The Wolfgang Puck Food Company, Inc.
The Wolfgang Puck Food Company, Inc.
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 America’s most celebrated chefs to an audience far beyond the white tablecloths of Los Angeles’s 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 ABC’s “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.
Puck’s wife, Barbara Lazaroff, has been instrumental in his success; she focuses on management details and designing the restaurant’s unique interiors. Puck and Lazaroff’s 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 L’Oustau de Baumaiere in Provence at 19, and later worked in several top Parisian restaurants such as Maxim’s 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 Hollywood’s 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. Puck’s 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 Boulevard’s 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 Puck’s most creative outlet: mixing Asian and French cuisine with the assistance of chef Richard Krause. Lazaroff again designed the restaurant’s 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. Koblin’s 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 company’s first products were frozen desserts, created by Spago’s 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. Koblin’s 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 couturier’s empire. Lower-priced restaurants and frozen foods would cash in on Puck’s 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 Macy’s in San Francisco’s Union Square. In 1993, the Wolfgang Puck Café, a less ambitious counterpart to Spago, opened in Universal Studio’s 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 Puck’s 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 company’s 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. Guidara’s 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 Company’s packaged foods, managed by former Procter and Gamble executive Tom Warner, garnered sales of approximately $17 million in 1997. Under Warner, the company’s 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, Puck’s 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. Nation’s 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 B’s Bar. The $8 million Disney World Café and Express were expected to earn at least $15 million in sales per year.
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.
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—Frederick C. Ingram