Food Pro's Popular Posts

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Setting The Table: Marketing Tips For Restaurants

Setting The Table: Marketing Tips For Restaurants

Richard StriblingSuits and Ladders
Running a restaurant is, above all things, a people business. You’re selling more than just food: from the hostess to the chef, the staff at your restaurant work to create an ideal atmosphere for your customers. Quick, friendly service, attentive waitstaff and responsive management can sometimes make up for even a mediocre meal.

An online presence is now an essential part of reaching out to customers: through your website, you can attract new customers, engage with regulars, and help develop your brand. Using just a few simple tips, you can make your piece of online real estate produce real dividends for your restaurant.
Your website is your front door—open it!
For many eateries, a website can serve as the restaurant’s front door; make sure yours is easy to find and easy to enter. A website doesn’t have to be elaborate: a page with your restaurant’s name, business hours, menus and contact information is a great start. Other restaurants use their websites to reflect their business’s atmosphere, to give customers news about upcoming events and specials. Creating a pleasant interactive experience online can make it easy for customers to take the next step and visit you in the real world.
Get friendly with social media
Using social media platforms like Foursquare and Facebook is becoming second-nature for younger computer and smartphone owners. People use these programs to find their favorite food joints and to tell friends about new ones—so Twitter chatter and Facebook posts can translate to more traffic through your doors.
Use social media to reach out to your customers: the traffic you can generate on social media sites is a great way to increase your online visibility. Use your social media accounts to connect with your customers—even a quick exchange on Twitter can make potential customers feel like they’re getting special attention. You may have to invest in a little online training for your official social media person, but it’s worth it to have someone devoted to it full-time.

Reward your regulars (through Facebook deals, e-mail lists, etc.)
If you’re lucky enough to have a group of regular customers, show them they’re appreciated! Use some B2B (business-to-business) marketing strategies to give your best customers a little special treatment. While programs like Groupon and Living Social can get people in the door, you’ll still need a way to reward the people who help maintain your bottom line. Consider a special VIP e-mail list, or maybe even hosting a weekend lunch or dinner for hardcore fans of your restaurant.
Marketing for a restaurant can be tough, but using the Internet to advertise is one of the best ways to get noticed. It seems simple, but internet marketing can take a lot of time, effort and persistence. Stick with it and you’ll see the benefits revealed in happy, satisfied customers.

Monday, June 27, 2011

U.S. Doctors: Ban Fast Food Ads on TV

U.S. Doctors: Ban Fast Food Ads on TV

Fast food ads on TV are making American youth fatter and should be banned in children's programming, an influential group of doctors said Monday.

"Congress and the Federal Trade Commission have to get tough with the food industry," said Dr. Victor Strasburger, who wrote the new policy statement from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), a group of 65,000 physicians.

"It's time for the food industry to clean up its act and not advertise junk food to young children," Strasburger told Reuters Health. "Just by banning ads for fast food, one study says we could decrease obesity and overweight by 17 percent."

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than one in six children and teenagers are obese -- up three-fold from a generation ago.

While experts agree there are several reasons for this development, they are increasingly focusing on the role of excess "screen time" -- both for its physical effects on kids and the advertising messages that TVs and computers are delivering to them.

Last April, four government agencies requested public comments on a set of voluntary principles for marketing food to children, with the Federal Trade Commission calling childhood obesity "the most serious health crisis facing today's youth."

But voluntary guidelines won't cut it, according to the AAP.

Nearly a third of American youngsters eat fast food on any given day, the AAP says, with the nation spending in excess of $110 billion every year on things like burgers and French fries -- "more than that spent on higher education, computers, or cars."

In 2009, the fast food industry spent $4.2 billion on ads in various media. And research shows they work. For instance, one study found kids watching cartoons downed 45 percent more snacks when they were exposed to food ads instead of ads for other products.

The National Restaurant Association did not return a request for comment in time for this story.

Sitting glued to the TV or the computer for hours on end also eats up time that could have been used for physical activities, said Strasburger, and studies have tied certain screen habits to sleep problems.

"I think parents have always thought that if their kids were in their room watching TV or on the Internet, they were happy and safe," he added. "The research says, maybe not."

In one new report, also published in Pediatrics on Monday, preschoolers who had a TV in their bedroom took longer to fall asleep and were drowsier during the day.

