LOS ANGELES (CNNfn) - Wolfgang Puck is one of the most famous chefs in the world. Thirty restaurants and 24 years ago, he arrived in the United States with nothing, but now his business is ringing up $150 million a year in sales.
Best known for catering the party that follows the Academy Awards, Puck and his staff of hundreds prepare and serve food -- including his signature smoked salmon-and-caviar pizza -- for more than 4,000 people.
The food is the core, but the ambiance created around each restaurant is the other half of Wolfgang Puck's success. In one way or another, restaurants have been his life's work for decades.
"You know, when I came to America in 1974, I had already cooked for over 10 years in Europe," Puck remembers. "I started in 1963 in Austria, then I went to France for seven years, and then I came to the United States and then we opened Spago in 1982, so that's almost another 10 years. So, when I opened the first restaurant, I had already been doing it for 19 years.
Puck's operation consists of two divisions: the nine restaurants grouped into Fine Dining, and The Food Company, which includes 18 casual dining cafes, three Obachine restaurants and a packaged foods division.
The Food Company is the faster-expanding of the units and is expected to do $100 million this year, thanks in part to the new flagship Wolfgang Puck Grand Cafe at Disney World in Orlando, Fla. It's an 18,000 square foot, $15 million a year business, serving up to 2,000 people a day.
"In the coming year we have very aggressive plans," says Tom Warner, senior vice president of The Food Company. "The restaurant business will grow 30-40 percent and the packaged food business is targeted to grow about 40 percent."
While Puck is busy in the kitchen, his partner in life and business, Barbara Lazaroff, oversees all business affairs and the design of each restaurant from top to bottom, sometimes even cracking and re-setting tiles herself.
"Wolfgang Puck and his wife, Barbara Lazaroff, have it all," says Tim Zagat of the Zagat Survey restaurant guide. "There are endless people, who are either imitating him or trying to, but it's very hard to imitate somebody who is that good and that creative."
Upscale "fine dining" restaurants account for about $50 million in annual revenue, but "fine dining is more a labor of love," Puck says, arguing that the higher expenses of ingredients, wine and labor-intensive preparation mean that gourmet establishments find it harder to profit.
In fact, Puck and Lazaroff's labor of love included starting their first restaurant together. Getting financial backing wasn't easy.
We had only a few thousand dollars," Lazaroff says. "We had a friend cosign the loan. No bank would give a loan, [so] basically two other people put in $30,000 each. Then, there were about 21 other limited partners for West Hollywood. We raised $510,000 for the first restaurant."
The dynamic duo owns 38 percent of The Food Company and, depending on the location, between 50 and 90 percent of each restaurant. Various limited partners put up the remainder of the financing and get the rest of the profits.
"People always think, 'Oh my God, they must make so much money,' but at the end of the day if you want to open a new restaurant it's $3 million," explains Puck. "A new cafe, it's the same. If you want to grow the food company. If you take all the money out, you go under. So we have to keep the money and reinvest it."
Puck and Lazaroff are growing their food company beyond most expectations. Their fifth and, according to some, most elegant Spago in Beverly Hills, Calif., joins a growing number of fully-owned and licensed restaurants, with openings planned in Tokyo and Melbourne, Australia. A café is opening in Kuwait this month.
Still, for all the pots on the fire, Puck and Lazaroff really don't seem to need a moderator. The team seems completely synchronized, displaying an unflinching sense of humor.
"When you have a conversation with him he cannot separate sex and food," says Lazaroff. "They're like one issue to him."
"Well, I think both are very essential," explains Puck. "Making love or cooking the food. You know you have a certain relationship also when you cook the food. You touch the food. You talk to the food. And then you eat it. So it's very similar." [119Kb WAV] or [119Kb AIFF]
"If you can dream it, you can do it, and I like to think we did it," says Lazaroff.