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The Wolfgang Puck Food Company, Inc.

The Wolfgang Puck Food Company, Inc.

1333 Second St.
Santa Monica, California 90401
U.S.A.
(310) 319-1350
Fax: (310) 451-5595
Web site:http://www.wolfgangpuck.com

Private Company
Incorporated: 1983
Employees: 1,700
Sales: $80 million (1998 est.)
SICs: 2000 Food & Kindred Products; 5810 Retail-Eating & Drinking Places

The Wolfgang Puck Food Company, Inc. brings the trademark cuisine of one of Americas most celebrated chefs to an audience far beyond the white tablecloths of Los Angeless renowned Spago. Since arriving in the United States in the 1970s, Wolfgang Puck has become one of the wealthiest and possibly the most famous chef in history, thanks in part to regular television appearances on ABCs Good Morning America and other national network programs. Observers have described him as the first chef ever to successfully start and run his own chain of restaurants and the Food Company has been successful in capitalizing on his name in both mid-range restaurant chains, frozen foods, and the home meal replacement category.

Pucks wife, Barbara Lazaroff, has been instrumental in his success; she focuses on management details and designing the restaurants unique interiors. Puck and Lazaroffs interests in their seven fine dining restaurants, each separate partnerships with other investors, were held under Puck Lazaroff Inc. These produced approximately $60 million of revenue in 1997. Puck and Lazaroff owned 30 percent of the Food Company in 1998, which operated 21 casual restaurants (the full-service Wolfgang Puck Cafés and Oba-Chine, and the counter-service Wolfgang Puck Express) and Wolfgang Puck Packaged Foods.

Birth of a Legend

Wolfgang Puck was born in St. Veit-Glan, Austria. His mother was an accomplished chef at a posh resort, and Puck began his culinary training at the age of 14. He apprenticed at LOustau de Baumaiere in Provence at 19, and later worked in several top Parisian restaurants such as Maxims as well as the Hotel de Paris in Monaco. He reportedly dreamed of owning his own restaurant and becoming rich doing it.

In 1973, at the age of 24, Puck emigrated to Indianapolis, working at La Tour. A year and a half later found him as co-owner of Hollywoods illustrious Ma Maison, where the celebrity of its clients seemed contagious and Puck became renowned for his skill and creativity. Puck prided himself on using the freshest and finest ingredients, and also displayed a flair for showmanship.

In 1979, Puck met Barbara Lazaroff, a Bronx native who was studying biochemistry. An outspoken contrast to the somewhat reticent Puck, Lazaroff quickly became his champion, urging him first to ask for a raise at Ma Maison and then guiding him into the limelight of television cooking shows. Pucks own cookbook Modern French Cooking for the American Kitchen (1982) soon followed.

With the help of a few investors, in January 1982 Puck fulfilled a lifelong dream by opening his own restaurant, Sunset Boulevards illustrious Spago. Lazaroff was responsible for the striking design of the $512,000 restaurant, which featured an open kitchen illuminated like a stage; she reported taking up to four years, from concept to completion, to develop the eatery. At Spago, Puck perfected his trademark of topping pizzas with exotic gourmet ingredients such as duck sausage or smoked salmon.

A second, Asian-California fusion restaurant, Chinois on Main, was established in Santa Monica in 1983. This was opened as a buffer against the inconstant fashions of the food business, but it provided what many feel to be Pucks most creative outlet: mixing Asian and French cuisine with the assistance of chef Richard Krause. Lazaroff again designed the restaurants interior, which also featured an open kitchen.

Birth of the Food Company

The Wolfgang Puck Food Company began as the brainchild of Robert Koblin, a Beverly Hills heart specialist. Koblins original concept was to offer healthful frozen dinners designed by a number of prominent chefs. Eventually the health aspect was minimized and Koblin settled on Puck alone as the chef.

The companys first products were frozen desserts, created by Spagos pastry chef Nancy Silverton. However, the quality of ingredients seemed to price the company out of the market. In 1987 the company then tried frozen pizza but the company still quickly ran through its $3 million of start-up capital. Koblins bankers subsequently replaced him as leader of the company with Selwyn Joffe.