Among kids who spent more than 30 minutes playing video games, watching TV or surfing the Web in the hour before they went to bed, 28 percent had sleep trouble, compared to 19 percent of those who had less or no screen time.

Violent content also tended to keep kids up at night, no matter when they watched it.

While the study couldn't tease out cause and effect, Michelle Garrison, who led the research, said the evidence hints screen may be responsible for at least part of the problem.

"One thing that families can take away from this is to focus on day-time, non-violent media choices," Garrison, of Seattle Children's Research Institute, told Reuters Health.

She added that sleep problems can take a toll on daytime wellbeing.

"We see increased behavior problems, we see increased learning problems, and excess weight and obesity," Garrison said.

Experts say parents should play an active role in managing their kids' screen time.

"Parents should serve as positive role models for their children and limit their own as well as their child(rens')s television viewing," said Dayna M. Maniccia, of the University at Albany in New York.

In a new study, also in Pediatrics, Maniccia and her colleagues found using an electronic device to ensure the TV turns off at a certain time also appears to be effective.

"Limiting advertisements would be a positive step toward improving children's health," Maniccia added in an email to Reuters Health. "Young children can't distinguish between ads and programs."

Several companies have already pledged to shift their advertising toward healthier choices for young kids, yet research from last year shows fast food restaurants are stepping up marketing directed at children and toddlers.

"It's all just a smokescreen anyway -- the big fast food corporations are basically interested in making money, not making good nutritional products," said Strasburger. "With billions of dollars in profits every year should come a sense of public health responsibility. Unfortunately, it doesn't seem to."

McDonald's, which targets kids in much of its advertising, declined to comment.

In the meantime, Strasburger urges families to follow a few simple steps.

"Parents need to listen to the AAP guidelines which say, 'Limit your child to less than two hours of media time per day, keep the TV set and Internet out of the bedroom and avoid screen time in kids under two.'"

But cutting screen time alone isn't enough, according to Strasburger.

"We have to give kids healthy alternatives to being couch potatoes," he said. "The question is, how fat do we want people to become? Congress needs to think about that."

Friday, June 24, 2011

Newbies at Taste of Chicago show diversity of city’s restaurants

Newbies at Taste of Chicago show diversity of city’s restaurants

This year’s 26th annual Taste of Chicago, which starts June 24 and continues through July 3, features a dozen new vendors in the total mix of 59, adding even more cultural diversity to the expected Windy City favorites.

While a large number of vendors, nearly a dozen this year, continue to offer some of Chicago’s iconic hot sandwiches, pizza and barbecue, it’s the ethnic specialties that truly demonstrate the richness of the city’s restaurant world, offering a microcosm of Chicago’s pattern of immigration. Representing countries from around the world, cuisines include Chinese and Southeast Asian, Indian, Middle Eastern, Mexican and other Latin, African, Caribbean, Jewish, Greek, Italian, Brazilian, Polish and British flavors.

All vendors are serving six dishes, of which two are smaller “taste” sizes for $2 or less. A total of 20 menu boards will have a “green apple” icon next to an item, signifying Humana Healthier Choices endorsements for entrees under 500 calories or appetizers and desserts under 320 calories.

Newcomers to the Taste this year are Alhambra Palace, Banana Leaf Restaurant, Beggars Pizza, Chicago Sweet Connection Bakery, The Fudge Pot, Lao Szu Chuan, Loving Hut, Parrot Cage Restaurant, Ryba’s Fudge Shops, The Smoke Daddy, Starfruit Cafe and Texas de Brazil.

Marc Schulman, chief executive of Eli’s Cheesecake Company, notes that the Illinois Restaurant Association, which manages the restaurant and beverage operations at the Taste, recruited this year’s newcomers to add more culinary diversity.

“Chicago is a great dining city. I think the Taste is one of the things that makes Chicago special in the summer,” Schulman said.

He recalled the inaugural Taste event in 1980 when his dad, the late Eli Schulman, worked the booth, cutting cheesecake in one of the trademark suits he wore as host at his then-restaurant, Eli’s the Place for Steaks. That first Taste marked the debut of Eli’s Cheesecake, which has since vastly expanded its flavors. This year’s choices include a 110-calorie Skinny Chocolate Cheesecake.

