How To Build Your Own Cookbook Empire
Want to make your own cookbook? See what it did for one woman.
INA GARTEN’S life changed for good in April 1999, near the corner of 50th Street and Third Avenue in Manhattan. Running late for an event, she barely had time to stop outside her publisher’s offices and double-park her car while her editor ran downstairs with a book.
It was the first copy of “The Barefoot Contessa Cookbook,” the title taken from the store that Ms. Garten had run for almost 20 years in the Hamptons, but that she had sold three years before.
“I was stunned,” Ms. Garten said of the moment when she held the book, which had a bright photograph of her Provençal potato salad on the cover. “I remember thinking, ‘Nothing will ever feel like this.’ ”
It represented an expensive gamble. Ms. Garten had spent $200,000 of her own money hiring a food stylist, a photographer and an assistant to help test recipes, as well as planning a publicity campaign, all for a book that she hoped would be as much an escapist read as an instructional guide.
And despite the support of famous friends like Martha Stewart, who wrote the introduction, Ms. Garten feared that it would end up a little-noticed regional title, appealing only to her former customers.
But the payoff came a few weeks later, when she visited a Barnes & Noble store in Southern California. Asking for the book, she was told that there had been 50 on a front table a day earlier. “We must have sold them all,” a store clerk said.
That moment on the curb marked not only the start of Ms. Garten’s career as an author, but also her entree into the big-time world of food.
From her cookbooks — now numbering five — to her Food Network show, which she describes as “the most frightening thing I’ve ever done,” to her food products and magazine column, Ms. Garten has created a culinary empire that has been slow to spread roots but quick to grow in recent years.
It is a sharp contrast to her start as a policy analyst in the Office of Management and Budget during the Carter administration, when her husband, Jeffrey E. Garten, the former dean of the Yale School of Management, worked in the State Department.
She also thought that she might wind up in commercial real estate, like her father. (In fact, in the late 1970s, she bought and fixed up houses in the Kalorama District in Washington and sold them for a quick profit.)
Instead, Ms. Garten has become a fixture on the Food Network, where her program, also titled “Barefoot Contessa,” attracts 5.9 million viewers a week. It ranks as one of the most popular shows on the channel, along with those of Emeril Lagasse, Rachael Ray and Paula Deen.
As with them, it is her personality as much as her recipes that attracts an audience. Where Mr. Lagasse is the “bam!” shouting cook, Ms. Ray the party girl and Ms. Deen a drawling Southern matriarch, Ms. Garten, 59, is everyone’s big sister.
“Bright-eyed and apple-cheeked,” as Ms. Stewart said in the introduction to the first cookbook, Ms. Garten plays the role of welcoming hostess for any occasion — from her husband’s arrival home after a week away to an old friend’s visit to a ladies’ charity lunch.
Bob Tuschman, senior vice president for programming and production at the Food Network, said: “She has a star quality: she is radiant, extremely funny, extremely warm, a radiance that comes through the TV screen.”
So does her business acumen. Her latest cookbook, “Barefoot Contessa at Home,” is peddled on the Food Network Web site along with her DVDs, lately advertised in the lower right-hand corner of the screen when she appears. For the last year, her brand name has adorned a growing line of products, many of them old-fashioned comfort foods produced by Stonewall Kitchen, a specialty food company based in York, Me.
Along with that, she writes a monthly column in House Beautiful, with advice on topics like getting guests to leave (invite them for lunch instead of dinner) and cooking dinner for the boss (serve comfort food). “All of them are about giving people tools to make them feel good about themselves,” she says of her ventures.
YET Ms. Garten is resisting pressure to expand her reach. While Ms. Stewart is a symbol of business ambition and personal determination, Ms. Garten is considerably less driven. “There is a balance between having a life and having a business,” she said during a recent day spent at her home and in her offices.
She has turned down offers to start magazines or to be host for more TV shows. She has declined to endorse other food products beyond her own line and has rejected opening a chain of food shops.
She sets aside ample time for lunches and dinners with friends and looks forward to Fridays, when her husband, who commutes to New Haven, arrives home.
She loathes getting up early for exercise, and predawn business meetings are banned. She relishes regular visits to her flat in Paris, where a trip years ago fed an already-developing love for food and inspired one of her cookbooks. If her business grew too big, “I just think I would lose my life,” she said.
Preserving that life not only helps her well-being, but also her business. Her friends, her husband and Paris have all been featured on her TV show. “Part of her brand message is living life to the fullest,” Mr. Tuschman says, “and she embodies that.”
