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Celebrity Chefs

Future Foodies of America

Future Foodies of America

A few weeks ago I went to visit two of my friends from college who are now married with a young daughter.  I’ve known them both for many years and one of our shared passions has always been food and cooking. Obviously since having a kid, many things in their life have changed and their apartment has been taken over by baby-phanalia. But, looking around their living room with its mini chrome “play kitchen” (including play fruit and vegetables and pots/pans) and an entire bookshelf dedicated to baby food cookbooks, I could see that their love of food has stayed the same.

The baby food industry has been steadily profitable because, well, people will always have babies. But it’s an industry that’s seen tremendous innovation and growth because of parents’ demands for increased convenience and desire for healthy ingredients. Several years ago Beech-Nut Nutrition, producer of packaged baby food, led a market research study that found that homemade purees (baby food made in people’s own kitchens) accounted for one third of total baby food consumed. Their explanation, according to this NYTimes article, was that baby food available for purchase in grocery stores wasn’t fulfilling parents’ needs so they were taking to making their own. And a recent market analyst by Technavio found that “...there is growing anxiety about the safety of the products consumers use, more so the food they consume. A preference for organic baby products stems from a concern for health and general well-being.” In response to these findings, Beech-Nut revamped their entire line of products to include organic purees and exotic ingredients such as pomegranate and quinoa. As a result of the shift towards organic, wholesome baby products, several new organic-based baby food lines also popped up in the market including Sprout, Ella’s Kitchen, and Plum Organics.

Packaging has also been a huge innovation in the baby food market. Pouches were introduced in the 2000s and have been the biggest driver in increased sales. Quality-wise, the food isn't really that different from the traditional jars but parents love them for the convenience factor. Think about how much easier it is to throw a little plastic pouch in your bag versus a glass jar. And no spoon is needed!

But updated packaging plus organic ingredients equals more expensive so some parents still prefer to create their own at home. And as more and more parents are making their own baby food, several companies have capitalized on this trend by inventing all-in-one baby food machines. Machines like Baby Bullet and Baby Brezza are marketed specifically to new parents and promise to steam/cook and puree ingredients in a minimal amount of time.

I’ve also noticed a really strong preference among my friends who are parents to raise “adventurous eaters.” As a result, parents are trying to introduce exotic flavors to their children when they’re very young. If you look the hundreds of baby food cookbooks, many try to go beyond the standard carrot and apple purees by incorporating unusual fruits or vegetables and several spices. My personal favorite I’ve seen is Little Foodie: Baby Food Recipes for Babies and Toddlers with Taste, which includes recipes for items such as pumpkin and thyme puree and apple, mint, and ricotta puree.

With increasing concerns about farming and produce and our general obsession with food, it’s no surprise that the global baby food market is forecasted to surpass $82 billion by 2022 and see tremendous growth in new products and packaging. I’m constantly shocked by the amount of stuff marketed to new parents and babies but with this predicted revenue growth, I wouldn’t be surprised if we see companies come up with new ways to appeal to new parents’ tastes. Perhaps soon you’ll visit your local grocery store and see an entire line of celebrity-chef inspired purees? Or maybe even a Blue Apron delivery service dedicated to cooking your own baby food?

- Cassie


To phone, or not to phone, that is the mealtime question...

To phone, or not to phone, that is the mealtime question...

A week or so ago a friend of mine sent me a video of Simon Sinek, an author and motivational speaker, discussing “The Millennial Question” (worth the time to watch). While Mr. Sinek brings up more than a handful of insightful, interesting, as well as disturbing points during the interview, I wanted to focus on one that directly impacts the culinary marketing business- mealtime. 

During the interview, Mr. Sinek talks about how living in a social media focused world impacts our ability to create deep, and meaningful relationships. He points out that dopamine is actually released into the body when we receive a text or a like during social media interactions; the same dopamine levels as when an alcoholic drinks or a gambler gambles.  This sudden chemical release is the root cause of physical addiction, which is why as a culture we are becoming more and more dependent on cellphones and social media.