Chicago Sweet Connection Bakery from the Northwest Side, one of the new vendors, is presenting a variety of desserts, including eclairs, sweets on a stick and a parfait cup. Customers can treat themselves with no guilt, because owner Tom Kailis plans to donate profits to his college-bound employees, their children and two of his late partner’s teens.

Culinary students at Washburne Culinary Institute also will benefit from both paychecks and experience they gain by working the Parrot Cage Restaurant booth, representing the restaurant the school operates in the South Shore Cultural Center.

“This gives students an opportunity to do large production food and to interact with the public,” said Bill Reynolds, provost.

Parrot Cage’s most unusual item is its turkey meatloaf cupcakes. Shaped like cupcakes, they actually are mini-meatloaves topped with mashed potatoes. Another protein item is a crab salad in a pretzel-cracker cone.

Texas de Brazil, a protein palace in River North where waiters in gaucho garb bring all-you-can-eat portions of meats on skewers to diners for tableside carving, will lose its churrascaria charm in the confines of a Taste booth. Nevertheless, the restaurant’s Isabel Correa hopes the food will attract new customers to the restaurant. She is especially proud of the combo platter, containing garlic sirloin, bacon-wrapped chicken breast and Brazilian sausage.

Likewise, Alhambra Palace will not be able to showcase its 1,200-seat dining and entertainment venue in the West Loop that features live music, salsa and Middle Eastern dancing. The four-year-old establishment wants to expand its following beyond its loyal regulars, said general manager Fareed Nobahar. Featured foods will be a beef and lamb schwarma sandwich, falafel sandwich, chicken kabob basket, hummus with pita and baklava.

Cincinnati native Richard Bailey will offer Caribbean and Cajun flavors from his Banana Leaf Restaurant on the South Side. Developing a passion for those cuisines through travel, Bailey will have a jerk lamb chop, blackened tilapia with rice, curry vegetable stir fry and jerk wings.

Even vegans can find something to eat this year at Loving Hut from the Edgewater neighborhood.

“There are a lot of meat substitutes; you are not missing anything,” said owner Wenqing Li. “You can reduce greenhouse gases by getting away from a meat-based diet.”

Among Loving Hut’s dishes are a home run ball (fried vegetable textured protein with a sweet/spicy sauce and crushed cashews) and a noble burger (a smoked vegetable patty with condiments). The local Loving Hut is one of 219 related restaurants around the world.

Some veteran Taste vendors said their participation has paid off in winning new restaurant customers.

“There are a lot of people who tried us at the Taste and came to the restaurant, sometimes months later,” said Rohini Dey, owner of Vermilion, an Indian/Latin fusion restaurant in River North.

A spokesperson for the Chicago Park District, which has taken over managing the Taste from the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs, said there will be more seating this year than in the past. There also will be less music, returning the Taste’s primary focus to its original intent — showcasing Chicago’s diverse restaurants.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Olive Garden, Pizza Hut top national restaurant index

Olive Garden, Pizza Hut top national restaurant index
By Steve Cavendish

Diners at national chain restaurants are most satisfied with Olive Garden and Pizza Hut according to a newly-released portion of the American Consumer Satisfaction Index, and they're much happier with pizza than burgers.
The ACSI is an annual survey of roughly 80,000 Americans across a wide variety of consumer services. Among diners, the index rated satisfaction with a number of national full-service and limited service restaurants on a 100-point scale. 
Full (Overall sector score: 82)

