The chef next door
Who: Rachael Ray
Brand identity: Gourmet made easy
Brand extensions: Four Food Network shows; The Rachael Ray Show; five product partnerships; 16 cookbooks; Everyday With Rachael Ray magazine
As an eager young buyer for gourmet market Cowan & Lobel in Albany, N.Y., Rachael Ray spent hours spying on customers, looking for tipoffs to new trends. One odd pattern she noticed again and again: Many well-to-do shoppers would bypass the produce section and head straight for the prepared-foods counter. That gave her an idea: Why not run a cooking class for harried consumers, showing them how to make gourmet meals in 30 minutes flat?
To Ray, it was just a small way to prop up grocery sales. But a decade later, that simple notion has turned Rachael Ray into a brand on par with Martha Stewart and created a small media empire worth a reported $10 million. Since its debut in 2001 on the Food Network, Ray's top-rated cooking show, 30 Minute Meals, has spawned three more Ray-hosted shows on the network, 16 cookbooks, a self-titled national magazine, and even a syndicated daytime talk show.
How she got there, though, is a story more about old-fashioned perseverance than anything else. Her in-store cooking classes were an instant hit with customers, so much so that Albany's CBS affiliate, WRGB, asked her to host a weekly cooking show for its evening news broadcast. For two years Ray didn't receive a dime for her work; for the next three she earned a measly stipend of $50 per episode. To Ray, though, it didn't matter: She liked the gourmet-for-dummies appeal of it all, and she was making enough money from her day job at Cowan & Lobel. The exposure, she figured, would eventually open doors.
It did. First, in 1998, she put together a small cookbook based on a collection of recipes from the show. Then came calls from NPR and Today. By 2001, executives at the Food Network believed they'd spotted their next star. Why? Unlike the culinary elite that served as the hosts of most cooking shows, Ray exuded a kind of blue-collar charm. Viewers loved her. "I'm still very much the waitress," Ray says, "bringing people what they want."
Ray's girl-next-door persona made it easy to expand beyond TV and books. Her husband, John Cusimano, an attorney and Ray's self-appointed "brand manager," recalls that in 2003, "a lot of people at her book signings and at the show were interested in what knife she used and what cookware she liked." So Cusimano walked the floor of the International Home and Housewares Show in Chicago, passing out homemade press kits, and within a year, Ray-branded lines of Füritechnics knives, Meyer Anolon cookware, and Salton microwaves and food processors hit the shelves.
"When she started, she didn't even know what a brand was," says Lucy Sisman, the magazine's first design director. "Her brand has been completely organic. It just happened through sheer hard work, application, and cheer."