Why celebrity names stack up in the restaurant business

 —  Article by Natasha Stokes
Jamie's Italian restaurant in Bristol, UK
Image credit: Shutterstock

From Jamie Oliver to Jon Bon Jovi, celebrity names are a familiar sight in the restaurant business.

Professional cooks who have found fame on TV shows often go on to open their own restaurants, while other celebrity-fronted eateries are launched by gastronomy-loving movie and music stars.

“The popularity of food and cooking on TV and across social media has created generations of celebrity chefs who are firmly in the public consciousness,” Ian Hanlon, Director at JLL Foodservice Consulting, says. “Building a media brand is increasingly the route for a chef to open a restaurant.”

Chef and Great British Bakeoff judge Paul Hollywood recently opened his Knead coffee shop and bakery at Euston station, which will be the first of many to launch in national transport hubs. Carluccio’s, the affordable UK restaurant-deli concept, is backed up by the homely brand image of Italian chef Antonio Carluccio.

“A celebrity chef name gives users a reassuring ‘quality stamp’ of what to expect – good ingredients and a menu that has been designed with love and passion,” Hanlon notes. “While an endorsement from a film star is still attractive to consumers, there is a distinction from an endorsement from a celebrity chef name, which is associated with their expertise in cuisine and operations.”

Beyond the food

In the competitive restaurant industry, the hype surrounding a big-name chef can be a deciding factor for diners. Celebrity chefs such as Oliver and Gordon Ramsay have strong, carefully crafted brands that espouse not just good food, but the culinary and lifestyle values held by the chefs themselves.

“The involvement of celebrity chef names is an advanced form of branding for restaurants – and like any good brand, there’s a huge amount of consumer buy-in for celebrity chefs and what they stand for,” Hanlon says.

Oliver, who heads a media empire that includes cookbooks, a website and a hugely popular YouTube channel, as well his global restaurant business, is well-known for championing healthier school food and accessible home cooking via TV shows and documentaries.

“Many consumers have grown up with him on their TV screens and they know the Jamie brand – and they visit restaurants for an experience that involves quality ingredients and his particular quirkiness,” says Hanlon.

Celebrity-fronted eateries can also be a means for their famous founders to contribute to causes they believe in. Actor Hugh Jackman opened a New York City coffee shop dedicated to support coffee farmers in developing countries, while rocker Jon Bon Jovi and his wife operate two volunteer-run communal restaurants that serves diner on a pay-what-you-can scale. In the UK, Oliver’s two outposts of his restaurant Fifteen are run as non-profit enterprises that train unemployed young people.

Celebrity chefs create – and meet – demand

With 24-hour TV channels such as Food Network dedicated to professional cooking and a growing number of chefs with an active social media presence, the celebrity chef phenomenon shows no sign of slowing down.

“Consumers are now highly savvy about food trends and the restaurant industry itself – whether a restaurant focuses on local ingredient sourcing, and how much of an environmental impact particular restaurants have,” Hanlon says. “Restaurants have to up their game in order to meet these expectations.”

Where restaurant outings were once more about the social aspect, today it’s far more about the food; restaurant-goers frequently take pictures of good-looking meals to post on Instagram and people travel globally for specific restaurants. “At celebrity-branded restaurants, people assume that the quality of food and service will be good – for a lot of guests, the differentiating aspect is the quality of the dining experience, which is down to the brand and how it’s reflected in the design, operations and ambience of the restaurant,” says Hanlon.

Replicating the brand can often be a challenge when it comes to a restaurant expanding. Consumers’ appreciation of the Jamie Oliver brand experience is reflected in successful replication of its flagship restaurant Jamie’s Italian in 20 countries – but its parent company recently bought back its six Australian outposts of Jamie’s Italian after the operating company collapsed.

“Finding the right operating partner is key in order to maintain brand standards,” Hanlon says. “If anything goes wrong, it reflects on the mothership – and on social media, one piece of bad press can spread globally in a matter of seconds.”

The future of celebrity food

For consumers, the familiar name of a celebrity chef can be a gateway to new cuisines. Chef, food writer and recent MasterChef Australia judge Yotam Ottolenghi is the co-owner of five restaurants and delis in London that have spearheaded modern food trends for Lebanese cuisine and ingredients.

“Today’s consumers are keen to try new foods and flavours, especially if they tie in with the focus on healthy eating,” Hanlon says. “In five, ten years, the most popular restaurants will have moved away from traditional European cuisines as today’s niche or unique cuisines become more mainstream and people experiment further.”

And the next generation of chefs are already honing both their cooking and media skills to feed this appetite for new food experiences. For future restaurateurs with big ambitions, it’s as much about the brand as it is about the food.

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