  • Olive Garden, 82
  • Red Lobster, 82
  • Outback, 81
  • Chili's, 79
Limited (Overall sector score: 79)
  • Pizza Hut, 81
  • Little Caesars, 80
  • Starbucks, 80
  • Papa John's, 79
  • Domino's, 77
  • Wendy's, 77
  • Taco Bell, 76
  • Burger King, 75
  • KFC, 75
  • McDonald's, 72
National full-service restaurants have been measured since 2007 while fast-food places have been part of the index since the original 1994 survey. Both indexes are up over last year's scores. Here are some of the highlights:
– McDonald's jumped almost 8 percent, from a 67 to a 72, the biggest gain in the index. It remained last among any restaurant measured.
– Wendy's was the highest rated of the national hamburger chains and has been in every year of the survey. The gap among the big three, however, has narrowed.
– A difference of three points in the index, the authors say, is a significant difference. So while there may be only a little distinction in the satisfaction among the full-service restaurants, the gap between top and bottom of the fast-food chains is big.
The Stew asked David VanAmburg, ACSI's managing director, to provide a little context for us.
What does it mean that the numbers for fast-food restaurants are higher than they've ever been?
We're seeing a big change in the value proposition and I think the economy is helping that along to some extend. You know, fast food is one of those categories that, if they're playing their cards right, and the data shows that they are, should benefit in a down economy. 
It's interesting that limited service restaurants are closing the gap with full-service restaurants in terms of satisfaction.
Who does this mean more to among the burger places?
I think they do all want satisfaction to a point, but satisfaction matters much more to a Wendy's than a McDonald's.
Why is that?
Satisfaction isn't really the key driver for McDonald's business. It's much more about value and their demographic, which is, relative to other burger chains, a bigger portion of the kids demographic with the Happy Meals and so on. They really do have that attraction that the others lack to some extent. And they certainly play on that very successfully. At a point, raising their satisfaction numbers (to catch up with Wendy's) may not be right for them economically.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Barrio Café chef to open new Scottsdale restaurant

Barrio Café chef to open new Scottsdale restaurant
Silvana Salcido Esparza, the acclaimed chef/owner of Barrio Café, is on the verge of adding a big-time new restaurant at a big-time location to her stable.

Coming to SouthBridge in Old Town Scottsdale this November: an eponymous restaurant called Silvana, a "Euro-Mexican" concept that she describes as "on the elegant side of Mexican cuisine."

Esparza has been wooed for years by just about every Valley landlord saddled with vacant restaurant space, hoping to be part of her expanding, high-profile brand in this still-challenging economy. (She's opening a restaurant in Gilbert next January, as well as an eatery at Sky Harbor's Terminal 4 in early 2012.) But she's been very patient, waiting for the right time, the right place and the right suitor before she committed.

And now she's found him: It's SouthBridge developer Fred Unger. They've just about completed a deal - one final hurdle, a sidewalk patio that must be approved by the city of Scottsdale, remains to be cleared -- for her to move into the empty Metro Brasserie storefront.

Esparza emphasizes that Silvana will not be another outpost of Barrio Café, but an entirely new operation with a new slate of dishes. "The sky is the limit," she says.

The restaurant is actually named after her maternal grandmother - "she taught me everything I know," Esparza says.

Among the dishes she plans to offer are lamb steamed in a bag made from maguey cactus; duck confit tacos; jalapenos stuffed with salmon escabeche; pasta with chicken and Mexican sausage; and, in a tribute to her grandmother, chile colorado. Some Barrio Cafe favorites, like tableside guacamole and chiles en nogada, are also likely to journey east.

Attached to Silvana will be a more casual operation called Barrio Queen Tequileria, which will feature tacos, tortas, pork al pastor, posole, aguas frescas and an extensive list of margartitas. Esparza wants to make it clear that Barrio Queen is "not a Mexican bar disguised as a restaurant." Her aim, she says, is "to honor and promote Mexican culture, food and cuisine to its full potential."

Nabbing Esparza is a real coup for Unger, whose original SouthBridge vision of a glittering complex featuring top independent chefs in one-of-a-kind restaurants collapsed when the economy did. But there are signs that the development may now be turning the corner, and Unger is counting on Esparza to boost the momentum even further.

Last year, the superb Marcellino Ristorante successfully moved into the former Digestif space. First-rate Spanish fare is the attraction at Tapas Papa Frita, which inhabits the digs originally intended for a never-opened restaurant called Mexican Standoff.

The Herb Box, which replaced the swanky Estate House, is a hit with the Scottsdale-ladies-who-shop-and-lunch set. And Unger is in negotiations to nab a tenant for SouthBridge's last empty restaurant space, formerly the setting for Canal and short-lived Acua.

"It's a sheer blessing to add Silvana to SouthBridge's blue-chip line-up," says an enthusiastic Unger. He's hopeful that the sidewalk-patio snag - Esparza calls it a "deal-breaker" - can be resolved. Esparza's architect and the city of Scottsdale are working on the issue.

