Not Just the Bug Guy

As Bizarre Foods’ ratings rose and it became one of Travel Channel’s most lucrative properties, Zimmern and his team faced a dilemma. Their talent, a Vassar-educated, globally trained chef and food entrepreneur, was becoming known less as the cultural connector that he fancied himself, and more for eating mealworms out of the dirt, drinking animal blood, and tucking into hunks of rotting meat.

Larson and Wiese wanted to grow Zimmern’s brand, but faced the challenge of losing control of it. The network and producers inevitably emphasized sensational elements of the TV show. There were warnings from friends and advisers that Zimmern was headed into a typecasting box: bizarre.

CNN’s Anthony Bourdain “says ‘TV is a vile mistress,’” Zimmern says. “‘You never know what the future holds, and the leverage wheel goes round and round.’”

Fortunately, the wheel was spinning in Zimmern’s favor, and good fortune came in several forms. One was a disappointing response to a Bizarre Foods spinoff called Bizarre World. Zimmern’s take is the show was not embraced by audiences because they saw Zimmern’s brand as food, not freak. Another was Zimmern’s second contract with the network, which gave him more control over outside ventures, which had been tightly restricted in his first deal.

Zimmern was chafing at the bit. “If you’re not out testing what’s complementary to your brand, you’re not making the most of your income potential,” he says.

The visibility was there. “If you understand how brands are launched,” says Larson, “Travel Channel has been amazing for us. Each show repeats 20 to 30 times [averaging 75,000 viewers per airing] after premiere night.”

But the brand needed to be broader—“not Fear Factor but ‘sharing culture,’ ” explains Larson.

Early on in the Travel Channel era, Larson and Wiese met with Zimmern for a daylong visioning session. “It had a profound accelerating impact on Andrew’s career,” Wiese says. They distilled five pages of thoughts into five values: authenticity, exploration, making a difference, family, sobriety. The goal was to educate in an entertaining fashion. “It was not enough to be the bug guy,” says Larson, referring to Zimmern’s early notoriety.

The vision that was Zimmern’s begat a plan. “Our idea is not to be the best, but be the only one,” says Wiese. “Not to be in a battle with 40 other cooking shows, but to be unique.”

It was a shrewd decision and one that paved the way for future success. “He’s somewhat apart from that set of chefs,” says Cowin. “It’s to his benefit.”

Job one was, after years of absence, to “return Andrew into the culinary world. He was known to the nation as an eater, but not a chef,” says WME’s Bider. “That world is crowded, but it is full of brand extensions—cookbooks, tabletop, pots and pans, food products, food festivals.

Food festivals were key. “They build credibility in the food universe,” explains Bider. “It is an opportunity to be amongst his peers and connect with fans.” By placing Zimmern among the nation’s biggest celebrity chefs without putting him into competition with them, Zimmern was able to reorient his brand in a way that broadened his business horizons.

The appearances with the nation’s elite chefs, the relationships formed with them, and the bonhomie tweeted among them brought Zimmern renown and credibility by association. “Everyone wants to be there to network with their peers,” says New York and South Beach Wine & Food Festival Director Lee Schrager.

“He’s highly regarded in the culinary world,” says Mathew Baxt, senior director of program development at TruTV, who worked with Zimmern on his Appetite for Life videos for Toyota. “These are not people impressed easily.”

Festivals also provide an outlet for fan engagement. “The venues we are most interested in are ones that provide for direct engagement with Andrew’s audience,” says Wiese. “By talking to your audience, you discover what your fans want and how they see you. It’s intentional and it makes the TV show better by extension.”

One of the few areas Zimmern had no shackles was social media—little understood at the network level but which Team Zimmern saw as the ultimate equalizer. “Social media allows you to control your brand,” says Bider.

“The Internet has democratized content, and the gatekeepers are no longer in control,” Zimmern says. “That democracy is wonderful for entrepreneurs. I have half a million Twitter followers. In cable, that’s a really good ratings night. What if I can mobilize half those people to do, watch, or experience something?”

