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From chef to empire builder

Spago @ 30

When Spago Beverly Hills experienced a soft re-opening earlier this month, the plan was that fans of Wolfgang Puck’s cuisine would feel right at home. But for almost as long as Spago has been open, consumers have been able to have Puck in their actual homes, thanks to his expansive, affordable lines of food, dinnerware and even small appliances.

“He’s very sensitive about what he puts his name on,” says Joseph C. Essa, president of Wolfgang Puck Worldwide and managing partner for finance and operations with the Wolfgang Puck Fine Dining Group. “He doesn’t just give out licenses. He has to know the people in the company he’s involved with, and know they have quality ingredients.”

Nevertheless, Puck hasn’t been shy about putting his name on everything from housewares (which he pitches regularly on HSN) to gluten-free/organic soups (in partnership with Campbell’s), to coffee blends. In addition, starting in 1991, Puck debuted his chain of fast-casual restaurants called Wolfgang Press Express — providing consumers with Puck recipes in minutes. There are now 80 locations in the U.S., Canada and Japan.

What began as a line of frozen pizzas in 1987 now has a life of its own.

And according to Essa, they’re seeing steady success and desire from consumers for whatever comes with Puck’s branding. “Over the last seven to eight years, we’ve seen it develop into a wider band of recognition and interest,” he says, reporting that on average the company has seen double-digit growth for the past 14 years. Currently, the consumer products and casual restaurants division brings in 20% of the total Puck pie profits.

Although reps for the privately owned company would not release earnings for the company, nor the approximate worth of Puck’s vast holdings, Forbes in July estimated his earnings between June 2011 and June 2012 to be in the $20 million range, No. 3 overall among celebrity chefs — ahead of Mario Batali and Bobby Flay, and behind reported top earner Gordon Ramsay and Rachael Ray.

Still, fast and inexpensive doesn’t always translate fully to healthy and fresh. Author of nine books about food and cooking, professional chef Michael Ruhlman notes that in this area, Puck is both admired and seen as having compromised.

“It’s impossible to do great food in a can, period,” he says. “But he’s a businessman and I don’t think anyone begrudges him this money. He’s not making any specious claims. If you’re a food purist, you don’t have to buy his stuff — but a lot of people do, and they like it.”

Essa underscores that Puck has almost never partnered with big companies, other than the six-year relationship with Campbell’s. “His focus has always been in protecting that culinary quality brand,” he says.

That brand just keeps expanding. Up next: Countertop rotisserie ovens for the home (expected rollout: 2013 first quarter); pizza bars for the fast-casual restaurants (already in Charlotte, N.C.); and an expansion of their licenses to provide quick, fresh food in airports (prototypes were being rolled out at LAX as of August). For Essa, there’s never a time when they plan to stop thinking up new ideas.

“There’s always things in the works,” he says. “When Wolfgang Puck says he’s going to do something, he does it. That’s what will propel us and keep us going into the next century.”

Spago @ 30
Eat, drink, network | From chef to empire builder | The glitterati’s go-to epicure
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