Barrio Café itself is in the midst of expansion. Esparza hopes to launch Barrio Café Bar by the end of the year. (Currently, no-reservations Barrio Café has almost no bar space for the waiting crowds.) The centerpiece will be an antique 1810 bar from Puebla, and Esparza will be offering intriguing bar snacks as well as drinks.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

The Newest Alcohol Marketing Gimmick: Perfume-Inspired Wine

The Newest Alcohol Marketing Gimmick: Perfume-Inspired Wine

It's soooooo hard for women to pick a wine for dinner. There's so many different varietals, and vintages, and labels, and vineyards, and ohmygosh what's a girl to do? Well, grappa distillery Mazzetti d’Altavilla thinks it has found the solution with its Essentia Vitae: wine bottles that look like perfume bottles. The "scents" are numbered, just like perfume! No 4 Ruche is jasmine-scented, No 6 Malvasia smells like rose and No 8 Moscato smells like violet. Or, if you mix them all together, you can have a mouthful of potpourri!
Product Launch Analytics has awarded the perfume-wine (available in Germany and Italy) theinnovation of the week, with PLA director Tom Vierhile explaining "Essentia Vitae goes further than most to connect to female consumers. Its perfume-like packaging should break through the crowded product assortments that can often confound shoppers."
While Vierhile does have a point that the wine market can leave the novice drinker a bit overwhelmed, it seems even more confusing to sell a perfume bottle with contents meant for drinking, not dabbing lightly on one's wrists. It is only a matter of time until some poor woman accidently confuses her bottles and starts chugging actual perfume.
Perhaps wine blogger Dr. Vino captures it best: "Dammit, marketers, gendered approaches to marketing are best left to important things like razors blades and deodorants!"

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

How to Avoid Restaurant Pitfalls

How to Avoid Restaurant Pitfalls
By Andrea Orbeck, Fitness Expert

Whether it's to celebrate a special occasion, to grab a bite on the go, or simply because you haven't had time to grocery shop, dining out is always a treat. But when the chefs are behind closed kitchen doors, it's difficult to know which recipes are lurking with hidden fat, salt and sugar. Since menu items don't often tell you how your order is prepared or the proper portion size, our fitness and nutrition expertAndrea Orbeck is here to make sure that dining out doesn't become a health hazard. 

How to Avoid Restaurant Pitfalls

1. Ask for your entrée to be prepared grilled, steamed, baked or broiled -- not fried, which means it's being cooked in oil or butter.

2. Know your portion sizes. For lean meat this is the approximate size of a deck of cards or bar of soap. For fish, it's the size of a checkbook.

3. Always ask for sauces and dressings to be served on the side. This way you can control exactly how much gets mixed into the dish.

Packaged Brown Rice Sushi4. Request brown rice or "light rice" when ordering sushi.

5. If an entrée comes with potatoes or bread, ask for steamed veggies instead.

6. Decline the bread basket and skip the appetizer, unless the appetizer is a salad with light vinaigrette dressing.

7. If you order a heavy pasta dish, ask for half of it to be wrapped up for you before it's served, then eat it for lunch the next day.

Lemon water8. Drink lemon water with your meal. Skip the calories that are squeezed into juices and soda.

9. Watch your alcohol intake. It's nearly twice as fattening as carbohydrates or protein at seven calories per gram, no matter whether its beer, wine or hard liquor.

10. Pay attention to wording. Dishes labeled with words like deep-fried, pan-fried, basted, batter-dipped, breaded, creamy, crispy, scalloped, alfredo or au gratin are calorie bombs, often containing unhealthy fats and lots of sodium.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Party with Rocco di Spirito!

Party with Rocco di Spirito!

Rocco DiSpirito can’t stay away from reality TV. The New York chef will devote his culinary expertise to Bravo’s new series, Rocco’s Dinner Party, which gives three contestants a shot at creating a memorable evening for DiSpirito and a few celebrity guests. The winner gets a cool $20,000.