At the same time, she has structured her business so that the decision-making rests in her hands. There are no outside investors or a board of directors at her companies, which include Barefoot Contessa Inc., the Garten Food Corporation Barefoot Contessa Pantry L.L.C. and Ina Garten L.L.C.
Her primary investor and adviser is her husband, Jeffrey, now a professor of international trade and finance at Yale. She has just three part-time employees, including her business partner, Frank Newbold, a longtime friend and private real estate broker specializing in high-end properties.
Mr. Newbold, who signed a one-page employment agreement with Ms. Garten, says the two have similar business styles that he describes as, “Let’s cut to the chase.”
Their instinct is similar to the feeling a real estate client can get after looking at 100 houses. “You walk into the one that speaks to you and say, ‘This is it.’ You just know it,” he said.
Mr. Newbold has become a familiar figure to Ms. Garten’s audience, which each week includes 1.9 million women in the 25-to-54 age group. That is the core demographic for both the network and Ms. Garten’s show, according to network data.
Her rise is a testament to the force that the Food Network has become in shaping food personalities — including some, like Ms. Garten, who never worked as chefs or ran restaurants.
“It’s been interesting to watch the Food Network’s evolution from cooking shows with accomplished chefs to cooking and other shows with less-accomplished hosts,” said Jane Goldman, editor in chief of Chowhound.com, a Web site that specializes in food topics.
She added: “Programmers have discovered that — no surprise — personality and charisma on television are important.”
But television stardom and food fame were far from the life that Ms. Garten once expected to live. Born in Brooklyn and raised in Stamford, Conn., Ms. Garten met her husband when she was 15 and married him at 20. After Mr. Garten’s stint in the military, the couple ended up in Washington, where Ms. Garten eventually became the budget analyst in charge of nuclear energy.
But she grew frustrated with the slow pace of government life and sought refuge in cooking big weekend dinners. “She was uncomfortable with the abstraction of policy,” Mr. Garten said. “She likes tangible things.”
In 1978, she spotted a newspaper listing for a small food store in Westhampton Beach, then a beach town with few year-round residents. She and Mr. Garten drove up to Long Island a week later, finding only a couple of teenaged employees and little activity at the store, which was named the Barefoot Contessa after the movie starring Humphrey Bogart and Ava Gardner.
Nonetheless, the Gartens made an offer, took out a second mortgage and spent the following summer living in a rented room, with Mr. Garten commuting to Washington while Ms. Garten learned the business. “I was sure it would be a one-summer thing,” Mr. Garten said. Ms. Garten acknowledges that she knew little about running a business. “I didn’t know how to hire people. I didn’t know how to slice smoked salmon; I didn’t know how to choose brie.”
But she did know how to make brownies, cupcakes and roast chicken, and other things that people would buy to eat at home. Within a month, the lines were out the door and Ms. Garten had found her niche.
“It was just such a high to see someone you love and knew so well find the place and find a kind of work for which the sky seemed the limit,” Mr. Garten said.
Her nearly 20 years of storekeeping made Ms. Garten a visible personality in the Hamptons, whose rise as a playground for the wealthy mirrored her own advance. Moving across the street to a far bigger space and later to East Hampton, Ms. Garten drew on advice from food industry friends like Eli Zabar. She catered hundreds of parties and festooned the shop with bunting on the Fourth of July; her staff donned formal attire on New Year’s Eve, when she served Champagne.
Ms. Stewart, who first visited the store in the late 1980s, became one of Ms. Garten’s champions, inviting her to write for her magazine and to appear on her television show.
BUT by the mid-1990s, the venture had become overwhelming, prompting Ms. Garten to sell the store in 1996 to two employees. She spent six months deciding her next move, which eventually became her cookbook.
The original deal called for a modest first printing of 10,000 copies, Mr. Garten recalled, with Ms. Garten buying 5,000 to sell at the store.
But sales took off, thanks to the book’s lush photography, easy recipes, peppy narrative and Ms. Garten’s cheerful promotion. Her publisher, Clarkson Potter, quickly increased the book’s printing, and even asked her for the books that had already been delivered in a truckload to the food shop.
The book — its title set in the same lowercase font (Modern No. 216) that Ms. Garten uses on all her products — is the biggest seller for Ms. Garten, who has more than five million copies of her five cookbooks in print. (Clarkson Potter declined to provide sales figures.)
