Over the past few years, established chains have turned to chefs to add a dose of authenticity to their menus and a refresh to their brands. A chef and chain partnership adds value but should be only one part of a brand's reinvigoration.
— Gloria Dawson
Diners want to know where their food came from and who cooked it. And not just at high-end establishments. Chains have increasingly brought transparency to their menus and noted the origins of their ingredients, and now they are harnessing the allure of real chefs to add credibility and creativity to their dishes.
In September, Chipotle announced a partnership between Richard Blais, the celebrity chef and former Top Chef contestant, and Tasty Made, the company’s burger concept. Blais will lead menu enhancements, according to the company. But tapping into his experience running his own fast casual concept, Crack Shack, might be beneficial to the company too. Chipotle has had difficulties expanding its business model beyond burritos. Tasty Made still has only one location, in Lancaster, Ohio, more than a year after the concept’s launch.
Chipotle would be smart to utilize more than just the chef’s name, according to Stephen Zagor, the dean of culinary business and industry studies at The Institute of Culinary Education. In his experience negotiating contracts for these types of relationships, he has seen everything from restaurants merely optioning a chef’s name, to contracts that require chefs to visit locations and oversee staff in addition to researching and developing recipes. Tasty Made’s new menu rolled out in early December, and Blais was on hand to greet guests and explain the changes, according to this thorough Yelp review.
At Holler & Dash, the biscuit-based fast casual concept from Cracker Barrel, with locations in a handful of states in the South and Southeast, they took a two-pronged approach to chef partnerships. Jason McConnell, the chef and owner of Tennessee restaurants including The Red Pony and Cork & Cow, worked on the original biscuit recipes. The company then brought on a younger chef, Brandon Frohne a winner of Tennessee Hospitality & Tourism Association’s “Chef of the Year” award in 2015, to operationalize the menu. Frohne can be found training staff and making appearances at Holler & Dash locations. The company features both chefs on their menus and website.
“People say they really want to know where their food is coming from,” Mike Chissler, COO of Holler & Dash said. “They want to know that there was someone behind the scenes that was making their food, and it wasn’t pushed out by a factory.”
The chef and chain trend has spread outside of traditional restaurants as consumers look for authentic meals wherever they dine. And last year, the truck stop chain Pilot Flying J partnered with chef Tim Love to offer fresh, packaged, to-go meals.
Tim Love is known for his urban western cuisine throughout the country but he is particularly established in Southern states where many of Pilot Flying J locations are based. This partnership has a chance to elevate the status of Pilot Flying J and expand Love’s reach as a chef. The collaboration is new, but, “based on all of the testing with consumers to date, the response has been strong,” Shannon Johnson, VP of foodservice innovation at Pilot Flying J wrote in an email.
When they’re done right Zagor sees a real benefit to chains and chefs working together, and it doesn’t really matter if customers are familiar with a particular chef, he said. And he estimates very few customers will recognize the names of even so-called “celebrity” chefs anyway. While he’s a champion of the trend, he cautions that adding a chef can only do so much to reinvigorate a concept. “I would not go so far as to change an entire business based upon adapting a chef that very few people have heard of.”
But he said, just having a named chef can add “authorship” and “prestige” and “a little more of a story” to the menu. “It creates a little more emotional bonding with the guests, which is what we like.”