NewCo Shift Forum
It took a kick in the teeth and the rise of social media to teach celebrity chef Tyler Florence a lesson he’ll never forget: You have to learn how to make your own content, period.
Tyler Florence initially made his name as executive chef at a string of hit restaurants, but he came to fame on the Food Network. But when the 2008 recession cancelled his show and cut off his income and audience, he found his way back to the spotlight through intelligent use of social media and new kinds of business partnerships. Below is the video of Florence’s fascinating talk at NewCo Shift Forum, along with the full transcript, edited for clarity.
Tyler Florence: My name’s Tyler Florence. I’m an executive chef and owner of Wayfare Tavern here in San Francisco. If you guys live in San Francisco, I’m sure you’ve had the fried chicken. If you haven’t, we’d love to feed you, make sure you get a chance to pop by.
I’ve also been deep in media for a really, really long time. This is my 21st year on The Food Network, a network that’s only been around for 23 years. I was one of the original cast of about 10 people that really founded the network, in a way.
My first appearance on The Food Network was in 1996. I was a little, skinny 25-year-old kid. I was the executive chef of a restaurant in New York City. One of the producers happened to be in the restaurant, and I was working the tables, saying hi.
She walked up to me, and she said, “We have this brand new network called The Food Network,” and it was big in Los Angeles, and it was in Chicago and New York, of course. I said yes, and I jumped into it.
My first presentation was completely horrible. I melted down for four and a half minutes. At the end of it, the executive producer walked down out of the control booth and said, “Hey, that was great. Can you come back next week?”
I went back to the restaurant, and I just knew that was the first day of the rest of my life. I knew that I will be doing this in some capacity for a really long time. Then in 1999, almost 2000, they had offered me a full-time job called “Food 911.” If you burned your Tuna Casserole, you’d dial Food 911, and I’d come to your house. We did that for about five years. We shot about 1,000 episodes of it. We were Emeril Lagasse’s lead-in for probably four years. It was a huge show.
I was the first chef on television to not wear a chef’s coat, because I just felt it was a Superman cape. I have one, and I can cook, and if you don’t have one, you can’t. I just really felt it was a barrier for a lot of people.
That business model, in a way, kept us alive for a really, really long time. I would shoot a meaty season in the spring, a meaty season in the fall, do a book every 18 months or so, had a dozen or so sponsorship deals where we would do individual collaborations with companies. But it was a house of cards, in a way.
2008 happens, and then I get this horrible shock in my life that everything that I had been banking on, and not really focusing on being diversified — that melted down under circumstances that were beyond my control, affected me personally, and affected me in a really, really deep way that took us about five years to pull out from.
In 2008, the president of programming walked down to my dressing room while I was filming one show and said, “I’m really sorry, but we’re going to have to…” The way television contracts are set up, they’re set up with a series of options. It’s their option to pick up your deal or not. Although we had some of the top three, top four rating on the network for a very long time, they didn’t have the advertising dollars to actually pay for the show itself.
I was basically fired, and fired on the spot, along with quite a few of my colleagues. This is my 21st year on television. I was filming last week in Los Angeles. It’s not like the desire or the talent wasn’t necessarily there.
My point with all of this is I feel we are on the verge of this new dawn of media where we actually can be in control of our own destiny, and be in control of our own products, because we have direct access to our own fan base in a way that we’ve never been able to penetrate before.
For years, it was always about making connections with the gatekeeper. We had to have an article in a magazine to have exposure. As a matter of fact, that’s the only way, if you really think about the generation or the decades of gourmet magazine or cookbooks, it’s the only way you would really understand what other chefs in other restaurants were all about.
Information was so limited. You’d actually have to fly from New York City to San Francisco, drive from San Francisco to Napa, get a reservation at the French Laundry, take pictures with a camera, and then load this up on your laptop, and then translate this back to your staff. That’s how you knew what was happening in the outside world.
Now, with these same great restaurants, you can see what they’re posting as specials every night on social media. The idea of media exchange is happening at such a rapid rate that we don’t need that middle person any longer.
I think we’re in this new age of empowerment, that if we can take great content, and take time to learn how to use new technology, you can actually tap into a whole new audience yourself, and really be responsible for your own destiny in a way that I felt like I had to figure out.
In 2008, when Food Network said, “Oh, by the way, we’re canceling the rest of your five-year contract, but we’ll pick it up. We’ll call you. We’ll figure it out.”
Now, in this new era, this new world, we started this direct-to-consumer cookbook business which has been very, very exciting. I’m going to give you a handful of examples of what I’m talking about. This past year, I had my 13th cookbook deal on the table. It was from Random House Publishing, love them to death, with my publisher, who I would literally crawl across a beach of broken glass to work with, because she does Ina (Garten)’s work, and Martha (Stewart)’s work.
