When you think of chef lines flying off shelves at natural products stores, contemporary names like Rick Bayless, Mollie Katzen and Wolfgang Puck probably come to mind. But this growing trend began more than 80 years ago with Chef Ettore Boirardi, who owned a popular restaurant in Cleveland. Yes, Chef Boirardi was the man behind the infamous toqued Chef Boyardee you grew up seeing on canned pasta.
Today this trend has reached a slow boil. Sales of products bearing a chef or restaurant brand grew 8 percent from 2004 to 2008, according to a Packaged Facts' May 2009 study. The New York-based market research firm expects sales to trend downward in 2009, but "a recovery in 2010 will push sales up 5 percent to $3.8 billion," the report predicts.
Chef- and restaurant-branded packaged foods are attractive to consumers because they merge convenience, economics and ethnic and premium tastes into one package. And if they happen to be natural, the product also communicates healthfulness.
"In terms of high-end chef- and restaurant-branded products, the appeal is rooted in the experience, the affiliation, the promise of being and having the best," says Cara Morrison, who authored the Packaged Facts report. "Some consumers may not be able to get to Mesa Grill restaurant, but they can still taste the experience with Bobby Flay's products. These brands are not only selling products made with exceptional ingredients, they are selling the more evocative emotional benefits that include expertise and awareness of what's hot."
In the current economy, experiencing such benefits—without having to dish out the dough for a night on the town—is enticing. "It's certainly cheaper than if you had to buy all the same ingredients and make an organic meal," says Wynnie Stein, co-owner of the Moosewood brand of frozen entrées and refrigerated soups.
While many consumers will "trade down" to private-label ingredients from premium brands during a recession, Morrison says the hope is that more affluent consumers—who previously ate out frequently—will now see chef-branded products as good substitutes for earlier indulgences.
"It's a way to bring the chef into your house and not have to spend nearly as much," says Hosea Rosenberg, executive chef at Jax Fish House in Boulder, Colo., and recent winner of Bravo TV's "Top Chef" competition.
When chef Rick Bayless launched his line of packaged salsas, pizzas and other foods, "It was really important that the methods and ingredients used [in the packaged products] were the exact same as what they do downstairs in the restaurant," said JeanMarie Brownson, culinary director of Frontera Foods, Bayless' consumer-products line.
Rosenberg agrees that maintaining integrity is paramount. "I think these products need to taste very close to the originals—that's the whole point. If I make soup in my restaurant and people say, ‘Oh, you should sell that,' I'm not going to create a crappy version of my product and sell it, because that's going to hurt my reputation."
Rosenberg says it's not all that difficult to create chef-quality food on a large scale. "Especially if you're using natural and organic ingredients, the quality is still going to be there." And there's not as much processing involved as people might think. "There's also a process in a kitchen: I take vegetables, blanch them, sauté them and put them on a plate. Just because something's on a shelf doesn't mean it's processed in a [bad] way. You just have to take really fresh ingredients, suck out all the oxygen, make sure there's no bacteria and get it sealed up. You don't have to add preservatives or stabilizers. It's amazing what you can do these days."
Laurie Budgar is a Longmont, Colo.-based writer who tries to get chefs to cook for her as often as possible.