• 08.26.14

5 Brilliant Business Lessons From Wolfgang Puck

The celebrity chef and master marketer reveals how he cultivates his brand.

5 Brilliant Business Lessons From Wolfgang Puck
Chef Wolfgang Puck previews the food and decor at The Governors Ballroom on January 6, 2005 in Hollywood, California.

In the three decades since Wolfgang Puck opened Spago in West Hollywood, the groundbreaking gourmet has parlayed his food-world stardom into one successful venture after another: packaged foods in grocery stores, a burgeoning line of kitchen appliances, and more than 100 fine dining and express restaurants in the U.S., Europe, and Asia. Quality food, it turns out, is only part of Puck’s recipe for building an epicurean empire. Below he reveals the ingredients he has used to spice up his career.


Cook Up Something New

Ever since he moved to the U.S. in the 1970s, Puck has embraced innovation. Spago, which he opened in 1982, launched a new style of California cuisine; Chinois on Main, which Puck debuted the following year, pioneered Asian fusion cooking. Puck is now continuing his legacy of firsts in the housewares department: His company recently developed and patented the Wolfgang Puck Pressure Oven–part pressure cooker, part countertop oven. “Whenever you have a new innovation, that’s what really makes the big difference,” Puck says. “When George Foreman came out with his grill, it made him a household name. I think products like our food processor or the oven do the same thing.” But don’t get too licensing-happy, he cautions–that can water down your image. “Lots of chefs put their names on products from other companies. We develop our own appliances and pots and pans. My partners Sydney Silverman and Mike Sanseverino and I work on each appliance and go back and forth until it’s right. You have to be very careful with your brand; you can’t just sell anything and say, ‘Okay, I’ll put my name on it and make some money.’”

Listen to Your Customers (Even if They Aren’t Johnny Carson)

Puck has long made a point of choosing his next business move based on what his fans want. “I had a caller on HSN who said, ‘I have your pressure cooker; I have your pressure oven. Can you make a pressurized fryer?’ So now we’re going to work on that,” he says. Puck also credits a high-profile Spago regular with the genesis of his frozen pizza line in 1987. “Johnny Carson was one of our best customers in the ’80s. Every Friday, he asked me to make 10 pizzas to take home with him. One day I said, ‘Johnny, what do you do with all of these pizzas?’ He said, ‘Well, I put them in the freezer, and when I play cards late at night I make a pizza and it tastes just as good.’ I was almost offended by that: ‘You’re freezing my pizzas? That’s not right!’ But then I ate one myself, and I thought, he’s right–it’s not a bad way to conserve them. So we started a frozen pizza business.

Be Unpredictable

Prior to Spago, Puck worked at world-class establishments in France and headed a French-style kitchen at L.A.’s ritzy Ma Maison. But he challenged himself with his next ventures. “When I opened Spago, I had never done simple foods like pizzas before; I used to work in three-star restaurants. But I wanted to make simple, really good food. Then, after that, I loved to do Chinese food, so I opened Chinois on Main. I never learned how to cook Chinese food, but I did it my own way. Why, when Spago was so successful, would I open a Chinese restaurant? Everybody thought I was crazy. I like to do things that aren’t ordinary–something to shock people a little bit.” Puck surprised longtime Spago patrons when he redesigned his flagship Beverly Hills locale in 2012 and ditched his signature smoked salmon pizza. “Some people were upset: ‘How can you take it off the menu? It’s my favorite thing!’ So I said, ‘You know what, we’ll make it if people ask for it.’ But if we don’t change, we’ll go nowhere. I don’t want people to get bored. You have to give people something new. You can’t keep working on the same old thing forever.”

TV Is Just a Tool

Puck has maintained a near-constant media presence since becoming a regular on “Good Morning America” in 1986, including an eponymous Food Network show and a weekly cooking column syndicated in 30 newspapers. (Most recently, he can be seen as a humorously ribald judge on Bravo’s new cook-off series, Top Chef Duels.) But airtime isn’t everything, he cautions. “There are a lot of chefs out there who become famous because of TV. But to build a brand is a different story. You really have to use TV as a part of your branding. The main thing for me is the restaurants and the business we do with HSN.” And promoting a lifestyle creates a stronger connection with audiences than simply selling products or cracking jokes: “I teach people how to use our appliances, give them recipes, and help make them a better cook at home. I’m not an actor and I don’t want to be one.”

Stay Hungry

Perhaps Puck’s most recognizable asset is his trademark energy. At 65, he’s still looking to broaden his reach, possibly by expanding into the hotel industry. “If I were to retire tomorrow, I probably would get old and start hurting left and right and go to the doctor, because there’s nothing else to do,” he says. “I love what I do, so I make this my hobby. My hobby is not golf–my hobby is cooking. Not many people still enjoy what they do when they’re 65 years old. I consider myself lucky.”