Zimmern’s Twitter feed is an insight into his persona and brand—a mix of product placement, self-promotion, fan engagement, name dropping, complimenting favorite chefs and restaurateurs, and occasional bits of social commentary. Zimmern offers his sympathies when natural disasters strike, his condolences when celebrities die, his political opinion on major issues of the day.

The Tipping Point

Zimmern’s celebrity reached critical mass just recently, in his estimation. Until that point, despite all the hard work and strategizing, his brand was only as strong as his ratings.

“Three years ago,” Zimmern notes, “if the show had a bad six months, I might have sunk and returned to doing local TV or who knows what. But if you survive long enough, you become part of the fabric of pop culture.”

The consensus is he has reached that point. “He has done a good job of branding himself,” says Variety’s Marechal. “There comes a point where your visibility rises enough to be seen as an expert and your status grows exponentially.”

“His brand is incredibly durable,” says Food & Wine’s Cowin. “Travel, communication, taste, skills. It’s a unique package and quite exceptional.”

His team’s belief is that his brand is now bigger than Bizarre Foods and could survive without it, which gives him leverage and opportunity. Early on, Larson and Wiese established ties with the advertising division of Travel Channel, who said Zimmern would be easy to sell.

That’s what Wiese has been doing for several years now. “In general, you can make a great living on TV,” says Wiese, “but you can put a huge multiplier on it with endorsements.” Zimmern is bombarded with opportunity, but says no more often than yes.

“What you don’t do is as important as what you do,” Wiese explains. “We ask several questions: Is it profitable work, factoring in not just money but exposure and relationships we build? Does it fit with Andrew’s core competencies? Is this a partner we want?

One of Zimmern’s earliest deals was with Toyota. “We like to create content with our endorsements” says John Larson. Zimmern’s four seasons of Appetite for Life webisodes explored America’s food culture on road trips in a Toyota. AFL led to a broadcast commercial for the 2012 Camry where Zimmern sat in a Toyota with singer Kelly Clarkson, Bravo’s James Lipton, and ESPN’s Chris Berman.

“If Toyota had proposed to have him eating bugs, it would have been a different conversation,” Larson insists.

The other food celebrity to emerge from Travel Channel is Anthony Bourdain, who, along with Zimmern, was the face of the network for most of the last decade. Bourdain made the atypical decision to try to preserve his credibility by not doing corporate or endorsement work. Zimmern, who sees himself as a truth-teller and who values credibility, says he had no reluctance about doing the opposite.

“Tony is blessed at being the best at what he does,” says Zimmern. “I am not so lucky. And corporations are not going away. Look, the minute you sign a TV deal, you are someone’s bitch,” he says undefensively. “Ads are sold into my show by the hundreds.

“I wanted to engage with corporate America,” he says. “I love making deals but I want to leverage them to change our food culture. I like to cash the checks, but we pass up a lot of money.”

Zimmern says he’s been asked to do endorsements in the liquor industry, as well as “pharma stuff” and diet plans, “and we pass on them all the time because the fit is wrong and it’s a sellout in many cases. Some of these deals are very large, $500K potentially, but we say no before the talks get substantive.” Zimmern says contractual strictures make it impossible for him to discuss his endorsement earnings.

“Here’s the lines I draw: I never say something I don’t believe—ever, ever, ever; and I won’t endorse a product I don’t like and use,” he says. “When the cameras are off, we are who we are when they’re on.”

Endorsements are the tip of Zimmern’s business pyramid. Beyond the food festivals, he is a modest presence on the lecture circuit, and continues to write a monthly column for MplsStPaul, while also authoring articles and web content for Delta Air Lines’ Sky, as well as Food & Wine. His website, andrewzimmern.com, is full of original recipes, cooking demos, and interviews with leaders in food and cooking.

Zimmern has written three books—a 2009 Bizarre Foods memoir, a 2011 adaptation of that title for young adults, and 2012’s Andrew Zimmern’s Field Guide, a youth-oriented title, the first salvo in a major push into children’s entertainment.

