By Lucas Witman
Few of us have the opportunity to stop for lunch at Spago to get a taste of Wolfgang Puck’s celebrated seasonal new American cuisine. And unless you are lucky enough to score an invite to one of her barn parties, you are almost certain never to have Ina Garten serve you a meal. However, with more and more celebrity chefs today crafting their own signature heat-and-serve product lines, the good news is that we can taste what these chefs have to offer simply by opening the freezer case at our local grocery store.
Today, it is in fact difficult to think of a well-known chef that does not offer his or her cuisine in a prepared heat-and-serve package. Ina Garten’s Barefoot Contessa line of Sauté Dinners features fancy dishes like beef bourguignon and pasta carbonara, but in a form that can be ready in minutes. Wolfgang Puck is undoubtedly one of the most famous chefs in the world, and now you can enjoy his signature tortilla soup or Tuscan thin crust pizza in the comfort of your own home. From the Iron Chef line of frozen meals to Guy Fieri’s frozen burgers and appetizers to Giada De Laurentiis’ pasta mixes and jarred sauces, celebrity chefs are showing up in grocery stores in a big way.
One celebrated chef that recently made his debut in grocery store frozen foods sections is restaurateur and television personality Emeril Lagasse. Lagasse’s new line of frozen snacks debuted this spring at Walmart stores in the southwestern United States with plans to expand soon to additional regions and retailers. The line includes four chef-inspired snacks: Chicken & BBQ sauce BAM™ Bites, Jalapeño Wontons with Bacon, Chili Cheese Mini Dogs and Pulled Pork BAM Bites.
The Emeril frozen snacks line is produced by Montreal-based Plats du Chef Foods. Dana McCauley, Vice President of Marketing for Plats du Chef recounts the difficult process of developing a grocery store heat-and-serve product line alongside one of the most beloved American culinary institutions.
“We work very closely with [Lagasse]. What usually happens is we propose some ideas to him, or he has an idea, and we say our machines could do it this way. We send him samples. He tastes them and gets back to us with his tweaks. He makes sure he has tasted them and everything meets his standards,” said McCauley. “Often we would send him something and he would respond and say this is good, but we need to kick this up a notch. It has to be something that will make people say, ‘Hey, this is kicked up!’”
According to McCauley, Lagasse and other chefs are being drawn to the frozen heat-and-serve marketplace, because of the increasing quality that it is possible to achieve in these products. “I think that there are a lot of reasons why chefs get involved in the grocery business. And frozen really appeals to chefs because a lot of the shelf-stable items don’t appeal to chefs’ need for fresh flavors,” said McCauley. “I think frozen is particularly appealing to chefs, because when you reheat it, it tastes like you just made it – if it was made well.”
For chefs that are actively involved in building their brand presence through media and restaurants, a high-quality prepared foods line can be another element to creating that successful brand. According to McCauley, showing up in the grocery store can be a particularly effective way for a chef like Lagasse to build his brand, because it literally brings the chef into the consumer’s home. “I think it does help them because if you’re on TV, and you have a book in someone’s library that’s awesome, but if you can be on their dinner table or their breakfast table, then all of the sudden you’re not an occasional part of someone’s life. You’re part of their life on a daily basis,” she said.
Of course building one’s brand through a heat-and-serve food line is a double-edged sword. If the consumer is unimpressed with what comes out of the package, the result could be general disenchantment with the person whose picture is on the box. “By putting a chef’s name and picture on a product, it is saying that this is something that nobody else is doing, and it’s unique, or it is just so much better than everything else out there,” said McCauley. “It better be awesome.”
According to McCauley, celebrity chef-branded heat-and-serve foods not only benefit the chef himself; these products can also have a genuinely positive impact on the retailers that carry them. This is because, when it comes to marketing many packaged (and especially, frozen) foods, there can be a disconnect with the consumer who does not have the ability to touch, smell and, often, see the product inside. If the product has the name of a chef like Emeril Lagasse on it, the customer already has an affinity for it and is more likely to be drawn to purchasing it.
“In the freezer section, [the chef’s name is] even more important,” said McCauley. “Most consumers haven’t had a 100 percent good experience with frozen food. It’s time to kick frozen food up a notch.”