According to the New Yorker, Joffe saw Puck as the Armani of the food business, and imagined a range of lines for different budgets to parallel the eminent couturiers empire. Lower-priced restaurants and frozen foods would cash in on Pucks stature in the world of fine dining, where his star continued to shine. In 1989, Puck ventured outside of southern California with the opening of the Postrio in San Francisco. However, opening the high-overhead Eureka in West Los Angeles in 1990 proved disastrous. Puck lacked control of the brewery to which the sausage house was attached and subsequently his restaurant shared its failure, losing $5 million. Puck himself owned ten percent of the venture. Granita, an elaborate, $3 million Mediterranean-themed restaurant that opened in 1991, struggled to break even in its seasonal Malibu home.

Greener pastures were just around the bend. Though initially reluctant, Wolfgang Puck became one of the first eminent chefs to try his luck in Las Vegas with the opening of the Spago there in 1992. The most successful of the high-end restaurants, it eventually achieved $12 million in annual sales. Eventually a Café and an upscale Chinois restaurant followed.

Food Company Expands in the 1990s

In 1991, the company opened its first, limited-menu, self-service Wolfgang Puck Express inside Macys in San Franciscos Union Square. In 1993, the Wolfgang Puck Café, a less ambitious counterpart to Spago, opened in Universal Studios Universal City. The Café featured table service and a larger menu than the Express. The Express and Café were originally designed to promote frozen foods, but they quickly became profit centers for the Food Company, thanks to their immediate appeal and high profit margins. The full-service cafés annually generated between $2 and $4.5 million each. By 1995, there were 10 cafés in existence, half of them express units.

Puck boasted of having more great chefs among his 1,400 employees than any other chain, and executives described the Cafés as more chef-driven than other chain restaurants. Menus were somewhat customized at each one, and the chefs cooked from scratch. The dining areas were individualized as well: seating at various Cafés ranged from 88 to 200. The company capitalized upon the success of Pucks Asian fusion creations by starting another chain in 1996. The first ObaChine opened in Beverly Hills; restaurants in Seattle and Phoenix soon followed.

Frozen foods, where the company squared off against giants such as Kraft, proved a much more difficult market to penetrate. Nevertheless, the Food Company claimed growth exceeding 50 percent a year in the mid-1990s. The scale of operations prompted the partners to choose Frank Guidara as the companys chief executive in September 1996. Unlike Joffe, Guidara possessed extensive experience in food service management, gained at steakhouse chains and fine dining restaurants. He soon induced new levels of consistency across the Food Company. Guidaras concept of the Wolfgang Puck brand included merchandising. A Florida entrepreneur licensed the right to make Wolfgang Puck cookware, but the Food Company itself offered a range of souvenir items from glasses to T-shirts.

The Food Companys packaged foods, managed by former Procter and Gamble executive Tom Warner, garnered sales of approximately $17 million in 1997. Under Warner, the companys expensive frozen products became more competitively priced. The costs of ingredients were trimmed to match consumer reality. From 1997 to 1998, the number of packaged items offered by the Food Company grew from 23 to 43. Besides ten different types of pizza, Pucks lasagna, ravioli, tortellini, and cannelloni were also available in the freezer.

Completing the Empire in the Late 1990s

Puck and Lazaroff topped off their fine dining empire with a few new openings in 1996 and 1997. They licensed Spago branches in Tokyo and Mexico City. The third US Spago opened in the River North section of Chicago in 1996. It adjoined a new Café. Nations Restaurant News reported the new restaurant received 3,000 reservation requests per day. A new Chinois opened in Las Vegas in January 1997 as did a Spago in Palo Alto, California.

The Food Company opened a Grand Café, an expanded branch of the Wolfgang Puck Café, at Disney World in Orlando, Florida, in the summer of 1997. It also included a sushi bar known as Bs Bar. The $8 million Disney World Café and Express were expected to earn at least $15 million in sales per year.

