Wolfgang Puck

Wolfgang Puck

Chef and Restauranteur | Wolfgang Puck Fine Dining Group

Industry
Restaurant

Location
Los Angeles


Featured In
CSQ Q3 2019, Proprietor’s Profile 

Wolfgang Puck: The Culinary Icon Shares His Restaurant Strategy to Help Businesses Rebound

Perhaps no other chef is more widely associated with LA’s fine dining scene than Wolfgang Puck, who has been a leader since he came to the city in 1975 and made his mark at Ma Maison. His restaurant Spago has been a beacon of quality and service since it opened in 1982 and has allowed Puck to expand the brand to offer a total of 25 fine dining restaurants in 12 cities in six countries around the world, as well as offering renowned catering—he’s been in charge of the Governor’s Ball for the Oscar’s for more than 20 years—and a product line that includes everything from cookbooks to cook wear. In all, his restaurant empire and product sales totaled more than $400M last year.

What are your biggest business concerns surrounding COVID-19? 

For our restaurants, the overall concern is that we don’t know when we’ll be seeing the light at the end of the tunnel to know exactly how we can go forward afterwards. I think it will be at least another month or six weeks before we have an idea of that. It won’t be business as usual though. I think people will be scared to go to restaurants afterwards, and we’ll have to assure the public that they’re in a safe place. 

The next biggest concern after that is how to stimulate the economy. The best thing we can do to help restaurants is to go to back to allowing meals to be a tax deduction for business entertaining expenses. That encourages people to go out and frequent more restaurants, which employs more people. After the government, the restaurant industry is the biggest employer in the country. 

The lobster at Chinois on Main, which is currently open for takeout.

What is your current business strategy for dealing with the situation? 

We started closing our restaurants three weeks ago, and we’re doing takeout from a few of them: Spago, Chinois on Main, and at the Hotel Bel-Air. For us, that’s a way to stay positive, and it also allows some of my staff to come to work and make money. Sitting at home glued to the television can be a scary way to spend this time. 

We have retained all of our staff so far. They’ve all been paid, and we’re hoping to get government assistance by the middle of the month to help keep them employed.

It’s worrisome to think about reopening though. How many people will we end up needing? January and February were great months for us. Now, if we have to operate at 50% capacity and space tables six feet apart, we won’t need the same amount of staff. Evening running on neutral, and not making or losing any money, that is difficult. 

Thomas Keller, Daniel Boulud, and I talked to the President about going back to allowing business entertaining at restaurants to be a tax deduction, because we think it will be the best way to give the industry a boost. It’s not just restaurants that it affects too, it trickles down to the farmers, the fishermen, the distributors…There are about 15 million people in the country who work in the restaurant industry and about another 5 million people who are indirectly involved. 

Right now, we’re offering farmer’s boxes of fresh produce and herbs for curbside pickup at Spago. Those are great for our farmers and also help people to cook at home. Every night I use the fresh mint and lemon in tea, we’ll make a salad with the arugula, and we’ll use the other vegetables to make a soup. My son Oliver is getting very tired of peeling carrots. 

The farmer’s market box offered at Spago.

We also offered a Passover takeout dinner, which sold out and was great business for us. But that’s just one single day. We’re only able to do the takeout at three of our 20 restaurants, and there’s nothing we can do overseas in locations like London and Singapore. 

But in Los Angeles, I think it’s nice for our regular customers, who are tired of cooking at home, to be able to call up and get something familiar. The other day, Norman Lear called and said he was craving the Chinois catfish and lobster. It’s not just the food itself, it’s the memories those meals are tied to.  

We’re offering the regular menu for takeout at Chinois, but at Spago, we’re doing a family meal, where for $59/person, you can get a soup, pizza, salad, main course fish or meat, and dessert. There’s a generous portion too, because it’s always nice to have leftovers. 

Spago in Beverly Hills is offering curb-side pickup dinners for $59.

How do you think things will look in your industry a year from now? 

In our industry, we all have to look at how we’ll get out of this and run at 50% of less, if we need to. Those will be some tough decisions. You don’t want to go out of business while the economy is getting slowly better. Hopefully, the government will be helpful in keeping people in jobs. We as operators have to figure out how to run a business together. Maybe there’s still a bigger business to have afterwards, but until there’s more testing or a vaccine, people are still going to be nervous about going out. 

We have retained all of our staff so far. They’ve all been paid, and we’re hoping to get government assistance by the middle of the month to help keep them employed.

What have you learned from other difficult times in the past? 

In 2008, business went down a lot, especially Las Vegas, which relied on so many events and conventions, all of which had gotten cancelled. I was also doing the Home Shopping Network and selling kitchen supplies and equipment, which people weren’t investing in. While business went down, you could look ahead and know that in six months there would be a way out. We don’t have that here though, and that’s scary. 

Wolfgang Puck cooking at Spago in Beverly Hills.

Safe–and entertained–at Home: What business leaders are doing with their downtime 

 

Morning routine?
I haven’t changed much. I start the day with an espresso, which is always important. Then, I read the newspapers and have breakfast. I’ve taught my son Oliver to cook sunny-side-up eggs with cracked pepper and vinegar. Then, I go to the office. I still check in every day at Hotel Bel-Air, Spago, and Chinois on Main, mainly to encourage my staff and let them know it will get better. 

Currently binging?
I don’t understand the tiger TV show. So boring. I don’t know why everyone is so excited. I turned it off after one episode. 

Currently reading?
I’m reading a book called Delicioso A History of Food in Spain, which is about how the different kingdoms arose in Spain, what they ate, the agricultural changes…I just got a few more delivered too: Front Row at the Trump Show, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, and MBS: The Rise to Power of Mohammed bin Salman. 

I also really enjoy reading Cook’s Illustrated for their interesting stories.

What are you doing to spend quality time with those you’re sheltering with?
I get to spend more time with my kids, although they prefer to play games online with their friends all night. My son Oliver is 14 and doesn’t sleep until wee hours. I woke up to have breakfast the other day and saw French fries all over the kitchen floor. He had pulled out the air fryer and made French fries at 2am. 

What are you doing to stay healthy mentally and physically?
I have a little gym in my house, and I do the elliptical and weights. I work out in the morning, and it helps me feel good all day, even if it’s just something as simple as pushups and sit-ups. I’m also trying not to overeat in quantity. I’m tasting things like wiener schnitzel, short ribs, and meatloaf all day, but I’m not overdoing it.  

Where are you dreaming of visiting once things are back to normal?
We are going to have to travel to all of our restaurants worldwide. The first one might be Spago in Maui at the Four Seasons. We just remodeled it in November. Then, maybe London, Istanbul, and Bahrain. 


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