How does this relate to the culinary world one might ask? Well, here is a question for you- If you go out to dinner, have a coffee with someone, or share some time at a table with family or friends, is your phone on the table? Do you take your phone out to look at texts or emails during a meal, instead of just being in the moment and actually enjoying your company? More than likely, if you are being honest with yourself, you answered yes (I know I did, but i'm working on changing my habits). Cellphones are changing mealtimes from a social experience to a social media one, which to Mr. Sinek’s point has a negative effect on relationships.

This has not gone without notice in the restaurant world, a few establishments have actually taken it upon themselves to try and shift behaviors, by offering guests incentives to put their phones away and focus on reconnecting with the people they are with. Most recently, Chick-fil-A created a Family Challenge, offering families free dessert if they put their phones in a cell phone “coop” for their entire meal.  Kudo’s to Chick-Fil-A for taking a proactive stance on this issue and actually coming up with a great incentive to keep people off their phones during mealtime.

So the question is, if we know we are a culture addicted to technology, what do we do and how does this change the way we, as marketers, look at mealtime?  How can brands play a role in helping to bring people and families back together over the dinner table? Will there be new apps/technology that help to do this (yes, I know that’s somewhat counter intuitive)? Or will we see more restaurants using incentives as a tactic?

Whatever the solution may be, mealtime is where relationships are built, memories are formed and lessons are learned, so please make the effort to put the phone down and enjoy the company you are with!

- Lonny Sweet, CEO

First Class Dining

First Class Dining

I recently had a lot of time to kill at the Chicago O’Hare restaurant and while I would normally sit at a bar near my gate and enjoy one (ok fine, probably two) martinis, I instead decided check out the new Publican Tavern by One Off Hospitality in Terminal 3. As I looked around the restaurant with it’s dark wood tables and dim lighting while enjoying my Little Gem salad with buttermilk vinaigrette on a vintage-printed plate, I actually forgot for a moment that I was sitting in an airport.

With the rise in U.S. domestic travel, up 3.3 percent from 2014 to nearly 2.2 billion trips in 2015, there are more people than ever traveling through airports. And these guests are a captive audience with people spending an average of 75 minutes at large airports (sometimes even more if their flight is delayed). So airports are answering travelers’ desire for great food with fresh, new restaurants, some with a celebrity chef attached. Gone are the days of plastic-wrapped sandwiches and salads. For example, Newark airport has been rolling out upgrades their Terminal C restaurants including concepts by Chefs Dale Talde, Alex Stupak, and Maria Carbone. So far, it appears that the elevated food & beverage programs in airports have certainly paid off. In 2013, U.S. airports generated $587 million from food and beverage sales alone. For airports, putting more focus on culinary is a smart strategy. There’s the obvious overall increased revenue but also, since the airport is the first and last experience of a traveler’s trip, it’s the best place to make a lasting, positive impression.

Airports aren’t the only ones in the travel industry working with celebrity chefs. The reputation of the food on board flights in the past has never been very high with rubbery chicken, soggy pasta, or grey-colored beef. In order to overcome this stereotype, a lot of major airlines created menu consulting partnerships with chefs like Michelle Bernstein for Delta or Alfred Portale for Singapore Airlines. Even though their food is mostly reserved for business or first class, airlines are paying more attention to their on board menus because it brings more value to their brand and increases the overall customer experience.

The Future of Food Festivals

Food festivals are hugely popular. Anyone willing to buy a ticket is granted access to an array of popular chefs, myriad cuisines, new flavors, learning sessions by renowned experts, etc. It’s a feast (literally) for the senses and brings together a concentrated group of like-minded consumers for at least two jam-packed days of indulgence. So, it would follow, that food festivals are also ideal places for brands to be present and show alignment with top talent, the latest trends and the early adopters who attend to seek out the hottest new flavors or experiences.   

