Author’s note: There have been many changes taking place in leadership within the industry. The following article previously addressed this problem.
“When the Founder Is the Face of a Brand”: That was the headline of a story from the New York Times which dealt with the departure of Mr. George Zimmer, founder of and spokesman for The Men’s Wearhouse clothing chain. The tag line in his commercials was: “You’re going to like the way you look. I guarantee it.”
The thrust of the article was to point out how important the founder’s name and presence can be to a brand and the potential damage that can take place when he or she leaves, for whatever reason.
What does this have to do with the restaurant industry? Read on.
I recently read about a number of celebrity chefs who are expanding their reach. This news raised a question in my mind about their future, and that is: What kind of succession plan do they have, if any?
For the last twenty years we have witnessed the growth of celebrity chef chains. I might add that some of them are not happy about being designated as chains, but in fact that is what they are. In any event, their units are found not only in various parts of the USA, but in many foreign markets as well. The names read like a culinary Hall of Fame: Daniel Boulud, Lidia Bastianich, Bobby Flay, Emeril Lagasse, Wolfgang Puck, Charlie Palmer, and Todd English, to name a few.
Many people consider these signature restaurants mainly because that’s how they are identified, unlike Drew Nieporent, Danny Meyer, and other equally successful multi-unit operators, and that is the dilemma I see down the road. I think it is fair to say the guests who patronize these signature operations understand that the chances of the celebrity chef–owner being in the kitchen at the time of their visit can be anywhere from 2:1 and as high as 10:1, based on the number of units he or she controls. Having said that, there is no doubt in my mind that the surrogate chefs in charge of the kitchen, in the absence of the celebrity chef, are doing an outstanding job, based on the success these enterprises enjoy.
This brings me back to my question of what will happen to any or all of them, when the principal name has, for any reason, left the business.
Examples of this happening can be found in other businesses. While Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey, and Benny Goodman are no longer with us, their respective bands are still touring the country and playing all the songs that made them famous, using the same arrangements. I don’t think the situations are comparable, though.
There are two situations in the foodservice industry where both the founders were highly visible in the company’s advertising, and have passed away: Kentucky Fried Chicken’s Colonel Sanders and Dave Thomas of Wendy’s. Both are quick-service operations. In addition, they were and are heavily advertised on TV, radio, and other media. Few, if any, of the celebrity chefs ever use ads. Most celebrity chefs’ exposure comes from various TV shows, food critics’ columns, cookbook reviews, and appearances at regional food festivals. In addition, most major newspapers as well as good living and foodie magazines devote large amounts of space to food and, here again, feature stories about these celebrity chefs.
While I’m on the subject of these chefs being involved with different places throughout the country, there is another phenomena taking place in most of these major locations: the many multi-units owned by small groups. Few, if any, are identified by a brand name, and many are specializing in various cuisines. If I had to guess, I’d say there are at least a hundred of them in New York City alone. Ah, but I digress.
To sum up, I’m sure that the individuals who have developed the concept of chefs being able to lend their name and culinary talents to function in more than one location have given thought to what will take place in their absence, for any reason.
Since that has not happened yet, I will, like the rest of you, just have to wait until it does … and it will.