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Wolfgang Puck: Starting from good for nothing

Leslie Shaffer | Writer for CNBC.com
Wednesday, 25 Sep 2013 | 11:33 PM ET
Chef Wolfgang Puck speaking during the SkyBridge Alternatives (SALT) Asia conference in Singapore, on Sept. 25, 2013.
Munshi Ahmed | Bloomberg | Getty Images
Chef Wolfgang Puck speaking during the SkyBridge Alternatives (SALT) Asia conference in Singapore, on Sept. 25, 2013.

If ever an entrepreneur should find an "if at first you don't succeed" lesson it should be this: Legendary chef, restaurateur and canned-soup maker Wolfgang Puck was fired from his first restaurant job.

"After three weeks on the job, (I was told) 'you're good for nothing,'" Puck said at the SALT conference in Singapore. He was a 14 year-old apprentice.

But he added, "I always wanted to own my own restaurant. I always had this dream."

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He was in his thirties when he realized his dream, opening his first restaurant, Spago, in 1982, initially in West Hollywood; it was later moved to Beverly Hills. Spago became a global fine-dining chain. It was followed by Chinois in Santa Monica, which fused Asian flavors with French and California-based cuisine.

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Unlike many gourmet chefs, Puck also moved into casual dining and packaged foods, including frozen pizzas, coffees and canned soup. In addition to packaged food, his empire includes 21 fine dining restaurants globally, premium catering services and more than 80 Wolfgang Puck Express fast-casual dining locations in the U.S., Canada and Japan. He's written six cookbooks and he writes a weekly syndicated newspaper column.

His success can offer other lessons for entrepreneurs.

"The thing that is most constant is change," Puck said. In 2012, despite Spago's continued success, he pursued a major menu revamp and restaurant renovation.

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"We have to change while we're still doing well. Otherwise it's too late," he said, adding business increased by 35 percent after the revamp. "I always try to do new things. I always have to move forward. I'm not afraid of change."

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Puck also noted the need to step back and regroup when business decisions don't go as planned.

He launched his packaged food business, hoping to follow the model of Armani Express, which allows Armani, a seller of multi-thousand-dollar apparel, to target more of a mass-market audience with blue jeans.

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In hopes of growing his small-but-flourishing frozen pizza business, he formed a venture with ConAgra in 2001 and followed the company's advice to switch to less-expensive ingredients and more traditional toppings.

It flopped and he later bought the license back.

"We have to keep our standards," he said. "The most important thing to start out with is the best ingredients," he noted, adding not only is this true in any business, it also applies to investing in talent.

He also noted another key to success: "You have to have the passion," he said, adding that his business requires working while others play, whether it's Christmas or the weekend.


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