Mat Dean Pettit credits luck, timing and culinary skill for his rise to celebrity chef status in Canada.
But the Food Network Canada star says entrepreneurial zeal, hard work and all-in personal investment were the ingredients needed to create a retail brand of seafood products inspired by his award-winning restaurant menu.
Pettit’s first product—a pre-packaged fresh lobster roll based on the top-selling item at his three Rock Lobster locations, the last of which closed this summer—launched at a dozen Sobeys Urban Fresh stores in Toronto in 2014.
Since then, Matty’s Seafood’s range of products has grown to include a line of a half-dozen seafood dishes including lobster chowder, lobster bisque and frozen lobster macaroni and cheese. They’re sold at more than 1,000 retail locations across Canada and the U.S.
“It took a lot of hustle and cold calls, plus $50,000 from my own pocket to get things going,” Pettit says. “But it’s satisfying for me to create restaurant-ready dishes that people can buy and easily prepare in the comfort of their homes.”
Pettit is not alone. In recent years, chefs across North America have developed or lent their names to restaurant-inspired consumer packaged goods for the retail food market.
“[Chefs] bring star power and credibility, and we bring manufacturing, marketing and sales know-how,” says Mike Audi, national VP of sales of Gia Russa.
The U.S. company makes and distributes Italian foods at its plant in Youngstown, Ohio. Gia Russa has developed some two-dozen brands of products with American restaurant chains and celebrity chefs such as Mario Batali and Guy Fieri.
Audi says Gia Russa likes to work with chefs who are committed to quality, but who are also realistic about the industrial challenges of converting food items they make fresh in their kitchens for immediate consumption into longer-lasting CPGs. “Chefs are very opinionated people,” says Audi. “Some say: ‘This is my recipe, and this is the way to make it.’ But we make products for mainstream palates that need to have shelf life. So sometimes we walk away.”
If you can’t reproduce a signature dish or flavour profile that’s 95% as good as in a restaurant, you shouldn’t be doing it, says Peter Neal, co-founder, and co-owner of Neal Brothers Foods. Peter and his brother Chris distribute some 100 healthy snack food brands under the Neal Brothers name.
Among them are kettle chips developed with Vancouver chef and former Dragons’ Den star Vikram Vij, (called ‘Vij’s Delhi-licious’) and now-discontinued lunch kits that contained Pettit’s lobster rolls and single-serving size bags of Neal Brothers’ maple bacon kettle chips. “Trying to replicate an authentic smell and taste out of the pot is very hard to do,” says Neal.
David Soberman agrees. A professor of marketing at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, Soberman says the aromatic compounds that give foods their flavour can be deactivated during the manufacturing journey from restaurant to retail. “It’s part science, part art,” he says. “You have to tinker with formulas to add shelf life.”
Soberman says chef-inspired products carry the omnipresent risk of all celebrity endorsements. “If the person is caught in a scandal it can create a real problem for you,” he explains.
Celebrity chef products, he adds, “narrow down your marketing message to foodies.” But, if they’re willing to pay more for those items than generics, that can have real appeal.
Many people, Soberman says, also have the means and desire to shell out more to buy high-quality CPG food items. “I feel that as our society gets more affluent and families get smaller, people are spoiling themselves more and are ready to spend to eat more sophisticated foods,” he says. “Even with some CPG staples, people are going for higher end ones with quality ingredients.”
Making money, however, is not the motivating factor for some chefs who lend their names to food items.
For celebrity chef Jamie Kennedy—who has written and tested recipes for Canada’s Own, which specializes in soups, stocks and chilis—it’s about supporting local agriculture.
A Canadian pioneer in the farm-to-table movement and a champion of local foods, Kennedy admits he was once tempted to try and develop a line of food products for the retail market from his farm in Ontario’s Prince Edward County.
“I quickly realized that it requires a huge effort to bring it to market, that it’s not a slam dunk,” he says. “You have to jump through several public health hoops. Just the changes I would have had to make to my kitchen would have cost me $750,000 to $1 million.
“I can understand the temptation of chefs wanting to make money and reaching a broader audience than a 50-seat restaurant,” adds Kennedy. “But developing an idea and finding the co-packers to do it right is a daunting task.”