Over the past few years, restaurants everywhere have started selling fancy pantry products, but the trend started decades ago
In 1979, as America recovered from double-digit unemployment, diners craved something real and uplifting, and at K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen, Paul Prudhomme snagged national headlines for filling that void with big Creole and Cajun flavors. When diners left the restaurant — and, for many New Orleans visitors, the city — they wanted to bring that taste into their home kitchen, so Prudhomme sent them away with foil packets full of his seasoning.
Today, restaurants all over the country have turned to selling their products directly to consumers, but Prudhomme led the way as one of the first chefs with both the national platform and entrepreneurial chops to do so. By 1983, he had launched a separate company, Magic Seasoning Blends, to keep up with the demand. “There was this notion of, ‘Well, gosh, I’m an American civilian, I’ve been eating standardized food my whole life,’” explains Andrew Friedman, the host of Andrew Talks to Chefs and author of Chefs, Drugs and Rock and Roll. “With these spices, I can bring a little bit of what makes Prudhomme’s food unique to my kitchen, just by sprinkling it on a protein.”
More recently, the category of chef-made pantry products has exploded as the pandemic pushed restaurateurs to look for any potential revenue stream while consumers craved restaurant tastes at home. Portland’s most famous food cart bottles its Nong’s Khao Man Gai Sauce; New York City restaurant Serendipity started shipping its frozen hot chocolate, and fellow New York restaurants Hart’s and Cervo’s sell tinned fish. Carbone Fine Foods offers the restaurant group’s tomato sauces, the marketing language pinpointing the motivation for consumers: that they “will transport you to the iconic New York City restaurant without having to worry about getting a reservation — or even leaving your home.”
That home cooks would want to take inspiration and ingredients from restaurants is taken for granted now, but it wasn’t always a goal for American consumers. To get there, first they would need to gain an appreciation for just how many flavors they were missing out on — and how much work goes into building them.
In 1956, the combination of canned foods and electric appliances had streamlined the post-World War II home kitchen in the name of efficiency. But Chuck Williams theorized that other Americans might have the same desire for high-quality French cookware that he did, and opened up a shop in Sonoma, California, pioneering the store as a destination for aspirational purchases. Driven by Williams’s personal friendship with chefs and, by the 1970s when the Williams-Sonoma catalog launched, heavy data integration, Williams-Sonoma painted the fantasy of the American kitchen.
Over the years chefs advised and guided, and even occasionally designed products for the company — like Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s infused grapeseed oils from 2001 — but it wasn’t until 2011 that they really stepped forward with Williams-Sonoma products of their own. That year, Williams-Sonoma started selling Cup4Cup, the gluten-free flour that Lena Kwak developed for Thomas Keller’s Napa restaurant, the French Laundry, inspired — like Prudhomme — by customer requests.
Around the same time, Milk Bar — at the time still Momofuku Milk Bar — began selling its cookie mixes through Williams-Sonoma, and Momofuku sold a line of sauces through the stores. There, the restaurants saw value in expanding to new audiences: “Eighty percent of our care package business comes from states where we don’t even have stores,” Milk Bar founder Christina Tosi told Food Business News in 2019. “Our community is much larger than the stores, and on many levels we are thinking about how do we want to reach our people and how do people want to be reached.”
Chefs signing on to sell their products and push their brands beyond the four walls of the restaurant represented a shift in who Americans looked to when stocking their shelves: Sara Lee no longer represented sophistication as it had when Williams opened his first store. But those “sophisticated” restaurant products had to be usable for home cooks. And Williams-Sonoma was great at identifying the kinds of in-between products that lived partly in the restaurant space, but worked in the home kitchen. “This whole subject of what chefs had to offer home cooks has been something that’s been calibrated and recalibrated and misunderstood and overestimated at times,” says Friedman, pointing to the ultra-intricate recipes in cookbooks that few people attempted. “I think it’s only pretty recently that it’s found what feels like its proper level.”
The recipes in the Momofuku Milk Bar cookbook required things like freeze-dried corn powder for the corn cookies, and more than 20 ingredients for the compost cookies. Thomas Keller’s French Laundry Cookbook started off with a three-part recipe for his salmon tartare that called for 24 chive tips, cut to one-inch long and butter “softened, but cool to the touch.” At Williams-Sonoma, customers could buy the same cookies as a mix, and Cup4Cup allowed consumers to start many complicated steps ahead on recipes.
But in today’s world of celebrity chefs, restaurants no longer need the brand positioning offered by Williams-Sonoma — they already have the appeal and connection to their audience, and setting up an e-commerce site requires far less than landing a distributor or retail partner. Before the pandemic, grocery stores had begun to mimic restaurants, adding bars with draft beers and cooked-to-order food and seating areas, but recently, restaurants have started to look more like grocery stores, offering the kinds of high-end ingredients that aren’t always easily accessible to the home cook.
Momofuku has tried over the years to sell various products from the restaurant — all of the branded products it sells online are the same as the ones it features on their menus, instant noodles included — but this time is different, says Momofuku CEO Marguerite Mariscal of the brand’s fall 2020 product launch. “This is the first time we’re doing direct-to-consumer, owning the product and owning the relationship, 100 percent.”
Though the end goal was to solidify the company without relying on dine-in customers, in order to build a store that fit with the brand, Momofuku began by selling to the people with whom they already had a relationship: their followers on social media and regular customers. She likens the direct-to-consumer model to the way an open-kitchen restaurant provides direct feedback to a chef, letting them tweak and improve an idea before they take it to a wider audience. Like a restaurant group slowly expanding to nearby neighborhoods, they looked close by first, then further afield.
“There’s not the same discovery as in a grocery store,” says Mariscal, where people might stumble on the product. But with the kinds of things Momofuku is selling, like chile crunch, artisanal soy sauce, and specialty instant noodles, the direct-to-consumer model offers other advantages.
Along with being able to move faster by selling directly, restaurants selling pantry products also get to speak to the customer, providing content and context. “There is really limited space on packaging and it’s very expensive to get the story around your products on shelves,” explains Mariscal. The ability to provide framework — via recipes, videos, and instructions — proves a huge advantage to Momofuku and to “anyone who’s selling a product that’s outside of the very narrow scope of the American pantry or something people haven’t seen a million times before.”
Most grocery stores aren’t Williams-Sonomas, and the understanding of the variance and nuance in restaurant foods has yet to fully trickle down to their shelves. “You’re seeing that we’re currently obsessed with, like, birria,” she offers as an example. “But it’s still hard-shell tacos in the supermarket.”
Mariscal sees so much more space for restaurants to take up — doing so is a necessity for their survival. In previous eras, restaurants diversified with catering, private events, and beverage sales, and she considers this another piece of that puzzle. “We really see this as diversification where you’re protecting yourself because you don’t have a single point-of-sale.”
For consumers who can’t go to the restaurants — for financial, geographical, or other reasons — chef-made products still appeal for their opportunity to give tastes of a top chef’s cooking and a shortcut in the kitchen.
Today, in an America recovering from double-digit unemployment, diners crave the excitement they remember from traveling to eat and the flavors they imagine from their Instagram feeds and Netflix documentaries. And like Paul Prudhomme palming foil-wrapped spices to customers, chefs have found a way to bring those to their fans, no matter where they are.
Naomi Tomky is an award-winning Seattle-based food and travel writer and the author of The Pacific Northwest Seafood Cookbook.