A Food Empire's Key Ingredient


By Susan J. Marks Emeril Lagasse's empire is rising like a soufflé. The celebrity chef's seventh cookbook is due out at the end of March, while the previous six have sold more than 2 million copies. A namesake line of wines, in cooperation with Hopland (Calif.)-based Fetzer Vineyards, will debut in June. And his seventh restaurant, Tchoup Chop at Universal Orlando's new Royal Pacific Resort, is on tap to open in the fall.

Last year, the self-proclaimed connoisseur of pork fat broadcast his 1,000th cooking show on the Food TV cable channel and launched a prime-time sitcom on network TV (its December cancellation was barely noticed). He also provides regular food fun on Good Morning America and dishes out a line of spices, Emeril-branded pots and pans, and other paraphernalia like T-shirts.

The 42-year-old Lagasse pulls all these ingredients together on Emerils.com, which mixes his recipes and restaurant menus with articles about food and wine, cooking tips, and shopping (see BW e.biz, Clicks & Misses, "Emeril's Fare and Fowl"). In January, the site had 256,000 unique visitors. That's a fraction of the 1.5 million visitors to the Web site of fellow food and TV personality Martha Stewart (marthastewart.com), according to Nielsen/NetRatings. Still, it's a respectable showing, given that Stewart's site is much broader, encompassing not only cooking, but also crafts, home decor, and more, says Dawn Brozek, Nielsen/Net Ratings Internet analyst.

SERVICE FIRST. Lagasse saw his Web site, launched in 1997, as a way to connect with his fans -- not simply to reach into their pocketbooks. Despite his soaring popularity, the early goal of Emerils.com -- and still the aim today -- was customer service, not just e-commerce, says Lagasse. Fans -- which he calls clientele whether they eat in his restaurants, watch him on TV, or buy his cookbooks -- wanted more information in the form of recipes, cooking tips, or information about Emeril. The Web was the perfect communications pipeline. Says Lagasse: "It was a way to give and share a little bit more knowledge with this clientele."

Lagasse's enterprises are privately held, and he declines to release revenues. But from a fledgling operation that started about a dozen years ago with one restaurant in a then-out-of-the-way spot in New Orleans, using second-hand equipment and struggling to pay bills, Lagasse's business has blossomed into an organization that employs 850 people in New Orleans, Orlando, and Las Vegas. He says his companies, including Emeril's Homebase, which owns and operates the restaurants and Web site, and Food of Love Productions, which owns rights to Lagasse's cookbooks, recipes, and TV shows, are in the black.

But don't mistake the diversity of his activities for lack of focus. "I cook. That's what I do," says Lagasse. "If you really look in the inner bowels of our entire operation...it's all about food," says Lagasse.

WORK IN PROGRESS. The star chef was able to start his Web site on a macaroni-and-cheese budget. The Net enabled him to provide an enticing mix of information without a lot of expense, says Tony Cruz, Lagasse's business manager and long-time colleague. The original idea was to use the site to advertise Lagasse's restaurants. That first foray online cost less than $15,000 and was handled in-house by Lagasse and staff.

But the early effort didn't have much personality -- that is, Lagasse's brand of melding his sophisticated culinary skills with his blue-collar TV persona. As fans began to want more information and more of the Emeril touch, Lagasse and staff decided to, borrowing from his signature vocabulary, "kick it up a notch." Lagasse says he made the commitment to invest in the technology necessary -- including servers, software, phone banks and staff -- to do it right. That meant pumping in $5 million and retooling the site several times.

Now, Lagasse can be seen all over the site dishing out cooking tips and guides. He also writes a monthly column that talks about his activities and a monthly gardening column, part of his continued commitment to cook with fresh local ingredients. The chef likens the site to a book: "There's a start, and there's an ending, and in between, there's a lot of content. People sometimes don't get that. They want it to be funny, or they want it to be all tech driven. There has to be a balance."

NONSTOP INVOLVEMENT. A big boost to the Web site is Lagasse's accessibility. Some nights, he's up till midnight signing cookbooks that are sold on the site. Marcelle Bienvenu, Emerils.com editor and another longtime friend, likens Lagasse to the Energizer bunny because of his nonstop involvement in so many different endeavors and each with the same zeal and commitment.

To understand Lagasse's intensity, Bienvenu recounts how he taught her to make profiteroles, a puff pastry -- during a hurricane in the mid-1980s in New Orleans. In the middle of the cooking lesson, they were told to evacuate the restaurant. Instead of leaving, the pair kept cooking. The electricity went out just as the profiteroles came out of the oven. Lagasse laughs when reminded of the story but adds: "My responsibility was to take care of the restaurant, so I wasn't going anywhere."

To borrow another "Emerilism," the reason the Web site works isn't rocket science. Lagasse's business empire feeds traffic to the Web site, says Bruce Tognazzini, a site-usability expert with Freemont (Calif.)-based Nielsen Norman Group. "Web sites are a great adjunct [to a bigger business] just as a microwave oven is a great adjunct to a kitchen." That may not be science, but it's a sound recipe. Marks covers technology from Denver


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