Last fall, she published “Barefoot Contessa at Home,” the first book in her latest three-book deal, with the second book due in the fall of 2008. Her editor, Pam Krauss, says the publisher would welcome more frequent titles from Ms. Garten, because it is routine for cookbook authors to generate one a year, and her television show is a strong selling tool. “Her potential is unlimited,” Ms. Krauss said. “It’s limited only by Ina’s interests and ambitions.”
Chief among those are her television show, which started in 2002 after years of reluctance by Ms. Garten, who had a rocky experience filming segments for Ms. Stewart’s programs. “It was much too chaotic for me,” she said. “They wrote the scripts while we were filming, so it was impossible for me to have too much input.”
But a friend sent her a copy of “Nigella Bites,” the television show that starred Nigella Lawson, the popular British cookbook writer and journalist. Ms. Garten said she liked the show, in which Ms. Lawson selected a topic, explained her menu in simple terms and often invited family or friends to sample the results.
Coincidentally, Ms. Lawson’s producer, Rachel Purnell, was looking for an American to be the host for a new show. After a conference call among Ms. Garten, Ms. Purnell and Mr. Tuschman, a deal was arranged. (It has recently been extended.) Despite Ms. Garten’s limited television experience, Mr. Tuschman said he knew that she would be a hit “from the first minute of the first show.”
“Ina’s not just a great cook; she’s a terrific businesswoman,” Ms. Purnell said, adding that Ms. Garten is not into “twinkly entertainment.”
Filmed in Ms. Garten’s kitchen in East Hampton, the shows feature recipes from her books, broken down into easy-to-follow steps. They also occasionally feature Mr. Garten, who good-naturedly plays the role of the somewhat bumbling husband. (He once set a bag of charcoal on fire after he lighted the grill.)
“What strikes me is how rudimentary the food is — chocolate pudding, couscous and grilled swordfish — but how unrudimentary it feels on screen,” said Michael Ruhlman, an author and a collaborator with the chef Thomas Keller on two cookbooks.
One regular viewer, Kim Bartlett, 23, a student at Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti, watches the program with her sorority sisters. “She’s very approachable,” Ms. Bartlett said. “I feel like I could make her recipes,” even though she has yet to try one.
Ms. Garten does touch a nerve with some viewers. Though she ranked high in a recent Chowhound survey of readers’ favorite television hosts, Ms. Garten was criticized by one anonymous respondent for her plump figure, leading to a series of messages defending her. Another writer faulted her overuse of the word “fabulous,” with a third saying her Hamptons emphasis was “elitist.” (Chowhound has since asked participants to skip personal attacks and to focus on food.)
BY year-end, Ms. Garten’s setting will change. She is building a large barn just south of her home that will house a television kitchen, allowing shows to be filmed from a 360-degree angle, Ms. Purnell said.
Mr. Tuschman at the Food Network is eager for more shows than the 20 she will film this year. But Ms. Garten has another focus: her expanding food line, the outcome of a brainstorming lunch with Mr. Newbold.
Their first call was to Jonathan King, co-founder of Stonewall Kitchen, whom Ms. Garten had met over the years at the annual fancy food shows held to introduce new products.
“She and Frank were so sweet, just knowing they wanted to create this line of foods, but openly naïve about what it took to develop, manufacture, market and distribute foods,” Mr. King said.
The three talked for months before settling on a licensing deal: Ms. Garten would lend her brand name and recipes to Stonewall, which would translate them into products packaged in bright-colored boxes and jars. Prices range from $5.50 for a jar of blood orange marmalade to $14.95 for coconut layer cake mix.
In the line’s first 10 months, Stonewall sold a million Barefoot Contessa brand items; 50,000 boxes of brownie mix (at $10.95 apiece) sold in the fourth quarter alone, according to Mr. King. “It took me five years at a farmers’ market and another 10 nationally to build our brand,” he said. “She’s already accomplished what most specialty brands can’t accomplish in a lifetime.”
Mr. Ruhlman, the author, said her deals had been good for all involved. “As a visible New York name, she became valuable to the Food Network exactly when it began to emerge as a media force,” he said. Her show “gave her a national platform which helps her move products” like cookbooks and baking mixes.
“As long as those products are valuable to people and the show remains entertaining, she will continue to be a solid brand representing a good business,” Mr. Ruhlman said.
For her part, Ms. Garten is keenly aware of the pitfalls of becoming ubiquitous. Relaxing after lunch at home, she recalled feeling that her life had ended when she turned 50, having sold her store and having no next move mapped out. The next year, at 51, she was holding her first cookbook on that Manhattan corner.
“I want to do this for a really long time,” she said. “I don’t want people to get sick of it.”
[Via - The New York Times]