But for consumers, is the high ticket cost worth the experience when all is said and done? Did they actually get to see their favorite culinary personalities? Did they try foods or beverages that were truly forward-thinking? Did they learn something new about the culinary world?

And, with the growing popularity of food festivals, comes overcrowding – both by attendees and brand sponsors clamoring for a piece of the attention. At a certain point, it stands to reason that brands would begin to wonder whether their high sponsorship cost is worth the 10’ x 10’ space they’re provided in one of the dozens of rows of tables that fill a foot-ball-field-sized tasting tent packed to the brim with ticket holders aimlessly grazing from sample to sample, without actually stopping to discern one bite, chef, restaurant, sponsor or booze brand from the next.

So as both brand marketing consultants and chef talent mangers, we have two challenges to consider:

  1. How can festivals improve the attendee experience so that they feel the high cost of their ticket is worth the experience?
  2. How can we ensure our brand sponsors are setting up activations unique enough to break through the clutter and stand apart from the rest?

These aren’t necessarily questions we have immediate answers for but we are constantly talking through various, creative, never-before-considered ways to work within the common festival structure to ensure our clients are achieving their goals and walking away feeling confident about their sponsorship ROI.

Food festivals have come pretty far, and they really do open up the culinary world for everyone to access. But when we try to be all things to all people, or slot in a sponsor or restaurant brand to satisfy every single palate, we move too far away from what these festivals are really about: Targeting true food enthusiasts and making high-quality, flavorful foods approachable for those who are curious to experience them.

There are myriad questions we should be asking about the festival format and whether it’s working as well as it can. And it may be! Or, when it comes to the sponsor experience, maybe it’s time to rethink things entirely. Tasting tents are hot, sweaty and exhausting for chefs and brands alike. The effort may not be worth the minimal and hard-to-track impact they’re making with potential new customers. But, what if there was a more intimate way to connect with early adopters or influencers? What if we could curate food shows for proven food enthusiasts by working with companies like OpenTable or Yelp to gather data around the most discerning and influential food-connected consumers?

Or, is it time to consider incorporating large-scale wow-factor food experiences into existing music or sporting events like Coachella or the PGA Tour? We already know customers are more likely to attend an event if high-quality food (or their favorite chef) will be present. So should we move away from food-only festivals and consider combining them with other aspects of pop-culture? Consumers aren’t one-dimensional, so perhaps our activations shouldn’t be either.

These are the questions we are constantly asking of ourselves and of our industry. At The Connect Group, brand and consumer experience is always top-of-mind. Our ideas are unique because we understand that each brand has a different story to tell and a different potential customer to reach. And the ways those customers connect to food, or through food, are vastly varied and different. It’s our job to understand these differences, but at the end of the day, the commonality is that everyone eats. Everyone is food-connected and can be reached through that lens.

We continue to push boundaries, ask questions and collaborate with our festival, brand and chef partners to brainstorm bigger, better approaches with the goal of one day completely revolutionizing this industry – program by program, sip by sip and bite by bite.  

Savory is the New Black

Savory is the New Black

We just wrapped up Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week here in New York City and while fashion doesn’t exactly scream “food and eating” (cue the “models don’t eat” jokes), the culinary and fashion industries have a lot more in common than one would think.

The culinary world, much like fashion, is driven by seasons and trends. Chefs becoming obsessed with using liquid nitrogen or exotic foraged ingredients one year is analogous to fashion designers basing their entire season’s collection on a color or theme. Considering both the fashion and food worlds measure success with retail/purchases, it makes sense that they both rely on trends to influence customers’ desires to continuously make new purchases. In the words of Heidi Klum on Project Runway, “In fashion, one day you're in and the next you're out."

