But the path to success wasn't strewn with truffles for the Chef Boyardee of frozen pizzas and canned soups. There were management and marketing mistakes along the way, not to mention the hazards of a temperamental business partner who happened to be his wife.
Puck currently operates Wolfgang Puck Catering and Events, which caters events such as the Academy Awards banquets; Wolfgang Puck Fine Dining, which manages a dozen cordon bleu restaurants; and Wolfgang Puck Worldwide Inc., which oversees Puck's licensing and brand management activities.
The chef was born in Klagenfurt, Austria, in 1949. Inspired by his hotel-chef mother, Puck enrolled in a hotel school about 50 miles from his home at the age of 14. Later, after apprenticing at a three-star restaurant in Provence, France, Puck made stops in Monaco and Paris before arriving in the US in 1973, where he hoped to make enough money to start a business back home.
In 1975 he joined Ma Maison in Los Angeles as chef and minority partner. It was there that Puck first began experimenting with a style of cooking that eventually became known as California cuisine. But in 1981, after having reached the point of throwing eggs at his business partner, Puck left the Los Angeles establishment. He had already begun thinking about opening his own eatery, possibly, he later said, something along the lines of an Italian trattoria with red and white checkered tablecloths and sawdust on the floor.
However, as fate would have it, this was also about the time he met his future (second, and now ex) wife and business partner, Barbara Lazaroff. Puck and Lazaroff would eventually marry in 1983, but well before then Lazaroff was busy drawing up plans for Puck's new venture. When she was finished, the checkered tablecloths had given way to white linen, and the sawdust had been swept discretely under "nice floors."
With a score of other investors, Lazaroff and Puck opened Spago (slang for "spaghetti") on the Sunset Strip in 1982. The restaurant soon became a fashionable watering hole for Hollywood stars. Specializing in gourmet pizza, Spago provided Tinseltown glitterati with a casual, hip alternative to traditional formal dining. Business mushroomed after Puck started putting caviar and smoked salmon on his pizzas.
In an effort to keep his customers coming back, Puck hit on the idea of periodically raising the quality of the ingredients – along with the price – of the food served at Spago. Profits suffered a little but the restaurant thrived.
With Spago steaming, Lazaroff came up with the idea for a second restaurant, Chinois on Main, featuring Pan-Asian cuisine. By 1983, both restaurants were doing more than US$ 1 million in business each year, and even more new ventures were being cooked up. However, not all of the couple's other restaurants would meet with the same success as Spago, and Puck ended up closing a couple of them.
It wasn't all strawberries and crème fraiche for the couple at home, either. PEOPLE Magazine once described Puck as "soft, mushy and sweet," and Lazaroff as "tart-tongued and flamboyant as chili sauce."
While Puck and Lazaroff tried to remain focused on running their restaurants, Puck and a friend conceived the idea of a food company with a line of packaged desserts for grocery store chains. But the venture collapsed with all the flourish of an eggless soufflé.
By 1996, Puck realized he needed to bring in outside help if the food company was to succeed, and that year he and Lazaroff hired several marketing experts.
Puck's frozen food line posed a marketing nightmare: since the frozen items couldn't sell for the same price as the competition given that a Puck creation was supposed to contain better ingredients, it was necessary to find a price-value relationship that wouldn't drive away potential customers.
The solution was to cut the cost of production and distribution while increasing the brand's presence in the frozen-food section of supermarkets by negotiating better slotting arrangements with retailers. Increasing the brand's presence was more difficult. Prices were raised above the competition to compensate for the more expensive ingredients and the frozen food line was increased from 23 to 43 items.
Puck's organization meanwhile continued to focus on restaurant expansion. After researching customer preferences (and finding that "people want better food") and seeking out strategic locations for two lines of casual and fast-food restaurants, Puck's management team came up with the Wolfgang Puck Café and Wolfgang Puck Express concepts. Puck has said he originally envisioned the cafes as "upscale California Pizza Kitchen(s). . . or really, really downscale Spago(s)." The Express outlets, for their part, served a menu of about 20 gourmet fast food items.
Puck admittedly made his reputation as a pizza cook, so it is not surprising that pizza is still a driving factor in his 3,500-employee business empire. Today the cafes do about 20 percent of their business in pizza, while the Express restaurants do about 50 percent.
Puck has denied having any special marketing expertise of his own, but he once admitted to having read Sam Walton's account of how the Walmart chain grew to become a "zillion" dollar company. It is interesting therefore that Bill Guilfoye of the Culinary Institute of America described the proliferation of sit-down restaurants like Wolfgang Puck's as the "Wal-marting" of the restaurant industry. According to Guilfoye, the strategy lets restaurateurs spread fixed costs over several properties. As an example, he noted that if each of Puck's 12 fine-dining establishments contributed between US$ 10,000 and 80,000, the total operation could come up with a US$ 250,000 public relations and advertising budget, an unheard of sum for a single restaurant.
In 1998, Puck bristled at the notion that he was a brand, telling Sales & Marketing Management's Charles Butler, "There is no value with just one restaurant or with one person. The brand has to be bigger than the person."
Two years later, Puck mentioned in the press that he thinks he could be a brand name, something like the Walt Disney of fine dining, without giving up being a working chef. Which turned out to be true – his recipe to build a food empire and a personal brand name was successful.