, closed in 1992, a $5 million loss.

What makes Puck so successful? His food, certainly, but also atmosphere. The decor Lazaroff fashioned for the new Spago, for example, boasts a huge James Rosenquist painting, Picassos, Hockneys, and Motherwells, and a fountain engraved with the word "passion" in 20 languages. Even before the art, it cost $4 million. "I design from my head," says Lazaroff, "and believe me, my fantasy life is vast."

BIOCHEMISTRY. The pair met at a nightclub 18 years ago. Puck, the son of a coal miner and a hotel chef from a poor Austrian town, began peeling vegetables in hotel kitchens at 14, worked his way up to dinner chef at Maxim's in Paris, then spent his savings to move to Indianapolis, which he thought--because of its auto racing--would be like Monte Carlo. A year later, he moved to

L. A. Lazaroff, the daughter of a supermarket produce manager and a bookkeeper from New York's Bronx, was finishing a biochemistry degree.

Today, the two live in an art-filled Beverly Hills home where they keep 30 pets, including llamas, monkeys, and dogs. At the bottom of their glass mosaic pool is a huge eye made up in heavy mascara and eyeliner like Lazaroff's. The couple's 8-year-old son can rattle off recipes for a dozen meringue desserts he knows how to make. His 2-year-old brother, he says, "only knows how to make eggs."

At 43, Lazaroff has waist-length black hair and dresses in rich purple, green, or orange, while Puck trods around in a chef's jacket, baggy pants, and clogs. Friends credit her with drawing out the elfin personality with which he charms everyone from staffers to TV viewers, who regularly see him toss around food and one-liners with David Letterman.

The couple operates their businesses on the run. Puck travels to New York monthly to film segments for Good Morning America, working in stops at his farflung restaurants on the way. When he's in L.A., he visits his local restaurants several times a week. When he opens a new one, be it the Spago adjoining Caesar's Palace in Vegas or the Seattle ObaChine, he works the kitchen for several weeks. Lazaroff goes along to schmooze with guests.

How much can Puck thin the stew before his name suffers? This year alone, he will open a Spago in Palo Alto, a Chinois in Las Vegas, and three Cafes, including an $8 million, 25,000-square-foot version at Disney World. Lazaroff says Euro-Disney and Disneyland want Oba-Chines. But launching these complex casual spots will be quite taxing.

So far, Puck is getting strong reviews. His success is "a complete rarity," according to Max Pine of Patricof & Co., a venture-capital firm with stakes in restaurants, but not Puck's. "There's not a single chef who has become an owner and then has been successful opening multiple restaurants. His one shortcoming was management; he solved it with Frank [Guidara]." Adds Philip S. Schlein of U.S. Venture Partners, a restaurant investor: "The question is infrastructure, but he seems to have the management to do it."

Still, little in Hollywood lasts. Spago, which long hosted the town's hottest post-Oscar party, recently lost that honor to Morton's. But Puck and Lazaroff know the fickle tastes of stars, which is why they just spent millions on their new flagship. "Look at singers, fashion houses," says Puck. "You have to reinvent yourself before the old one is dead. If you do, the brand can live on after the restaurant."

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE