Celebrity chef Paula Deen is ramping up her comeback effort, less than a year after her Southern belle-image was tarnished by revelations that she used racial slurs and was accused of discriminatory behavior in a lawsuit.
Paula Deen Ventures has received new backing from Phoenix-based investor Jahm Najafi, whose holdings include a stake in Jeff Berg’s startup talent agency Resolution and the SkyMall e-commerce site.
The size of Najafi’s investment in Deen’s Savannah, Ga.-based company was not disclosed. Najafi Media, the unit partnering with Deen Ventures, is described as a “$2 billion content and consumer distribution company.”
“All us at Najafi Companies have a deep respect for the hard work, unique content and quality products which Paula has built around her brand,” Najafi said in a statement. “We know that the enterprise will be successful and valuable, as Paula and her team continue to bring quality products and experiences to her loyal fan base; and now we have a proven management team in place to build and lead the organization.”
As part of the Najafi Pact, Steven Nanula has been named CEO of Paula Deen Ventures. The company’s immediate focus will be on developing “progressive business initiatives,” Nanula said.
There’s no word yet about plans to return Deen to TV or digital platforms, though Deen is known to have had overtures for docu-reality series since her troubles erupted.
Paula Deen Ventures at present encompasses the Paula Deen Media banner as well as her restaurants and her licensed food, cookware and home decor lines. Nanula, a private investor himself, has spent the past two years working on the Paula Deen Foods line.
Deen was ousted from her primary media perch at Food Network last June after the uproar over disclosures in a deposition stemming from a racial and sexual harassment lawsuit filed against Deen and her brother, Bubba Hiers, by Lisa Jackson, a five-year employee of her restaurants in Savannah.
In the deposition, Deen admitted to having used the N-word in the past. Deen’s company issued a statement noting that she grew up in a “quite different time” when the South was segregated, but she denied having used derogatory language in recent years.
The racial discrimination aspects of Jackson’s lawsuit were dismissed by a federal judge in Georgia last August. Jackson, who is white, reached a settlement with Deen on the other aspects of the suit later that month. At the time, Jackson issued a statement asserting that “the Paula Deen I have known for more than eight years is a woman of compassion and kindness and will never tolerate discrimination or racism of any kind toward anyone.”
But the damage was already done. Deen quickly lost lucrative endorsement and licensing pacts with Sears, JC Penney, QVC and Walmart, among others. Food Network has not run any of her TV shows since last June — although ironically it’s understood that her most recent active series for the cabler, “Paula’s Best Dishes,” was slated to be canceled even before the controversy hit.
With new coin from Najafi, Deen is looking to return to the spotlight, and that means a new TV deal can’t be far behind.
“I couldn’t imagine a better partner than Jahm Najafi, with his track record of success. Jahm’s vision, attention to detail and entrepreneurial spirit will help us grow to new heights,” Deen said. “Jahm and Steve are both so well respected as leaders. I know this is the right decision to lead my team, as we continue to share quality products with my fans – whose love and support have built my brands.”