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Retail Foodservice

One-on-One With Chef Robert Irvine

Celebrity chef on his new cookbook, adventures in CPG and what makes a food business succeed or fail
Robert Irvine
Illustration by Olivier Balez

Celebrity chef Robert Irvine is the author of a new cookbook, and markets a growing family of food products through his Robert Irvine Foods label.

Jon Springer: Your new book is called Family Table and combines recipes with parenting advice. What was the inspiration?

Robert Irvine: My own family. Family Table represents what I’ve learned about how to be a better parent and lead children by setting a positive example. A few of the essays center on blocking out the negative influence of technology; we’ve all gone out to dinner and seen the families where everyone’s staring at their phones instead of talking to each other. And I’m not some curmudgeon when it comes to technology. It’s about appreciating what’s right in front of your face because kids grow up so fast. You blink and they’re grown up—that’s always been the case. Now with the phones I get an uneasy feeling that there’s a generation coming up now who won’t really know their parents. But when we quiet the noise and are truly present with one another, everything in front of us takes on a deeper meaning, especially family. We can’t stop the advance of technology, but we can take back dinnertime. The kitchen, the dinner table—these places should be an oasis. More than just physical nourishment, dinner can be time to feed your family’s soul. Family and food go hand in hand.

family table robert irvine
Photograph courtesy of FMI

You are known to many as the guy who saved failing food businesses—a topic many of our readers can sadly relate to. What were the most common problems you came across in that endeavor?

Poor communication is one of the most common threads throughout every restaurant I’ve helped. At the onset of a restaurant’s downturn, most owners turn to the staff and management as the cause. Resentments begin to build to a point where lashing out becomes the sole means of discussion. At a certain point, communication ceases completely and any chance of improvement goes out the window.

What are a few lessons supermarkets could learn from successful restaurants?

1. Talk to your customers. And not just when problems arise. Having a proactive conversation with customers nurtures loyalty and relationships, addresses issues before they become problems, and provides feedback to determine business performance. 

2. Technology is your friend; use it to pay close attention to what’s moving and what’s not and be quick to toss things that just aren’t working.

3. Cleanliness and friendliness. It doesn’t cost much to keep your establishment clean and organized and it costs nothing to greet customers with a smile and make sure they found everything they were looking for. Let’s face it: Grocery shopping is a chore for most people. If you can find any way to make it an enjoyable experience, your customers are going to love you for it—and give you loyalty in return.

What are the origins of your passion for food?

I have always loved cooking. When I was younger, I helped my mom prepare Sunday roasts, which is still one of my favorite go-to meals today. But my first real interest in cooking came when I took a home economics class. It was the first time I was really educated about food, nutrition, and the balance of healthy and delicious meals. I continued cooking when I joined the British Royal Navy and haven’t stopped.

Between Signature meals, Sidekicks and FitCrunch, you’re also in the CPG business now. What have you learned about what makes a success on supermarket shelves?

Consumers appreciate items that are healthier than typical prepared foods, affordable, and above all taste great. We use quality ingredients for everything. It’s also really important to gather and listen to feedback from buyers, and make changes where necessary. Lastly, I think it’s important to start small, to stay organized and streamlined and find out what works. Then once you’re firing on all cylinders you build up from there.

Lightning Round

Who does the food shopping for your family, and where does it get done?

My wife Gail and I take turns—we visit farmers markets, butcher shops, grocery stores … all over!

What was your first job?

I joined the British Royal Navy when I was 15 years old. 

Your arms are so massive it’s easy to overlook your tiny waist. How much time in the gym each week does that require?

I go every single day. Usually an hour or more each visit.

What’s your go-to breakfast?

Muesli. There’s really no right or wrong way to make it. It’s also a fun way to involve your kids in the kitchen.

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