By Debra Kaufman
Special to TelevisionWeek
What started as a series of cooking and lifestyle shows on Food Network has grown into an empire. Rachael Ray calls the trajectory of her career “a very happy, wonderful accident,” but it’s no fluke that Ms. Ray sits atop a brand that includes, in addition to her top-rated syndicated talk show, a line of her own cookware and knives, an eponymous magazine, compilation CDs, recipe cards and other products.
Ms. Ray has an unerring instinct for the right partnership and goes after each opportunity with a healthy dose of her signature enthusiasm and energy. Take Furitechnics, a line of knives developed and manufactured by president/engineer Mark Henry, who started his company in Australia in 1998. She had been using Mr. Henry’s original series of knives, the FuriPros, which feature a metal handle, when she found a Diamond Fingers knife sharpener in a kitchenware store and resurrected an entire drawer of old knives.
“When she started taping [Food Network’s] `30 Minute Meals’ in early 2005, she wouldn’t use her old knives-she wanted to use ours,” said Mr. Henry, who holds several patents for the knives, which are marketed as offering accuracy even for cooks with less skill than a professional chef. “Her manager [and now husband] John Cusimano called me and said let’s talk about some sort of promotional endorsement.” Mr. Henry said he was impressed at the fact that Ms. Ray had already spoken to numerous chefs about the knives to get their opinions. “She did her homework,” he said. “She knew if she went with us, she wouldn’t be embarrassed.”
“She said, you have such a great product and the elite chefs know the knives, but not the consumers, and I can change that,” he said. “And she did. Now we’re well known by consumers and in some of the biggest department stores, like Bloomingdales, Kohl’s, specialty cookware stores like Sur La Table and in a lot of the big catalogs.”
Mr. Henry, who moved to the U.S. in large part because of the success of the Rachael Ray endorsement, reported that his company saw an increase in sales of 1,100 percent between Christmas quarters 2004 and 2005, with at least 400 percent increase expected by the end of Christmas 2006. “It’s really become a home cook’s brand,” he said. “It works because people trust Rachael. They get the product home and then discover it is a serious, professional-grade knife. Even the top chefs are recognizing her value for bringing a certain knowledge that cooking doesn’t have to be scary.”
Ms. Ray has been in print since 1999, with a growing number of cookbooks to her name. With the 30-minute meal as their animating concept, the cookbooks focus on menus for children, for guys, for couples and even for vegetarians. Sales have gone through the roof, with four of Ms. Ray’s cookbooks appearing this month in the top 12 on the New York Times Best Sellers list, paperback advice category-including the No. 1 spot for “2, 4, 6, 8: Great Meals for Couples or Crowds.” There are also refrigerator magnets, recipe note cards and coasters.
With her success in the print world, it was a natural for Ms. Ray to think about her own magazine, and Every Day With Rachael Ray, a Reader’s Digest publication, launched in November/December 2005. “After being on the Food Network for four years, she was enthusiastic to create an even wider community,” said Every Day With Rachael Ray publisher Christine Guilfoyle. “She spoke to [Reader’s Digest] CEO Tom Ryder and president of North American publishing Bonnie Baccar and they hit it off with her. There was great chemistry. I’d love to say there were a lot of meetings around the boardroom, but it wasn’t like that. Both parties were looking to embark on something special and found each other.”
Kismet has translated into success, with Ms. Ray as editor-in-chief and Silvana Nardone as editor. The first issue had a promised rate base of 350,000 and overdelivered by nearly double. The rate base went up to 450,000 for the third issue, April/May 2006, then 750,000 in October and, as of the February 2007 issue, climbed to 1.3 million. “It’s a phenomenal achievement by the circulation department,” said Ms. Guilfoyle, who noted that the magazine is also one of the 20 best sellers at newsstands across the country.
Food is the magazine’s central idea, but the content also includes entertaining, travel and the lifestyle elements of home decor and fashion. The tagline is: Take a bite out of life. “It’s all the things that are important to the modern-day woman, with food at the core of it,” said Ms. Guilfoyle, who reported that Ms. Ray contributes between 25 percent and 30 percent of the content. “Rachael is incredibly energetic and very, very smart. She doesn’t write about things that aren’t close to her heart and her life philosophy, and the magazine stems right from that.”
Although the magazine’s readership is particularly strong among women 25 to 49, Ms. Guilfoyle noted that Ms. Ray’s impact is difficult to calculate. “We know that we do well in any [female] demo,” she said. “She very much has a young-person following. Time magazine said her audience will be around for the next three decades. Rachael herself says her target demo is 9 to 90. I’ve seen her at her signings and show tapings, and she’s right.”
Endorsing a line of cookware was also a natural step. Ms. Ray enjoyed using Anolon cookware, and Mr. Cusimano visited the booth of Meyer Corp., Anolon’s distributor, at the Chicago Housewares Show to tell the company just that. At the time, Meyer Corp. was looking for a spokesperson for the line. “We thought Rachael was right for Anolon, which appeals to those who love to cook but are often pressed for time and want their 30-minute meals,” said Meyer VP of Marketing Suzanne Howard.
The relationship got more interesting when Ms. Ray suggested that Anolon make an oval saute pan and an oval pasta pot, since she found that round pans and pots often block back burners, making them unavailable for other pots. “Rachael has lots of great ideas for product design,” said Ms. Howard. “At first we weren’t sure we, or the consumer, needed another cookware brand, but our experience with Rachael changed our minds. We realized she was big enough and different enough to carry her own brand.”
In fact, the Rachael Ray cookware launch was one of the most successful ever, Ms. Howard said. In addition to the 5-quart oval saute pan and 8-quart covered oval pasta pot, the Rachael Ray-branded cookware consists of a line of hard anodized non-stock cookware in eight open-stock pieces and a 10-piece set, a porcelain enamel line that comes in an orange or blue 10-piece set and open-stock skillets, and a limited cast-iron line.
“The Rachael Ray cookware customer is spirited and adventurous,” said Ms. Howard, who promised more new products on the horizon. “We feel her appeal is with a younger, just-starting-out-in-the-kitchen consumer, and believe she is inspiring a new generation of cooks. At the same time, she has tremendous appeal across generations. Young people think she’s cool, baby boomers think she’s a cutie and the harried home cook can appreciate her time-saving tricks.”