She’s just one of the best editors in the business. She said it was time for a new book cycle. Books usually take about 12 to 18 months to put together. She said, “If you can get me the manuscript by January of 2017, I can have the book out by spring 2018.”
I think, in this day and age, doesn’t that just seem ridiculous? It just seems ridiculous that I’m going to have to go dark, create this content, and then print it, print the books in China, and wait for that entire thing.
We found this new company called Chatbooks. They’re based in Provo, Utah. They print on demand. I started to look at these new models. I called the company itself. Chatbooks has an addendum with, it’s a back end business relationship with Instagram.
If you go on chatbooks.com, and you type in your username and your password, every 60 photographs that you upload to Instagram, they’ll print in this beautiful, hand-bound book made of recycled paper, it checks all the boxes.
You get this thing delivered to your house, it’s like subscribing to a magazine about yourself. They print one at a time. They can print one, and they can print 700,000. They print on demand.
I called them up out of the blue. I said, “Hey, would you like to be my publisher?” They flipped out, and they said, “Of course, we’d love to.” In literally a matter of four weeks, the initial conversation happened, we liked the idea, we got in a contract pretty quick.
I shot the book in four days, and a week later, we had our first copy to take a look at. We went exactly direct to consumer with this through social media. I got a bunch of cameras. We started shooting on Adobe Premiere, editing on Adobe Premiere, and we started creating this amazing content that we started cycling up through social media. Our engagement just started to skyrocket.
I don’t know if you’ve noticed, and it’s silly to say, people are really into videos these days. If you are responsible for your brand, creating more dynamic content yourselves, the world is in your hands right now.
If you just post an image with a small little caption on social media that says, “Hey, we’re having a great time today,” and notice how many likes you get, maybe it’s a few hundred, maybe it’s a few thousand. My likes would peak out around 3 or 4,000 likes. Then all of a sudden, we started producing this video content, and now, it’s like 60,000–70,000 impressions, 100,000 impressions off of one media drop a day.
Now all of a sudden, this new world started to become our own, where we can produce video content, produce these products, sell these things, and have an open access to the largest audience in the world that no one’s ever really had before.
My challenge to you today is to really think about your own marketing efforts, and really think, are you going direct-to-consumer enough? It’s definitely a buzzword in a way, but from my own personal experience, we have done an amazing job of not necessarily cutting out these partners, but not necessarily relying on them. Where they used to be our wheel, now, they’re a spoke in our wheel.
If we want to jump into (the traditional media) business for the sake of it, because it’s fun, or we get a chance to get some new products out, we don’t put as much effort into or as much responsibility into those particular contracts or these deals as we used to, because the way the economic environment sits, we can’t really guarantee that that’s going to be there.
Although we’re in a three-year deal, it’s an option. They have an option to pick it up or not, and that’s not good enough for me. We really decided to really dive deep, and take responsibility for our own product. We have seen an enormous ROI, because we’re just basically filming this stuff ourselves.
I’ll give you another quick example, and then I got to hop off the stage. I know I could talk all day long. We shot this pilot for Food Network last May that didn’t get picked up, I’m bummed out about out. I’m standing there in a very expensive studio, and I’m about to sear these two steaks.
I look up, and I have this light bulb moment. There’s a camera guy. Get him. He’s shooting the whole thing. He has an assistant. Get him. There’s an audio person. Get him. There’s an executive producer. Totally get her. She’s calling the shots.
Then there are 40 other people in the room going, “Hmm, should it be on this side, or should it be on that side?” I’m like, “No wonder this doesn’t work anymore, because it’s just too expensive.” It’s too expensive.
There’s too many people in the room that get paid…I’m going to say, they do a really great job, but if you’re a startup — I know there are a lot of startups here in the room tonight — it’s time to take responsibility for your own product and really determine the outcome by creating great content yourself.
Do it yourself. Take the time. Learn how to shoot a camera. Learn how to edit the product yourself. Tighten the circle as far as who can touch it, and tighten the turnaround time to get it out as fast as possible. We’ve completely reinvented our business, and it has been mind-blowing, for the better, because we’ve opened up all these now lanes of access.
Where we would shoot content and then hand the marketing and the advertising opportunities over to Food Network, and we would get paid for our particular product, now, we’re fully engaged in those advertising partners, and they’re buying time on our social media.
Social media content and Facebook videos, it’s the same thing as television. It’s the same thing. Now, we’re reaching out to those opportunities, and people are starting to get in touch with us on a daily basis through social media bay saying, “Hey, can we drop our sports socks in your social media feed? Can we drop our new sous-vide machine in your social media feed?”
We’re selling that as an opportunity. This new world is starting to open up direct-to-consumer, and just suggesting things to the audience, and watching these things sell out, it’s been really, really exciting. I want to thank you for your time.