Because the culinary and fashion are industries that are always evolving, it pushes people to experiment and innovate, causing the same short bursts of hype and media attention. Think of Dominique Ansel’s cronut or David Chang’s bleeding veggie burger: food items that exploded in the media and are so popular that people line up around the block for hours just to taste one. The same media/consumer frenzy can be found in fashion. Remember the years-long waiting list for the Hermes Berkin bag?

There is also a level of luxury and “must-have” appeal that comes with pursuing the finest food, not all that dissimilar to getting your hands on the hottest $3,000 handbag. A twenty-plus course dinner at Per Se will set you back well over a thousand dollars for two people and a reservation is so hard to come by that you’re lucky to secure one several months in advance. Even though Per Se has been open for years now, it continues to be one of the most difficult tables to get because people desire the status and bragging rights of simply saying they’ve eaten there.

These obvious parallels between the fashion and the food world have also produced some delicious (pun intended) collaborations. Supermodel Karlie Kloss is such an avid baker that she decided to join forces with Pastry Chef Christina Tosi of Momofuku Milk Bar to produce her own line of cookies. One of the best-selling cookbooks last year wasn’t written by a world-renowed chef, but rather Sports Illustrated supermodel Chrissy Teigen.

But what I’ve found the most interesting while working at The Connect Group are the creative ways the fashion world is incorporating culinary into its own marketing efforts. For example, a few months ago when Louis Vuitton announced its first perfume, the company asked Chef Marc Forgione to create a tasting menu for their media launch event that incorporated fragrance notes from the perfume into each of his dishes. I think we’re seeing this constant evolution and dovetailing between the two industries because there’s one thing that really will never go out of style: good food.

Cassandre Pallas


Food is the New Golf???

There was a really great article in the Wall Street Journal last week discussing how some real estate companies are turning to food festivals as an outlet to prospect customers and sell properties.  

“Food and Wine is the new Golf”, a broker in the article was quoted. 

The article continues on about how real estate companies are using food festivals, dinners parties, celebrity chefs and other epicurean events to tap into more affluent, cosmopolitan and community based audiences. 

As a culinary marketing agency, we talk about how food connected audiences (think foodie 2.0) are an important target for brands on a daily basis, but to see it so clearly written in the WSJ is an important step in the evolution of the culinary marketing industry. 

More often than not its assumed our agency works primarily with food and drinks brands.  While we certainly do our fair share of partnerships in those categories, the non-endemic brands are now becoming a bulk of our business and where the growth will come.  Traditional brand categories such as auto, financial services, insurance, wireless, technology, travel/tourism and hotels are utilizing elevated food & drink experiences as a hospitality platform AND building comprehensive strategies to speak to this highly coveted consumer. 

While I love the quote “Food & Wine is the New Golf”, I believe the influence, reach and power of culinary marketing has the potential to be far stronger than golf ever can be on its own.  #everyoneeats

Lonny Sweet

Fine-Dining Chef, Fast-Casual Food

For the last few months The Connect Group has been helping Chef Marc Forgione open Lobster Press at the new Oculus in the World Trade Center.  This will be our second location of Marc’s fast casual concept and it’s just one example of many strong chef-driven fast casual concepts, a trend that’s quickly on the rise. Our society’s obsession with all things epicurean has become more than a fad, it’s a part of our everyday lives. And so it’s a no-brainer for chefs and restaurateurs to concentrate on opening concepts that provide accessible, yet still high-quality, food to the masses.

Fine-dining restaurants receive the awards and the accolades but fast casual is the best category to scale because it reaches the most people. What Danny Meyer started as a burger stand in a Manhattan park has grown to 100 locations nationwide. Chicago Celebrity Chef Rick Bayless has Xoco, Tortas Frontera, and Frontera Fresco. “Top Chef” alums Richard Blais and Spike Mendelsohn have FLIP Burgers and Good Stuff Eatery, respectively. And even highly-respected groundbreaking Chef Jose Andres has his successfully healthy fast casual concept, Beefsteak. It’s about creating a new, exciting food at a lower price point. People want an acclaimed Chef’s food for under $20 but, with the explosion of “foodie” culture and people expanding their culinary horizons, they expect something more than a turkey sandwich, plain burrito or typical cheeseburger. It’s not only that fast casual concepts have the potential to reach more people but also more (and different) locations: airports, food halls, shopping malls, transportation centers, etc.