That move is more natural that it may seem. Zimmern’s path into many adult universes has been through their kids, who were early adopters of Bizarre Foods, drawn in by the gross-out factor and Zimmern’s welcoming demeanor. Zimmern believes that the family viewing that the show encourages creates a deep bond with his audience: “The things you share as a family are special.”

The push starts with a book. “We want to be in the publishing space,” explains Wiese. “Doing this kids’ book has been a lot of work. You don’t do it for the payoff, but for the entrée into the children’s entertainment space.”

And there is the Babson College connection, where Zimmern teaches several days each year in a role of “entrepreneur in residence.” The gig came about thanks to attorney Wiese’s partnership with the Wellesley, Massachusetts, institution on a separate venture. The relationship works for Zimmern because it places him, uniquely among his peers, in a “thought leadership” universe and allows him to work toward his goal to effect change.

The change Zimmern favors seeks to upset the established order of how we raise and produce food in the U.S. and takes aim at very established interests. “He doesn’t need to do passion projects,” says Cowin. “It takes nerve.”

Speaking to a group of Babson faculty last August, he explained: “I am a spoiled rich kid who became a drug addict and lived on the streets and relied on handouts. I’ve become fortunate again and I believe from those who are given much, much is expected.”

Zimmern is attracted to Babson’s focus on action creating understanding rather than vice versa, a perspective atypical for an academic institution. “The food life in this country has never been better for a select few,” he explains, “but it has never been worse for many. If I can help figure out a way to profitably decentralize our food system it would be the most important contribution I could make.”

The Wages of Success

Zimmern and his advisers are circumspect about his earnings, net worth (rated online at $5 million), or assets. He did not show up on Forbes’ list of the 20 wealthiest chefs (a list Zimmern said was highly inaccurate) but probably doesn’t belong there. The author of that list, Forbes’ Los Angeles Bureau Chief Dorothy Pomerantz, describes Zimmern’s brand as “solid.”

“But it’s not enough to be talented,” she says. “If you want to make big bucks in this business, you have to diversify, combining work that is low-margin but builds your brand” with high-margin work that pays.

Zimmern and his advisers get that, and are happy to discuss the challenges and choices they have made trying to balance Zimmern’s short- and long-term economic interests.

“We used to split a $240 commission check, me and Tom,” says John Larson. Today it is much larger, but not as large as it might have been.

“Nobody gets rich in cable,” says Zimmern. “The talent and producers do not own the content. You sign an initial contract, which gives the network a big piece of everything you make for five years and near-total control of your outside ventures.” “The talent are paid a fee, the production company is paid a fee, but they don’t share in the revenue,” adds Wiese.

That phase of Zimmern’s career is only recently past. “Now is my time to monetize,” he says. “We’ve worked hard to make a platform that’s as stable and diverse as possible so I can grow this by five or 10 times.”

To that end, Zimmern plows much of his earnings back into Food Works, “choosing not to live as well so we can make it sustainable rather than riding it up, then down,” says Wiese.

Zimmern says it is too early in the life of his new businesses to know return-on-investment metrics, but his five-year plan has Food Works generating 10 times current revenue. That revenue pie is currently 55 percent Travel Channel work, 30 percent endorsements, 10 percent appearances, and 5 percent books and miscellaneous.

For a celebrity of his caliber, Zimmern, 51, has few trappings of fame besides a taste for gadgets and a BMW. He lives in a modest home in the west suburbs, flies commercial, and travels without a handler or assistant. He doesn’t own a second house, and for vacation, takes trips to Disney World with wife Rishia and son Noah.

Though living in New York or L.A. would streamline his life, he chooses to remain in the Twin Cities to protect his personal life. “If you live in New York or L.A.,” he says, “you can’t turn it off.”

He, like most celebrities, is most struck by his loss of privacy. “You spend five days taping in the woods of Arkansas, you’re in a small airport, wearing a hoodie, facing the corner, and you turn around and there are 15 people ringed around you,” Zimmern says. “I’ve been followed in hospitals with a camera phone through an oncology ward. People have trampled my wife and kid to get to me.”

