In 1979, as America recovered from double-digit unemployment, diners were craving something real and uplifting, and at K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen, Paul Prudhomme made national headlines for having filled that void with great Creole and Cajun flavors. When diners left the restaurant — and, for many visitors to New Orleans, the city — they wanted to bring that taste into their home kitchens, so Prudhomme sent them away with foil pouches filled with his seasoning.
Today, restaurants across the country have turned to selling their products directly to consumers, but Prudhomme led the way as one of the first chefs with both the national platform and the chops entrepreneurs to do so. By 1983, he had started a separate company, Magic Seasoning Blends, to meet demand. “There was this notion of, ‘Well, my God, I’m an American civilian, I’ve been eating standardized food all my life,'” says Andrew Friedman, Andrew Talks to Chefs host and author of Chefs, drugs and rock and roll. “With these spices, I can bring a bit of what makes Prudhomme’s food unique into my kitchen, just by sprinkling it with a protein.”
More recently, the chef-made pantry category has exploded as the pandemic has caused restaurateurs to seek out any potential revenue stream while consumers seek restaurant tastes at home. Portland’s most famous food cart bottles its Nong’s Khao Man Gai sauce; New York restaurant Serendipity has started shipping its hot chocolate frozen, and fellow New York restaurants Hart’s and Cervo’s are selling canned fish. Carbone Fine Foods offers the restaurant group’s tomato sauces, the marketing language indicating consumer motivation: that they “will transport you to the iconic New York restaurant without having to worry about getting a reservation – or even leaving your residence “.
That home cooks want inspiration and restaurant ingredients are now taken for granted, but that hasn’t always been a goal for American consumers. To get there, they would first have to get an idea of how many flavors they were missing – and how much work it would take to build them.
By 1956, the combination of canned food and electrical appliances had streamlined post-World War II home cooking in the name of efficiency. But Chuck Williams speculated that other Americans might have the same desire as him for high-quality French cookware, and opened a boutique in Sonoma, California, pioneering the store as a destination for ambitious purchases. Driven by Williams’ personal friendship with chefs and, in the 1970s when the Williams-Sonoma catalog was launched, strong data integration, Williams-Sonoma painted the fantasy of American cuisine.
Over the years, chefs have advised and guided, and even sometimes designed products for the company – such as Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s 2001 Infused Grapeseed Oils – but it wasn’t until 2011 that they’ve really moved forward with their own Williams-Sonoma products. That year, Williams-Sonoma began selling Cup4Cup, the gluten-free flour that Lena Kwak had developed for Thomas Keller’s Napa restaurant, the French Laundry, inspired — like Prudhomme — by customer requests.
Around the same time, Milk Bar – then still Momofuku Milk Bar – began selling its cookie mixes through Williams-Sonoma, and Momofuku sold a line of sauces in stores. Restaurants there have seen the value of expanding to new audiences: “80% of our care package business comes from states where we don’t even have stores,” the founder of Milk Bar, Christina Tosi, at Food Business News in 2019. “Our community is much bigger than stores, and on many levels we think about how we want to reach our employees and how people want to be reached.
Chefs who pledged to sell their wares and push their brands beyond the restaurant’s four walls represented a shift in who Americans turned to when stocking their shelves: Sara Lee no longer represented sophistication as she had when Williams opened her first store. But these “sophisticated” catering products had to be usable by home cooks. And Williams-Sonoma was good at identifying the kinds of intermediates that partly lived in the restaurant space, but worked in the home kitchen. “This whole subject of what chefs had to offer home cooks has been something that has been calibrated and recalibrated and sometimes misunderstood and overemphasized,” Friedman says, pointing to the ultra-complex recipes in cookbooks that few people have tried. “I think it’s only very recently that he’s found what looks like his right level.”
Recipes in the Momofuku Milk Bar cookbook called for things like freeze-dried corn powder for corn cookies and over 20 ingredients for compost cookies. by Thomas Keller French laundry cookbook started with a three-part recipe for his salmon tartare that called for 24 chive tips, cut an inch long, and “softened, but cool to the touch” butter. At Williams-Sonoma, customers could purchase the same cookies as a mix, and Cup4Cup allowed consumers to start many complicated steps ahead of recipes.
But in today’s world of celebrity chefs, restaurants no longer need the brand positioning that Williams-Sonoma offers – they already have the appeal and connection with their audience, and the establishment of a commerce site. electronics requires much less than finding a distributor or retail partner. . Before the pandemic, grocery stores had started to mimic restaurants, adding bars with draft beers and made-to-order food and lounge areas, but recently restaurants have started to look more like grocery stores, offering the types high-end ingredients that are not always readily available to the home cook.
Momofuku has tried over the years to sell various products from the restaurant – all of the branded products it sells online are the same ones it offers on their menus, instant noodles included – but this time it’s different. , says Momofuku CEO Marguerite Mariscal of the brand’s fall 2020 product launch. 100%.”
Although the end goal was to solidify the business without relying on restaurant customers, in order to build a store that matched the brand, Momofuku started by selling to people they already had a relationship with: their followers on social networks and regular customers. She likens the direct-to-consumer model to how an open-kitchen restaurant provides direct feedback to a chef, allowing them to refine and improve an idea before presenting it to a wider audience. Like a cluster of restaurants slowly expanding to nearby neighborhoods, they first looked nearby, then farther.
“There is not the same discovery as in a grocery store,” says Mariscal, where people might come across the product. But with the kinds of things Momofuku sells, like chili crunch, artisanal soy sauce, and specialty instant noodles, the direct-to-consumer model offers other benefits.
In addition to being able to act faster by selling direct, restaurants selling pantry products can also speak to the customer, providing content and context. “Package space is really limited and it’s very expensive to get the story of your products out on the shelves,” says Mariscal. The ability to provide a framework — via recipes, videos, and instructions — proves a huge boon to Momofuku and “anyone selling a product that falls outside of the very narrow scope of the American pantry or something.” that people haven’t seen a million times before. .”
Most grocery stores aren’t Williams-Sonomas, and the understanding of variance and nuance in restaurant foods has yet to fully hit their shelves. “You see we’re currently obsessed with, like, birria,” she offers as an example. “But it’s still hard shell tacos at the supermarket.”
Mariscal sees so much more space for restaurants to take up – this is a necessity for their survival. In earlier eras, restaurants branched out with catering, private events, and beverage sales, and she sees that as another piece of that puzzle. “We really see it as diversification where you protect yourself because you don’t have a single outlet.”
For consumers who can’t go to a restaurant – for financial, geographical or other reasons – homemade products still appeal for their opportunity to provide a taste of the cuisine of a great chef and a shortcut in the kitchen.
Today, in an America recovering from double-digit unemployment, diners crave the excitement they remember from traveling to eat and the flavors they imagine from their Instagram feeds and Netflix documentaries. And like Paul Prudhomme palming spices wrapped in foil to customers, chefs have found a way to bring them to their fans no matter where they are.
Naomi Tomki is an award-winning food and travel writer based in Seattle and the author of The Pacific Northwest Seafood Cookbook.