Chef-Driven Retail Diversifies Revenue
These chefs are embracing entrepreneurialism with product lines.
ICE alumni diversify restaurant, bakery and private chef revenue with retail products from pasta sauce to spice blends to frozen cookies.
Being a chef often means being an entrepreneur, from balancing a restaurant’s P&L to marketing a concept to exploring diverse revenue streams. Profitable chefs are enterprising. Successful chefs can share similar characteristics with entrepreneurs in other fields: motivation, vision, resilience, drive and passion.
When it comes to the culinary arts, a passion for food can take many forms.
As we witnessed over the last year when chefs weren’t able to serve guests in their restaurant dining rooms, many were figuring out how to share their creativity with customers in their home kitchens. Chefs and restaurateurs re-examined their business models and discovered new ways to earn revenue with their culinary skills. Case in point: A recent dinner at home experience from Chef Michael Cimarusti’s Connie & Ted’s left me with a deli pint container of pastry-chef prepared chocolate chip cookie dough that lasted far beyond one night’s takeout. (And, may have me hooked forever).
Many chefs leaned into socially distanced dining by pivoting their business models to delivery and takeout, which included pantry items, farmers market provisions, baked goods, DIY meal kits and chef-led product lines.
In New York, ICE alum Missy Robbins (Culinary, '95) launched Misipasta and MP Grocery with DIY pasta kits, sauces and pantry favorites, like jarred marinated grilled artichokes and fennel pollen, under the umbrella MP Specialties. The chef told New York Magazine that she had always been enamored by the old-school Italian alimentari and pasta shops and had hoped of opening a shop of her own. Though the timing wasn’t right before, the moment became ripe in 2020.
Chef Missy joins the ranks of chefs Mei Lin, Melissa King and Stephanie Izard who all leaned into retail during 2020. Though Chef Stephanie began This Little Goat as a companion business to her Chicago restaurant, Girl and the Goat, in 2017, the demand for at-home, prepared food grew over the last year and led her to visualize the side business as a brand. Her products — globally inspired sauces, spices and everything crunches — are now available nationwide.
Likewise, this week, Levain Bakery's famous cookies rolled out to Whole Foods' frozen food aisles. Founded by ICE alum Connie McDonald (Culinary, '93) and business partner Pam Weekes, the bakery has eight locations and diversifies revenue with delivery and nationwide shipping. (The co-founders are speaking to ICE students about their entrepreneurialism on May 5!)
Fellow pastry chef Christina Tosi announced plans to bring her whimsical desserts to grocery stores in February 2019, her product launch in 2020 was well-timed. Milk Bar's packaged cookies and truffled crumb cakes arrived at Target stores nationwide last year while her former partner in Momofuku, Chef David Chang, also explored retail. When he paused LA’s Majordomo last year and closed Momofuku in D.C., he and his team shifted focus to the grocery aisle launching a line of umami-rich seasonings and restaurant-grade soy and tamari sauces, which are sold on their website. The Chili Crunch blends three kinds of Mexican chili, crunchy garlic, sesame seeds, shallots and oil, resembling a condiment formerly served at Momofuku Ssäm Bar in New York’s East Village. The restaurant group has now also teamed up with Sun Noodle to develop an at-home ramen noodle for the masses that is available at Whole Foods.
Momofuku isn’t the only restaurant group extending their beloved flavors to the grocery aisle.
Major Food Group, the team behind Carbone, Dirty French, The Grill, Parm and Sadelle’s, released a collection of jarred pasta sauce under the brand Carbone in March. "The challenge was to create a product that would not only cut down cooking time but also truly deliver on the promise of unequaled flavor, and we can now say that that's exactly what we've done," Chef Mario Carbone said.
ICE alum Madison Rowland (Culinary/Management, '20) debuted retail in May 2020. “I decided to launch a spice line because I always enjoyed blending my own spices and playing with different mixtures when I cook,” Madison said. “What I love most about cooking is that I get to provide people with delicious meals. So by making my personal spice blends available to everyone, I am able to provide delicious meals for people, just in a different way.”
Her idea to offer spice blends germinated before the pandemic, but the timing proved ideal to expand her breadth of offerings as a private chef. “Since I don’t have a restaurant, it is nearly impossible for me to offer takeout,” she explained. “With the seasonings, I am able to earn extra income and at the same time still be able to provide people with tasty meals as if I were cooking for them.”
With both Culinary Arts and Restaurant & Culinary Management diplomas under her belt, Madison fully embraces entrepreneurialism as a private chef.
“It’s important for chefs to diversify,” she said. “By offering multiple products and services, I am able to expand my clientele from only those who want a private chef to those who love to cook and don’t need or want a chef. Like any other entrepreneur, it is important to offer more than one service so you can have a larger customer base.”
Madison offers her spice line primarily online via chefmadi.com. Her plan, however, is to grow her product line and add a slew of new offerings like jams, spreads, infused oils and specialty sauces to bring even more of her passion to consumers’ plates.