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The name Wolfgang Puck, in the eyes of food lovers and experts alike, represents the ultimate in good cooking. That name now refers not only to the world-famous chef himself but also to the culinary empire he has built since the early 1980s: the group of fine dining restaurants through which he first rose to prominence, developed in partnership with Barbara Lazaroff; his extensive catering and events business, which gains international attention through its flagship event, the annual Governor's Ball following the Oscars; and Wolfgang Puck Worldwide, Inc., the corporation that controls the Wolfgang Puck brand in areas as diverse as casual and quick-service dining, consumer packaged foods, cookware, book publishing, television, radio and internet programming, and other franchising, licensing, and merchandising activities.
Wolfgang Puck Worldwide, Inc., brings the trademark cuisine of one of America's most celebrated chefs to an audience far beyond the white tablecloths of Los Angeles' renowned Spago restaurant. Since arriving in the United States in the 1970s, Wolfgang Puck has become one of the wealthiest and possibly the most famous chefs in history, thanks in part to regular appearances on national television programs. Observers have described him as the first chef ever to successfully start and run his own chain of restaurants, while his company has been successful in capitalizing on his name in both mid-range restaurant chains, frozen foods, cookware, consumer packaged foods, and the home meal replacement category.
Puck's former wife, Barbara Lazaroff, has been instrumental in his success as 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 Wolfgang Puck Food Company in 1998, which operated 21 casual restaurants (the full-service Wolfgang Puck Cafes and Oba-Chine, and the counter-service Wolfgang Puck Express) and Wolfgang Puck Packaged Foods. In 2001 Wolfgang Puck Worldwide, Inc. was founded to oversee the myriad activities of the Wolfgang Puck brand name, including not only its fine dining restaurants, casual dining restaurants, catering business, and packaged food products, but Puck's television shows, books, and syndicated newspaper column as well.
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 he was 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 in West Hollywood, 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 in 1983
The Wolfgang Puck Food Company began in 1983 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. The quality of ingredients, however, 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. Opening the high-overhead Eureka in West Los Angeles in 1990, however, 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 10 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 Cafe and an upscale Chinois restaurant followed.
Food Company Expanding 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 Cafe, a less ambitious counterpart to Spago, opened in Universal Studio's Universal City. The Cafe featured table service and a larger menu than the Express. The Express and Cafe 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 Cafes annually generated between $2 and $4.5 million each. By 1995, there were ten Cafes 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 Cafes 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 Cafes 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 Oba-Chine 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 foodservice 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. Aside from 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 U.S. Spago opened in the River North section of Chicago in 1996. It adjoined a new Cafe. 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 Cafe, an expanded branch of the Wolfgang Puck Cafe, at Disney World in Orlando, Florida, in the summer of 1997. It also included a sushi bar known as B's Bar. The 22,000-square-foot facility consisted of four separate areas: The Cafe for casual dining; The Dining Room for upscale dining; B's Lounge & Sushi Bar; and a Wolfgang Puck Express for quick casual service.
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 slightly more than 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 New Direction in the Early 2000s
In 2001 the Wolfgang Puck Food Company was replaced by Wolfgang Puck Worldwide, Inc. The new corporation was established to oversee the use of the Wolfgang Puck brand name in all of its business activities. The new corporation had two subsidiaries: Wolfgang Puck Fine Dining Group, which operated the upscale dining restaurants, and Wolfgang Puck Catering & Events, which ran the extensive catering business, including the high-profile annual Academy Awards Governor's Ball. Wolfgang Puck Worldwide handled the casual dining restaurants, and the related brand products, such as the frozen pizza and entrees, coffee, canned soups, and cookware, as well as activities such as Wolfgang Puck's television programs, books, and newspaper column. In 2002 the company had estimated sales of $375 million.
Wolfgang Puck Worldwide announced in 2001 a partnership with ConAgra, the nation's second largest food company, that was intended to greatly expand the distribution of Wolfgang Puck packaged foods. The new partners introduced a line of wood fired frozen pizzas in 2002. That same year saw several other major developments for the company. Wolfgang Puck Worldwide acquired Cucina! Cucina!, a popular Italian restaurant chain with 21 locations in the Pacific Northwest; Kendall-Jackson Wine Estates announced the creation of a new line of wines created by Wolfgang Puck; and Crystal Cruises added several of Puck's Asian recipes to the menu of its Jade Garden restaurant aboard its Crystal Symphony cruise ship.
While the early years of the new century saw many positive changes for the company, there were also some personal setbacks for those behind the scenes. The original Spago restaurant in West Hollywood, opened by Puck and his wife Lazaroff in 1982, closed its doors in 2001. A year later it was announced that Puck and Lazaroff were getting divorced. The couple separated amicably and continued to be partners in the company.
Whereas Puck had long been a frequent guest on ABC's Good Morning America television program--and had appeared on other programs such as The Late Show with David Letterman, The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, Frasier, and The Simpsons--it was only in 2001 that he teamed with the Food Network and Weller/Grossman Productions to create the Wolfgang Puck show on the Food Network. In 2003, the Emmy Award-winning show was superseded by Wolfgang Puck's Cooking Class, a Food Network show in which Puck offered up-close cooking lessons to his viewing audience. These shows helped to popularize Puck's signature catch phrase, "Live, love, eat!" Puck turned to newspaper syndication in March 2003 when Tribune Media Services launched his weekly column, "Wolfgang Puck's Kitchen." The column offers expert cooking tips and recipes suitable for home preparation.
As of early 2005, Wolfgang Puck Worldwide operated 54 Wolfgang Puck Cafes and Wolfgang Puck Expresses in the United States, four in Japan, and one in Canada. An aggressive franchising program for the Wolfgang Puck Expresses called for some 300 new locations to be added in 2005 alone. The Wolfgang Puck Fine Dining Group operated 12 upscale restaurants, including Spago restaurants in Palo Alto, Beverly Hills, Las Vegas, and Maui; the Chinois restaurants in Las Vegas and Santa Monica; and the Postrio restaurants in Las Vegas and San Francisco. Wolfgang Puck Catering & Events not only catered the annual Academy Awards Governor's Ball, it was also the permanent catering service for the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art, the University of Chicago's Gleacher Center, the St. Louis Science Center, the St. Louis Art Museum, and the St. Louis Contemporary Art Museum.
Principal Subsidiaries: Wolfgang Puck Fine Dining Group; Wolfgang Puck Catering & Events.
Principal Competitors: Ark Restaurants; California Pizza Kitchen; Levy Restaurants.