You’re in the Food Industry! Have a Chef at the Ready!
In hindsight it’s somewhat funny (or perhaps stupid or even sad), but I entered the food world with zero (nada, zilch) culinary experience. Moreover, I wasn’t a foodie (I just liked to eat). I love to cook now, but it’s a hobby I acquired later in life out of necessity and age. But early in my career, when meeting with buyers (or with our foodservice team, in a professional cutting), I was ill-prepared to answer technical questions about the ingredients, spices or flavors that contributed to the overall make-up of the product I was ranting and raving about. As our business evolved and grew, this became an impediment, particularly with those customers who got very granular with nutrition panels, ingredient decks, flavor tweaking, profile adjustments and the like. I knew that I could only tap dance so far and much – this became particularly apparent one day when I was calling on Costco and the vendor next to me (presenting an item in the same category) had both a chef and an assistant with her to help prep, plate and present. I quickly realized, yet again, I needed help.
Many in our industry consider themselves chefs, the spectrum for which can vary considerably. In some cases, this is what got you into the business to begin with (i.e., “I was making these for my kids, they loved them, and I just knew that I was on to something”) or in others cases, you’ve always loved food and have been naturally attracted to the industry. But as your business grows, the entrepreneurial burdens increase, you become short of hands, and the added assistance of having access to a professionally trained chef can be beneficial for a myriad of reasons.
In the below post I walk through reasons why having access to a chef can be incredibly beneficial to your brand and marketing initiatives, ways to go about finding a chef, and possible blind spots and things to be aware of when structuring the relationship.
Why It Helps to Have a Chef in Your Life
I have identified a handful or reasons why having access to a professionally trained culinarian, particularly somebody with who you can foster a relationship, knows your product and ingredients well, and who is dynamic with a bit of stage presence, can be helpful. I’m sure there are other reasons, but in thinking about how I utilized a chef in the past, here are some key benefits:
- Professional cuttings and presentations: depending on the account and type of call (sales meeting), having a chef in the room can pay dividends. From helping ensure the product cooks to perfection, to making sure the plate presentation is beautiful, to allowing you to focus on the buyer/decision makers rather than running back and forth to the cooking area, the added hands can pay in spades. Moreover, it elevates your stature in the eyes of those you’re presenting to. It’s highly functional window dressing.
- Trade shows and other marketing events: for many of the same reasons that you would want to bring a chef to a cutting, the same rationale applies to tradeshows. Tabletops maybe not so much, but for major trade shows and events (i.e., Expo West), having a chef in your booth helps significantly (added hands, allows you to focus on customer engagement, keeps product samples flowing, etc.). Plus having this person with you can help with ideation while you’re in the tradeshow flow.
- Research & Development: a great chef knows flavors, spices and culinary combinations likely better than the average food manager. Moreover, having a chef who is up on the latest food trends, including menu ideation at popular restaurants (both nationally and globally) can be incredibly powerful when discussing product concepts and flavor tweaks.
- Access to the foodservice trade: are you thinking about exploring foodservice but don’t know where to start? Oftentimes a chef will have tons of experience dealing with foodservice distributors and might be able to provide an introduction (note, there are a wide array of foodservice distributors out there. I have a lot of experience in the arena and it’s an area I will explore in subsequent posts). They will have foodservice account reps who, depending on the relationship, might be able to give you a 101 on the local trade, an overview of like-brands that they currently carry (i.e., products similar to yours), etc.
- Other marketing needs: need help writing product descriptions or even taglines? Chefs spend an inordinate amount of time having to explain their food, from menu descriptions to engagement with their diners. You can leverage these creative juices for your marketing needs. Moreover, if you have a strong Instagram, Facebook or broader social campaigns afoot with strong visual components, having a chef in the picture can come in handy.
Considerations When Engaging a Chef
From my experience, a good chef is like an artist who takes incredible pride in their creation. This is what we want, but at times it comes with a price, namely they can be challenging to deal with when it comes to their owner creations (translation: a bit cocky and possessive – see Bradley Cooper in Burnt. A bit extreme perhaps, but highlights the point). Like in any relationship this can be overcome, but items to be aware of:
- Some chefs can become very possessive of their ideas, creations and recipes. Keep in mind that you know your target consumer and preferences better than anybody and know the broader industry dynamics. Be crystal clear on the scope of the relationship, rather than providing direction that can be vague or having them create something masterful but which becomes a complete departure from your brand identity, voice, etc.
