Jeff Lotman has tried for years to get to Nobuyuki Matsuhisa to license his name. “I don’t believe in ‘no,’” the brand-licensing executive says. “I only believe in ‘No, right now.’ I have chased people for years before they’ve said yes. Chefs are often afraid they can’t get control. They can.”
Where Matsuhisa, the world-renowned chef behind Nobu, has refrained, other household-name chefs have done the opposite, signing over their names to restaurant operators, manufacturers, and retailers, lending their image to everything from sauces (Bobby Flay) to spatulas (Alton Brown), chilled ready-made meals (Jamie Oliver) to pressure ovens (Wolfgang Puck), knife sets (Rachael Ray) to K-cups (Emeril Lagasse).
Lotman, the founder and CEO of Global Icons, a Los Angeles-based licensing agency, has been consulting and acting as a middleman in the business of branded goods and services since the early aughts. His agency works more closely now with corporate rather than personal brands, but he remains an opportunistic observer of the market.
The reasoning, as Lotman explains it, is simple: “Ribs I might not buy, but Bobby Flay ribs, yes, I would pick those up.” Flay is as good an archetype of the multi-interest celebrity chef as any, his empire comprising five restaurants — one of them, Bobby’s Burger Palace, is a nine-year-old chain — 11 cookbooks, and a line of sauces and rubs for meat. Flay has been in the eye of the American public since 1994, and a TV regular since 1996.
“You need profile,” according to Lotman. “No matter how great the chef is, if I haven’t heard if him, I won’t buy. Once you have that profile, you, as the licensor or brand owner, are in the stronger position.”
According to Lotman, one of the biggest growth areas for chefs and culinary personalities recently has been in restaurant licensing. “Restaurants have learned that consumers see this as a good thing,” he says. “It makes them feel good about a restaurant, it drives them back. Fifteen years ago, there were three restaurant brands bearing people’s names. Now, there are about 80.”
Delivered meal kits lately popularized by companies like Plated and Blue Apron represent another possible conduit for celebrity chefs’ brands, says Lotman, pointing out the logic behind an alliance that grants a chef custody over ingredients as well as recipe and instruction. Chefs like Dominique Crenn and Fabio Viviani have signed on to curate meals with Chef’d, a meal kit company based in Southern California, but straightforward name licenses where chefs have even less responsibility are also on the table. “There may be one or two such licensing deals being negotiated behind the scenes,” Lotman says.