We caught up with former star of Rocco Gets Real and The Restaurant, 44, on a recent conference call:
Where did the idea for your show come from?
I love to entertain. I love cooking for people. To this day, one of my favorite things to do is to take out a cutting board, chop some onions, talk to my friends, put something together, bring it to the table, and enjoy that moment. That really human, wonderful connection that you get when you sit at a table and you eat and drink, because there’s something about the intimacy of a table that breaks down barriers. People let their guard down, they talk, they open up, and you can really connect.
As a frequent guest judge on Top Chef , have you thought about being a head judge of a cooking competition for a while?
I loved being on Top Chef. They do such a good a good job of balancing — honoring the craft of cooking while making great entertainment for television, which is not easy to do, as I know personally. And it felt like a real privilege to be able to sit there with Tom Colicchio and all the other judges and talk to those guys, talk to the contestants about the food, and offer them insight. Bravo and I have been looking for a project that we could work on together and the idea does come from my real fondness for entertaining at home. I got out of the professional restaurant business in 2005 and I’m a home cook now.
Can you go over some of the celebrities that we can look forward to seeing on the show?
In the first episode there’s Bryan Batt from Mad MenMichael Kenneth Williams from Boardwalk EmpireChristine Ebersole. It’s really an amazing group. And what’s really interesting is that we’re looking for people who are fun who love food and wine. People who didn’t necessarily know about food and wine and represented different worlds, different places in our culture, so not just people who are famous, but who were experts in something.
How is this show different from all the others out there?
What most culinary competitions do is focus on, the how, the culinary part of cooking, the technique, the ingredients, the passion of the chefs, and this show is entirely focused on why we get together and cook. The reason we cook is because we want people to know we care for them, we love them, they matter to us, and we want to celebrate and we want to have real human moments with them around the dinner table.
Did you have a favorite dinner party?
There’s no question that the Liza Minnelli dinner party is sort of otherworldly. Picture me, a chef sitting at a table with Marvin Hamlisch, Liza, Sandra Bernhard, some of the greatest entertainers of our time and hearing stories like, “My Godfather was Ira Gershwin and he told me a story,” you know? I had to pinch myself a few times. She revealed a lot about her father and talked a lot about her life and watching this woman who’s celebrating her 65th birthday who has more energy than I do, feel so thrilled about what was happening that she had to sing and get up and dance. It was just a really wonderful night.

Madeleine Marr

Premiere airdate is 11 p.m. Wednesday. On June 22, the series will move to 10 p.m. Wednesdays.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Boston Restaurant Turns Tables On Bad Reviews

Boston Restaurant Turns Tables On Bad Reviews

Chefs do not always take criticism well. Prolific restaurateur Jeffrey Chodorow notoriously took out a full-page ad in the New York Times to respond to Frank Bruni's takedown of Kobe Club. And the chef-antihero of the 2010 horror movie Bitter Feast responds to a mean-spirited review by brutally torturing its author.
Back Bay Social Club takes a different tack. The year-old Boston bistro regularly compiles choice complaints into punchy top-10 lists e-mailed out to advertise the restaurant. The lists deflate the griping through humor. The suggestion that their burgers are made of "unicorn meat and leprechaun tears," for example, is illustrated with drawings of a unicorn and a leprechaun hat. Take note, Sam Talbot, before you do anything rash to poor Sam Sifton! (Although these ten might have gone beyond the humor pale.)
Below, the top-10 e-mail:

Friday, June 10, 2011

Who's inventing your food?

Who's inventing your food? Probably a corporate chef
Unless you’re grinding peanuts into butter and emulsifying egg yolks into mayonnaise at home, Einav Gefen has probably touched your food in some way.
Since 2008, 39-year-old Gefen has acted as corporate chef at Unilever in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey.
Unilever is one of the world's leading consumer product companies, encompassing more than 400 brands including such pantry, refrigerator and freezer mainstays as Ben & Jerry’s, Bertolli, Lipton, Breyers, Skippy Peanut Butter, Ragú, Hellmann's, Knorr and Wish-Bone.
Having spaghetti and dumped on a jar of Ragú pasta sauce? Thank Gefen. Cooled down in the summer with a Popsicle®? That’s her team’s doing too. Worldwide, the corporation has close to a 50 percent share of the global grocery market and invests nearly $1 billion every year in research and development – including in the edible category with Gefen as top chef.

