Scaling in the Food Business


Before “food porn” became a thing and the Food Network exploded, culinary schools were pretty much limited to Cordon Bleu, Escoffier and CIA — but today, chef-driven schools are popping up everywhere. From a marketing and brand building perspective, this is brilliant. Being a chef is an extremely personal and passionate form of expression which is somewhat counter-intuitive to the hallmark of building a business that pays the bills, to scale.

The culinary school trend seems to be one of those brand extensions gaining massive popularity and is an avenue to consider; the market is hungry for what schools have to give. Consider these statistics: of the $799 billion restaurant industry sales each year, the Food Network sees an average audience of over 1 million viewers nightly, which tops their revenue at $932.6 million. Almost 5 million people follow the Food Network on Twitter and 23 million are hungry for their Facebook content. The cookware industry, which depends on “chef-preneurs” to drive sales, forked in $15 billion in 2015. The names you know include Rachael Ray, Ina Garten, Bobby Flay, Emeril Lagasse, and of course, Tom Colicchio. But everyone needs to start somewhere — and imagination sparks the ignition.

Aside from Julia Child, who starred in the “The French Chef” TV series and founded the Julia Child Foundation for Gastronomy and the Culinary Arts, Martha Stewart was one of the first to expand beyond her catering origins to brand extensions including magazines, TV shows, and products. The James Beard-nominated chef offers the “Martha Stewart Cooking School: Lessons and Recipes for the Home Cook” book and has also done a PBS-TV cooking school. Wolfgang Puck, who, like Martha’s humble beginnings began in catering was also a brand extension innovator in the 1980’s when his flagship restaurant Spago began to explode.

The schools of plant-based maestro Matthew Kenney’s are a smart revenue source. Besides his restaurants and books, he is looking to “craft the future of food” with his PLANTLAB, including locations in Los Angeles and New York City, online courses, and cultural immersions. Kenney also partnered with Aman Resorts to create an experience of private jet wellness retreats. These exotic immersions with Aman are particularly smart, as he’s taking advantage of what I call an “already moving train” of marketing with Aman’s customer base.

For the super-famous, personal access is a not a good use of time. French Laundry wonder and three-time Michelin star award winner, Thomas Keller, sells online master classes for only $180 a year which grant students an “All Access Pass” to all his instructional videos. Being one of the biggest names in the culinary elite, this was a smart business move.

So, the question is: will you stay in your kitchen sweating the details? Or will you spread your wings with the expansion of your most incredible essence into something that can be enjoyed by so many more?

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