- As we know, there’s a difference between creating something in a kitchen (i.e., a bench top sample) and industrializing the creation. Taste profiles, textures, appearance, etc. can change dramatically. For the chef who has spent most of his career working at a local restaurant, this leap is totally foreign. The skillset and knowledge of the industrial chef versus the neighborhood local guy or gal is radically different, and the amazingly delicious creation from the back kitchen won’t always translate to mass production. Keep this in mind if you’re engaging a local chef for product ideation and the taste and technical leap to the co-packer.
- On a related point, early in my career, I engaged a chef to help with a production run at our co-packer. This made sense in my mind because he had helped with the flavors and knew their machinery reasonably well. The problem is the co-packer had an R&D chef of their own, and the end result was the two did nothing but step on each others’ toes. This point somewhat ties the above two together – just be careful if you bring your chef into your co-packer. I’m not saying don’t do it, but have expectations managed.
Finding the Right Chef for Your Brand
Chemistry is important and making sure you’ve got somebody you can both work with and get along with is critical – chances are you’ll be traveling together and spending hours in the booth. The blind spot considerations noted above can be assuaged if you engage a chef who understands your brand and vision, and who can quickly adapt their skills to apply to the trade. So how to go about finding the right chef for you? Here are a few ways that I have found chefs in the past:
- Start at your favorite restaurant: Ultimately, this is how I found the chef who I have worked with throughout my career (and who helped develop the flavor concepts for my new start-up). My wife and I frequented his restaurant regularly, there was a built-in social relationship, and it was as easy as simply asking, “Can you help?” From there, I had access to his kitchen, supplier relationships (which has helped in product costing – he purchases from both local purveyors but also national distributors), and amazing, my training as well.
- Local cooking schools: there is most likely a cooking school (or culinary program – check with local community colleges) in your area. Give them a ring – students are always looking for work and there could be added benefits as well (for example, trade associations and societies) that you could network through for other needs down the road.
- Your broker: brokers tend to co-mingle with other foodies and are generally networked. A few thoughts: i) a local co-op or independent grocery store might have a hot food bar or restaurant – your broker could provide an introduction; ii) there could be other local brands/manufacturers they represent who might have access to a chef; iii) they might know a chef themselves. If you have access to a foodservice broker, they would definitely be able to bridge an introduction.
- Other mainstream outlets: I’m thinking LinkedIn or other Meet-Up groups.
As mentioned above, I acquired a relationship with a chef who was versatile beyond belief: he came to tradeshows, accompanied me at cuttings for Costco, and helped with product development. He was particularly helpful when we were trying to “dial-in” (perfect) flavors at our co-packer when shifting from the bench top to the production line. That’s always an incredible leap, and in this particular case we were trying to translate sauces from a stovetop to industrial kettles – this is a dramatic change (for perspective, whereas we would add water to the saucepan by way of measuring cups, water is added to an industrial kettle from a garden hose). Having our chef on-site who had a very keen and accurate taste palate made all the difference in the world (i.e., “add more sugar”, “tweak the oregano”, etc.) – I couldn’t have done this by myself and the co-pack’s employees simply want to get running, rather than perfecting flavors – this included the co-packer’s R&D chef who was backed-up with other projects.
- If you don’t have a chef: think about where you could go to engage one, even if you don’t need one now but might down the road. Brainstorm a list of where you could go about engaging one. If it’s a restaurant you frequent and enjoy, start mapping out how you could engage the chef in dialogue (wine/beer helps).
- If you do have a chef you work with, think of other areas or ways they could contribute to the business. Could you leverage their skills or knowledge for social media? Could they incorporate your items into their menu (and possibly cross-promote)? From an ideation standpoint, provide them with the tools (i.e. product samples, ingredients, vision and direction) for possible line extensions, etc.