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Chefs seek growth in new venues, healthier menus

/ Source: Reuters

Growth-seeking U.S. chefs and restaurant chains are using a variety of different recipes -- from new venues and ethnic-inspired flavors to targeting healthier eaters -- in a bid to expand their reach.

Chef Wolfgang Puck, best-known for his Spago restaurant in Beverly Hills, wants his company to resemble "Armani or any of the fashion houses."

Puck has high-end or "haute couture" offerings (Spago and Cut), a more casual "pret-a-porter" or ready-to-wear line (Wolfgang Puck Express and Wolfgang Puck Bistro), and licensing deals that put the chef's soups, pizzas and other grocery items in stores around the country.

Puck -- who was a celebrity chef before many of today's culinary stars were old enough to wield a knife -- said he wants to open more of his casual restaurants in airports around the world.

"I think it's really a good place for us to be. There are a lot of fast-food chains (in airports), but people today demand better-quality food," said Puck, who also sells cookware, small kitchen appliances and other gadgets.

Chef Michael Mina, whose restaurant group includes namesake eateries as well as Bourbon Steak and other brands, said partnerships with hoteliers like Bellagio in Las Vegas and the Four Seasons in Baltimore allow him to leave construction and other development issues to experts in those fields.

That means he can focus on food and restaurant operations.

"That's a huge advantage," said Mina.

"Early on, (chefs) are pretty confident we can figure everything out. It takes away from what you do. I wanted to stay focused on the creative side," Mina said.

Chipotle Mexican Grill, which won a following by upgrading burritos with premium ingredients, this summer opened a restaurant called ShopHouse Southeast Asian Kitchen in Washington, D.C. as Asian cuisine grows in popularity.

Other chains also are eyeing healthier food, as that niche defies persistent economic malaise.

Starbucks, the world's biggest coffee chain, recently announced plans to open juice bars next year.

The Seattle company, which is expanding its "health and wellness" offerings, also bought juice company Evolution Fresh for $30 million in cash.

P.F. Chang's China Bistro has loaned money to True Food Kitchen, a small chain where the vegetable-centric menu is based on Dr. Andrew Weil's anti-inflammatory diet. Weil is a pioneer in the field of integrative medicine, which embraces both alternative and conventional medicine.

P.F. Chang Chief Executive Rick Federico said on a recent call with analysts that the company is considering whether and when it might convert the debt to an ownership position.

"It is extremely well-positioned ... in terms of how consumers are dining," he said.