The famed chef and restaurateur Wolfgang Puck of Spago in Hollywood reveals how he built his culinary empire
CALIFORNIA FRESH Puck was among the first to popularize pizza made with locally grown ingredients -- even figs.
Wolfgang Puck's accent is Austrian, and his culinary bent ranges from Italian to Asian, but Puck's business style is pure American entrepreneur. From his start as a 14-year-old apprentice in his native Austria, Puck has built a restaurant, frozen-food, and high-end kitchenware empire. He is most famously known for Spago, his pizzeria to the stars, which opened on Sunset Boulevard in 1982. But that was just the beginning. Today, his 16 restaurants and more than 80 express bistros stretch from New York to Maui.
My mother was a hotel chef in the small town where I grew up in Austria. My dad was a coal miner and a boxer. I always hung out in the kitchen with my mom. I quit school when I was 14 and got a job as a cooking apprentice at a hotel. When I told my father, he said, "Well, you're good for nothing. Cooking is for women."
By 18, I decided I wanted to move to France. I wrote letter after letter to all the two- and three-star restaurants until Raymond Thuilier, the owner of Provence's famous Baumanière, hired me. He didn't pay me for three months. I finally told him I had to leave, because I was broke, but he said, "No, I like you!" He started paying me, and he is the reason I decided to become a chef. He was my mentor: town mayor, painter, and a great chef who cooked from the heart without recipes -- a real Renaissance man.
In 1975, I moved to Los Angeles to be a chef at a restaurant owned by a company with French restaurants scattered across the country. But I didn't like the manager. One day, he wrote a menu and said, "Cook it." I said, "You wrote it; you cook it." And I left.
When my first paycheck bounced at my new job, at Ma Maison, I talked to the owner, who offered me 10 percent of the restaurant and said, "If we do better, you will, too." We started to make money; famous people started showing up. When I found this location on Sunset, I said to him, "Let's do an Italian-style trattoria." He said, "I want 51 percent." I took the lease myself the next day and gave three months' notice. He told me to leave right away. That was in 1981.
I was 33 when I opened Spago, in January 1982. I used fresh goat cheese, arugula, sun-dried tomatoes. A farmer in Sonoma raised lambs for me. I served melon and white corn only in July and picked the day before. Other restaurants served good food, but their waiters wore stuffy black ties. Ours wore shirts and aprons. I worked the grill every night, and I loved it. The night Billy Wilder showed up with Sidney Poitier, Jack Lemmon, and Walter Matthau, I knew I made it.
I opened Chinois -- all French Asian -- in Santa Monica, in 1983, followed by Postrio -- all Italian -- in San Francisco, in 1989.
Johnny Carson used to come to Spago and take home 10 pizzas. One day, I said, "Johnny, are you having a party?" He said, "No, I put them in my freezer and then pop them in the oven for dinner." I thought, How can you do that to my pizza? Then I tried it -- it wasn't bad. I met people from Gelson's, a supermarket chain, and we built frozen pizzas into a multimillion-dollar business before selling to ConAgra. We later bought back the license and now work with a new partner.
Licensing and cafés cost me a lot of money and time. In the '80s, I hired somebody from Harvard Business School who made a business model and spreadsheets for everything. He kept saying, "In three years, we're going to be a billion-dollar company." Suddenly, we had an office, which cost $700,000 a year, before we had business. I couldn't sleep for six months, because I wasn't adhering to my principle: Make more money than you spend. So, I took back control and focused our efforts on Wolfgang Puck Express, now in more than 80 locations, mostly in airports.
We started catering in the '80s, but when we did the first post-Oscars Governor's Ball, in 1995, we got a lot of publicity. Today, we have the fastest-growing catering company in the U.S. This year, I'm sure we'll do more than $100 million.
Merchandising is where I make the most money for the least effort. We started on QVC, but they weren't really nice to me, so I said, screw them. We took our products -- knives, cookware, and my cookbooks -- to the Home Shopping Network. Now, I go to Tampa six times a year to do 16 hours of live television each visit. It's grueling work, but it's worthwhile -- a $60 million business. To make that with the restaurants, I need 1,200 people. Here, we need 20.
Success for me has always been focusing on the product first, the money second, whether that is a can of soup, a frying pan, or a restaurant. A lot of restaurants make more money than we do for three years and then go out of business. My philosophy is, Grow very slowly. We have 16 restaurants -- in places like Las Vegas, Dallas, and Washington. I don't want to fly from Delhi to Tokyo to Paris if my life isn't getting better as a result. I did open restaurants in Maui and Vail, because I can bring my kids, have a good time, and still do my job.
I'm really proud that Spago and Chinois are still doing really well 27 years later. I thank my clientele for that, but people are fickle. You have to be careful not to overdo it with some and underdo it with others. If I see a movie star come in, I don't run to that table. I will stop by as they're ready to leave. Someone once said to me, "I've been watching you. Why did you go to David Beckham's and Tom Cruise's table last?" Most of the chefs and restaurant people fawn over celebrities. But they just want to be left alone, while the other customers, who are your regulars, will take note -- Wolfgang said hello to me before Tom Cruise.