If you’ve never really given much thought about who exactly is designing your food outside dining establishments, you’re in good company: Gefen herself didn’t really either.
A highly-skilled chef in her own right, Gefen started out working at fine dining restaurants throughout Israel before coming to New York City to join the kitchens of Danal and the three Michelin starred Daniel.
She later transitioned into a chef-instructor role at the Institute of Culinary Education, where a student approached her about an opening in corporate chefdom and promised to e-mail Gefen the details.
“So I read the job description which was two pages long with lots of great information, yet I couldn’t understand for the hell of me what this person did from nine to five,” Gefen said. “But it intrigued me enough to send in my résumé.”
After a series of interviews and an “Iron Chef” type exercise where she created and presented three dishes from whatever was in the refrigerator, she was offered the gig.
On a day-to-day basis, the corporate chef methodology soon became clear: start like a chef, end like a consumer. For Gefen, it was an easy transition as a trained cook and also as a busy, working mother.
As for inspiration, “it’s first and foremost consumer interest,” said Gefen. “There’s no point in me developing anything that I know won’t be shopped for by our consumer.”
The testing facility she works in reflects the same chef-to-consumer mentality. The facility is split into two components: on one end is a test kitchen mimicking a consumer’s home, complete with electric and gas stovetops, a variety of microwaves and everyday equipment like non-stick pans and wooden spoons.
The other end is a legitimate restaurant kitchen that includes a full suite of appliances, a huge "pass" or work area, a deep-fryer, a sous-vide machine – basically if you name it, they’ve got it to play with.
“I feel like a kid in a toy store,” Gefen said.
Once in the kitchen, it’s a drawing board-to-shelf process. Each product starts in development as a culinary image or an idea. From there, they develop that idea into a recipe, and then ultimately into a final product that stands on the shelf.
Once the product is market-ready or already in-market, they move their focus to the consumer end of the kitchen and develop recipes that use that particular product.
“Not only do we help bring ideas to life and pull attributes in the creation process, we come in as quality gatekeepers down the road to make sure anything we created that is up-scaled is true to the quality we want to deliver,” Gefen explained.
“It won’t be like the pasta I cooked for four people on the stove, but you really want to stay as close to that image in quality as possible. Taste is the main driver.”
In the end, Gefen said they easily introduce up to 20 new products in the market every year depending on the current trends and demands.
But going corporate doesn’t come without its fair share of criticisms, from junking up our country’s food system to selling out.
“They are doing what the companies that hired them want them to, presumably. Food companies are about food products, not foods,” said Marion Nestle, a professor in the department of nutrition, food studies, and public health at New York University.
“Food products are where the added value money is. So the chefs’ job is to create food products that people will buy and will produce profits for the company.”
Despite recent national pushes toward the much buzzed-about “organic” and “sustainable” movements, corporate chefs like Gefen do ultimately have to focus on what the mass consumer wants and will buy.
Gefen said Unilever has recently tried to launch a series of organic products, like Bertolli sauces, but they just didn’t do very well.
“With the economy taking a little bit of a step back, organic took a step back with it just because of the nature of paying more for something that is organic.”
As for the sustainability aspect, Gefen said Unilever is conscious of it: making its global mission to double their business while maintaining the same carbon footprint for the next nine years.
In food product development, this means anything from looking at the amount of water a consumer would use in their home preparing the product to how and how far the products are delivered by truck.
As for “selling out to the man,” a highly regarded chef, Nate Appleman, recently received a fair amount of negative and head-scratching national attention from news outlets and blogs when he left the restaurant world to consult for the fast-casual chain Chipotle Mexican Grill.
Even though by fast food standards, Chipotle is on the higher end of the spectrum - they source organic and local produce when possible and use dairy from cows raised without synthetic hormones - it was viewed as a step down for his career by many within the restaurant industry.
In a guest blog on Zagat, Appleman explained his motives to the naysayers:
“Chefs talk about making a difference with reverence and righteousness. And while I have been very proud of the work I've done – whether it was my commitment to butchering and using the entire animal, or supporting responsible farming – I honestly feel that I have made very little impact. With this new job, I’m a part of an organization that can truly make a difference by serving food with integrity to millions of people, as well as supporting numerous farmers and ranchers that are growing vegetables and raising animals the right way.”
Gefen herself also doesn’t worry about the negative perception, but instead agrees it’s all about impact.
“If you’re in a restaurant, you make a difference in 100 to 300 people an evening if all of them are happy campers, and that’s it,” she said. “But if you work for a Unilever and make good products, you easily impact millions of people at a time.”
Plus the transition allowed her one thing the restaurant industry did not: balance - and holidays off, Gefen joked. And for now, she’s happy to stay put and keep learning.
“This job combines many aspects of what I like as a human being. I always liked marketing when I was a kid; I love the science behind food; and I have access to the labs and everything around that. And, I obviously love cooking. So for me, working in it is just an intersection of many, many things that I find fascinating in the culinary world.”