The cost to his family has “been far worse than I imagined,” he says. “They are victims of my popularity. The speaking engagements, the marketing commitments, the TV talk shows all require travel. I’m sure more days than not they would say it’s not worth it, but I have this business to support.”

How atypical is his life? “It’s been years since I called a friend and said, ‘What are you doing? Let’s go hang out.’ ”

Fresh Bandwidth & the Big Win

Zimmern is under contract with Travel Channel until spring 2014. With the network having just lost Bourdain to CNN, his leverage is powerful. “I have no plans to leave,” Zimmern says, but “it’s a business relationship.” He does covet a reset. “I have to start shedding stuff. To be on the road 35 weeks a year is unmanageable.”

Travel Channel, rumored to again be for sale, remains invested in Zimmern. “Bizarre Foods and Andrew will always exist in one form or another at Travel Channel,” says Laureen Ong, the network’s president. “It is one of the cornerstones of this network.”

Larson and Wiese say they have many ideas about how Zimmern can maintain an ongoing commitment to Bizarre Foods yet reclaim more of his “bandwidth.” He has shot two pilots for the network (notably not in conjunction with Tremendous Productions), both of which would presumably be more efficient to produce.

The first, Border Check, explores food and culture in places “where one place ends and another begins,” Zimmern says. It will have its initial airing in spring. The second, “busting myths about places,” says Zimmern, has yet to be named or scheduled for broadcast.

Zimmern expects a subsequent contract with Travel Channel to allow him to move forward on the many endeavors he has planned.

The list is audacious. Control and ownership are watchwords. “My son is nearly eight. When he goes to college, I want to be working only when the spirit moves me. I will always be working, but I’d like to be sitting on a beach with my wife and some good books,” Zimmern says. He describes the 10-year plan as “instead of doing 48 things to earn X, let’s do 15 things and earn 10x.” The path contains several initiatives:

0213_andrewz_pic2.jpgAndrew and his AZ Canteen food truck.

Food production Last summer saw the debut of AZ Canteen, a Zimmern-branded food truck that is to be the test-bed for a spinoff business of six to eight food trucks roaming the country and the globe. Zimmern and two longtime friends made an initial investment of around $60,000 to equip and brand a truck selling an array of foodstuffs, employing the lessons Zimmern has learned traveling the world. The truck’s most popular dishes employ goat meat, which is the world’s most widely consumed red meat and also has the lowest impact on the environment.

“We saw it as a low-cost entry point to get back in the food production biz [that he left more than a decade ago],” Zimmern explains. “You can’t make money with one truck, not with our start-up costs and top-heavy organization. But we will build two or three more this year. We’re trading on my notoriety and allowing me to spread the gospel.” AZ Canteen is spending the winter in south Florida and is expected to be at the Super Bowl. It will return to the Twin Cities for part of next summer, and Zimmern is in negotiations with Delaware North Sportservice to bring its products to Target Field and other arenas the company handles.

Zimmern is in discussions with OTG Management to bring a version of AZ Canteen to airports. (An airport food service concessionaire, OTG has already rolled out Zimmern’s MinniBar sandwich shops in several airports, including MSP.) OTG pays Zimmern a licensing fee in exchange for his recipes and limited oversight.

“OTG gets it,” says WME’s Bider, “and Andrew was willing to put in the work to make sure it was to the quality level he wanted.”

Zimmern developed his goat sausage in partnership with New Jersey-based meat purveyor Pat LaFrieda as part of a line of Zimmern/LaFrieda-branded “alternative” proteins that will appear in grocery stores in the first half of 2013.

“He’s hit on a nexus between hipsters and butchers. It’s on its way,” says Dana Cowin. “The mainstream public is ready and very curious.”

Finally, there is a plan for a quick-service Zimmern-branded restaurant concept that would be located on or near college campuses, which may see the light of day in 2014.

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