When the National Restaurant Association released it’s annual list of menu trends for 2016, chef-driven fast-casual concepts nabbed the #2 spot. With sales at fast-casual restaurants growing 11 percent in 2013 with total sales of over $173.8 billion dollars, this is not a trend I see dying down anytime soon and I’m excited to see what other concepts some of my favorite chefs will come up with.

Great articles on the rise of the chef-driven fast-casual concepts:

“Why Fine Dining Chefs Are Getting into the Chain Game” – Eater

“2016: Year of the Chef” – QSR Magazine

- Cassandre Pallas

Would you like an appetizer with that new car??

Would you like an appetizer with that new car??

Remember the days (like last year) when the only thing to eat or drink while shopping for a new car was vending machine chips and coffee that tastes more like motor oil than an organic roast.  Well, that may be changing…welcome to the new foodie world order. 

In recent months we have seen a Lexus Restaurant, The Cadillac House and BMW Restaurant, all taking advantage of the passionate food connected consumer to open up new lines to customers, by creating unique hospitality venues and restaurants.  And it’s not just the auto companies.  Retailers like Urban Outfitters recently partnered with multiple chefs to create restaurants inside their stores, Macy’s opened the new Chef Street at their Herald Square location (they also have a great food court in Chicago) and of course IKEA is famous not only for their hand-blistering do-it-yourself furniture, but their Swedish meatballs and cinnamon buns.

So what’s with combination of food & retail?  Well, we think it just kind of makes sense.  One thing we all have in common is the need to eat.  Some of us put more emphasis on the quality of the food or the experience of the meal, but retailers are creatively using the tools of culinary marketing to find ways to drive traffic, create buzz, elevate their customers experience and ultimately sell more goods.   

The indicators points towards more and more brands using culinary marketing as a powerful tool in the shed when building out their strategic marketing plans.  We live in a new world where it is hard to break through and even harder to connect emotionally with consumers, and because of that, food is an amazing tool to help tell a different story and connect on a deeper level with consumers.   

That’s the new foodie world order, and we love it!

- Lonny Sweet


To show off their product, Google Translate, Google partnered with 18 chefs, each representing a distinct global cuisine, to open a Pop-Up restaurant in New York City. This is another beautiful example of how food, which is something everyone all over the world appreciates, can be partnered with technology to create a really interesting experience:


A Chef, an Athlete and a fan walked into a room...

One of the things I love about working with Chefs which differentiates from my past experience representing sports personalities (athletes, coaches and broadcasters), is the way fans interact with my clients when they meet them.  When I used to be out and about or at an autograph signing in my sports days, the conversations athletes had with fans, typically went something like this:

Fan:  Oh my god, “insert athlete name here”, I can’t believe it’s actually you.  I am a huge fan, love the “insert team name here” and have been a fan my whole life.
Athlete: Thank you, it’s great to meet you.
Fan: If you don't mind, can I get a picture with you? My brother will be so jealous.
Athlete: Sure, no problem
Fan: Thank you so much – take picture/sign autograph – Really appreciate it, good luck the rest of the season.

Most of the time, fans are always super jazzed, but they don’t have real conversations with the athletes because, while people may aspire to be an athlete, 99.9% of the time, it’s simply not attainable.  This disconnect from reality leaves little common ground to have a real conversation.