Company Perspectives:

Wolfgang Puck Food Company creates food with passion. The Wolfgang Puck Food Company originated from the inspiration of restaurant partners Wolfgang Puck and Barbara Lazaroff in 1985. Blending fresh California ingredients and classical French training, Chef Puck is regarded as one of the creators of California Cuisine. Puck, the originator of California style gourmet pizza, transforms the pizza genre with his innovative recipes and unusual toppings. Together with his wife, architectural designer Barbara Lazaroff, the team continues to achieve widespread acclaim for their fine-dining restaurants: Spago, Chinois on Main, Granita and Postrio.

At the end of 1997, Puck and Lazaroff owned majority shares in several fine dining restaurants which had grossed $56 million in 1996. These interests were kept separate from the Wolfgang Puck Food Company, however, of which they owned just over a third. It collected revenues of $70 million in 1996. Revenues for 1997 were reported at $60 million for the Food Company, while the upscale restaurants grossed $56 million. A series of INS (Immigration and Naturalization Services) raids in late 1997 in southern California provided some inconvenience for company executives, however.

About a dozen Wolfgang Puck Food Company restaurants were planned to open before the end of the century, including Grand Cafés in Auburn Hills, Michigan, and Atlanta, Georgia. Conceived spinoffs of the Wolfgang Puck brand included salad dressing and pasta sauce.

Further Reading

Barrier, M., The Chef As Famous As His Customers, Nations Business, July 1991.

Butler, Charles, Recipe for Success, Sales and Marketing Management, August 1998.

Cohen, Richard L., Wolfgang Puck Invades Supermarkets, Pizza and Pasta, February 1996, p. 24.

Cuthbert, Lauren, Convenience and Taste Boost Frozen Sales, Natural Food Merchandiser, March 1998.

Elam, Shade, Wolfgang Puck May Open Three Restaurants Here, Atlanta Business Chronicle, May 18, 1998.

Gellene, Denise, Breaking Bread: Puck Deal Indicative of American Express Renewed Efforts, Los Angeles Times, May 8, 1996.

Howard, Theresa, Wolfgang Puck, Nations Restaurant News, February 1, 1996, p. 124.

Kessler, John, Coming Soon: Celebrity Chef Wolfgang Pucks Dining Empire, Atlanta Journal and Constitution, May 29, 1998.

Lempert, Phil, Americas Top Chefs Find Success in Retail Market, Chicago Tribune, October 8, 1997, Detroit Free Press, freep/fun/food, http://www.freep.com/fun/food/qmarket8.htm.

Lubow, Martin, Pucks Peak, New Yorker, December 1, 1997, pp.46-53.

Martin, Patricia, Redefining Dining, Las Vegas Business Press, January 26, 1998.

Martin, Richard, Frank Guidara, Nations Restaurant News, January 1997, pp. 80-81.

______, Wolfgang Puck Café, Nations Restaurant News, May 22, 1995.

______, Wolfgang Puck: Chef, Restaurateur, Celebrity, Los Angeles, Nations Restaurant News, January 1995, pp. 159-60.

Morris, Kathleen, Add a Dash of Show Biz and Stir, Business Week,May 19, 1997.

NRN Names Puck, Lazaroff 1997 Innovator of the Year Recipients, Nations Restaurant News, June 2, 1997, pp. 1, 4.

Puck, Wolfgang, Adventures in the Kitchen with Wolfgang Puck, New York: Random House, 1991.

______, Modern French Cooking for the American Kitchen, New York: Random House, 1982.

______, The Wolfgang Puck Cookbook: Recipes from Spago, Chinois and Points East and West, New York: Random House, 1986.

Reckard, E. Scott, Fifty-Eight More Workers Suspected by INS in Eatery Raids, Los Angeles Times, September 11, 1997, p. Dl.

______, INS Raids Shut Puck Café, Fellow OC Mall Eatery, Los Angeles Times, September 10, 1997, p. Dl.

Specht, Jeff, Live, Love, Eat, Business Geography, July/August 1996.

Swetlow, Frank, A Casual Interview with the King and Queen of FineDining in Los Angeles, Los Angeles Business Journal, October 27,1997.

Walkup, Carolyn, Spago Chicago Premiers As Puck Dining Portfolio Grows, Diversifies, Nations Restaurant News, December 9, 1996.

Whats Cooking at the Wolfgang Puck Food Company, California Centers, Spring 1996, pp. 8-12.

Frederick C. Ingram

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