Conversely, working with Celebrity Chefs, here is what a typical interaction may look like (if they are not meeting at the restaurant):

Fan: Oh my god, Chef, I can’t believe it’s actually you.  I am a huge fan and just recently ate at your restaurant, the halibut dish was AMAZING.
Chef: Thank you so much, really appreciate it.  It's great to meet you, glad you liked the halibut.   That's one of my favorite dishes on the menu.
Fan: Do you mind if we get a picture and have you sign your cookbook?  We have been cooking from this book for a while, it’s got some great recipes in it.  The stuffed chicken is our favorite one, our kids love it and we have actually gotten them into the kitchen helping us out. They love it because they feel like little chefs.
Chef: That’s the way I started, my parents would get me involved in the kitchen whenever they could and I fell in love with it from there. The parfait is great for kids as well, you should check it out.
Fan: Yeah, we love that one too, but to be honest, we have a really hard time getting it to come out the right way.
Chef: One little trick I left out of the cookbook is to leave it in the fridge to set an extra hour, try that, it should help. And regardless, just have fun with it, that’s the most important ingredient.
Fan: Awesome, thank you so much and really appreciate the picture, my brother is going to be so jealous.

Depending on who the Chef is, often times the fan is just as jazzed to see the Chef, as they are the athlete.  The main difference though is, while being an award-winning chef is still very aspirational, because cooking is something people do every day and they can try to cook the chef's own recipes, its feels attainable. That subtle difference of feeling like you can make a dish by your favorite TV chef, allows the fan to feel like they have more in common with the chef and therefore, a deeper connection and more topics to talk about. 

Is YouTube the New Food Network?

Is YouTube the New Food Network?

Have you ever heard of the YouTube culinary superstars Rosanna Pansino, Barry Lewis, or Harley Morenstein? No? Well you should start paying attention because they could be the next Rachael Ray, Bobby Flay, or Mario Batali.

Last year, Scripps Interactive, the company that owns a variety of television networks including Food Network and The Travel Channel, helped raise $25 million for Tastemade, a large network of culinary online video channels. And in an age where everything is increasingly shifting over to digital, that seems to be the right move. More and more Americans (including myself) are cancelling their cable subscriptions, instead relying on Apple TV, Roku, or YouTube to get their video/movies fix.

According to a New York Times article Sorted Food, a Cooking Channel, Is a YouTube Hit, “While still not as popular as comedy or gaming channels, which measure their audiences in tens of millions of subscribers, cooking and food is the fastest-growing genre on YouTube, according to Google.” This means that YouTube culinary stars have the potential to have just as powerful an audience reach as Food Network's top stars. In the same New York Times article it noted that "last year, YouTube’s top 20 cooking channels generated nearly 370 million views and more than doubled their subscribers.” This is in opposition to the declining numbers the Food Network and Cooking Channel have recently posted.

Tastemade alone reaches 18 million people every month on YouTube, generating more than 100 million views. Tastemade is unique as a network in that it doesn’t own most of the channels or produce the shows. But rather it serves as a place to house the content and help the creators monetize their shows by promoting their content, selling ads and partnering with brands. In terms of revenue, online food networks also rely on traditional ad revenue, just like television, but brand partnerships have also become increasingly popular with brands sponsoring a trip or a theme show that’s in-line with the brand’s messaging. For example, a tourism board may sponsor a trip to their country for an episode or an appliance company will refurbish and entire kitchen for a show.  Brands specifically wanting to connect with a millennial audience should also look to YouTube cooking channels as they watch 30% more food content than any other demographic, according to the Millennials Eat Up YouTube Food Videos think with Google article.

The rise in YouTube food channels (a 280% growth in subscriptions in 2014) is particularly interesting because the hosts are “Average Joes.” They’re not intimidating to their audience because of their culinary background or the four-star restaurants they own. People turn to their channels for inspiration or lessons because they believe they can cook everything themselves in their own kitchens.

The accessibility and popularity of YouTube food shows means huge opportunities for companies to connect with a growing audience since, as we say at the Connect Group, “Everyone Eats.”

- Cassie