Deen’s business pursuits began in 1989. After the death of her parents and a divorce from her high school sweetheart, Deen was left with about $200, a problem with agoraphobia and her two teenage sons to raise. In June 1989, she launched “The Bag Lady,” a catering company focused on traditional Southern cooking. This allowed her to stay in her home, and her sons, Jamie and Bobby, delivered her creations, which she referred to as “lunch-and-love-in-a-bag.” Eventually the business outgrew her home kitchen, so she moved to a small restaurant at a Best Western motel in her hometown of Savannah, Ga., and by 1994, she and her sons opened their first restaurant, The Lady and Sons. In 1999, USA Today food critic Jerry Shriver named The Lady and Sons as “International Meal of the Year.”
Around the same time, Deen released her first cookbook, “The Lady and Sons Savannah Country Cookbook,” and gained the attention of the Food Network. She premiered “Paula’s Home Cooking” in 2002, and since then, has added “Paula’s Party” and “Paula’s Best Dishes,” and has won two Emmy Awards. She’s the author of 14 cookbooks that have sold more than 8 million copies and has a bimonthly magazine, Cooking With Paula Deen. Along with her brother Bubba Hiers, Deen owns the Uncle Bubba’s Oyster House in Savannah. Additionally, in partnership with Caesar’s Entertainment, there are Paula Deen Buffets at Harrah’s Tunica in Mississippi and at Horseshoe Southern Indiana Casino. Harrah’s Cherokee in North Carolina and Harrah’s Joliet in Illinois also have restaurants with décor based on Deen’s Savannah home and kitchen.
“I am living proof that the American dream still exists,” Deen stated. “It is still alive and well. There is only one trick – you have to be willing to roll up your sleeves and work very, very hard.” Regardless of whether she is developing a cookbook, running her restaurant or hosting a TV show, Deen’s hard work is apparent, which is why she has become so popular with the American people. With her focus on quality and offering the marketplace the very best, her home and food products have become very successful, as well.
Paula Deen Enterprises launched in 2006; this business owns Deen’s restaurants and publishes her magazine and cookbooks, but it also offers a range of cookware and dishes. The company offers 17 different licenses, and many of the products are offered in an online store on her website. Some of the best-selling items in the Paula Deen Store include the Southern Rooster 16-piece dinnerware set, the 15-piece signature porcelain cookware set, signature cutlery 14-piece knife block set, Paula Deen House Seasoning and a signature enamel-on-steel, 16-quart stockpot.
“Most of our licenses do extremely well,” Weiner says. “If a company wants to license Paula’s name for a product, they have to come to Savannah and show it to her, and she either likes it or she doesn’t. She’ll cook with it, because she is an active participant in building her business. If something doesn’t work, she will make changes – she uses this stuff in her own kitchen, so she wants it to be great. It is a very simple process.”
The Paula Deen Store offers more than 7,000 items – many with the Paula Deen name on them, but also a range of other products that Deen uses. Her name appears on coffee, coconut cake, spice rubs, biscuit mix, pies and many other items. Operated by Cooking.com, the Paula Deen Store offers a 100 percent satisfaction guarantee. Deen’s cookware and the Paula Deen Home brand – which features furniture and many other items – can be found at leading retailers across the country.
“We respond to the marketplace,” Weiner says. “We believe that if we offer a really good product, the marketplace will follow. We’re always looking at new areas and things to offer, but it has to have quality – we only put square pegs in square holes.”
“You don’t want to make a steady diet of just lettuce,” Dean stated. “You also don’t want to make a steady diet of fried chicken.” Well known for her love of quality food as well as her love for feeding people, Deen launched Paula Deen Foods in 2011. This was formed to guarantee the highest level of quality in its products, which are based on Deen’s traditional recipes, as well as lighter versions.
“This food is one of the major areas Paula is emphasizing right now,” Weiner says. “We are taking her most popular recipes and finding ways to make them for the mass market. The process is time-consuming, but we want to obtain the same quality and flavor profile when this food is in someone’s home as it would be coming directly from Paula’s kitchen.”
Paula Deen Enterprises partnered with the Buffalo, N.Y.-based Nanco Group to create Paula Deen Foods. The Nanco Group is owned by the Nanula family, which has been successful in the retail marketplace with its Tops Friendly Markets and Wilson Farms Stores. The Nanco team has extensive experience with private-label brands, having developed similar products for its own stores. Weiner explains that Nanco was the logical choice for a partner because its stores are known for their high levels of quality.
“We only do business with people who are experts in their fields,” he stresses. “This is not a license operation, however. Nanco is working in Savannah with Paula to develop these products. We have become very successful in a lot of businesses because of the partnerships we’ve put together.”
Working with Deen will be Nanco Group Principal Steven Nanula, who previously led innovation and concept development at Tops. Also part of the team is Nanco executive Nick Gallegos, who spent two decades with the Safeway chain and was a general partner and vice president of sales and marketing at Wilson Farms.
“We are honored to take Nanco’s generations of experience and bring our favorite recipes from our family to your own,” Deen says. “Working with Nanco, we have generations of experience and knowledge from our most important partners – the grocery retailers that will enable us to bring the best value possible to those who love our recipes.”
According to a statement from Nanula, Paula Deen Foods is targeting all major retail channels nationwide. The brand will focus on products that consumers can prepare at home, as well as a specialty line that will be sold in Deen’s restaurants.
“There is a lot of back-and-forth with the products before they get her OK,” Weiner says. “She either says ‘I like this’ or ‘I don’t like it.’ It’s that simple.”
He cites Springer Mountain Farms, which Deen partnered with a few years ago. Springer Mountain sells chicken with no hormones or antibiotics in it. He says Deen wanted that same level of quality in her salads – they must have chicken without any chemicals and “have no words in the list of ingredients that you don’t understand.” With this as the standard, Paula Deen Foods is taking time to ensure the products match the quality that Deen wants to represent.
“This company has become very successful in a lot of areas, so we can afford to wait and do things properly,” Weiner says. “Too many celebrities rush and throw their name on anything. Our focus always has been to build a business that lasts for a long time. It’s harder, but in the long run, we’re better off. Her businesses are so successful that it’s easier for us to be patient.
“We try to create products that fit with people’s lifestyles and pocketbooks – we’re not going to mark something up just because it has Paula’s name on it,” he continues. “We all believe that Paula can sell something once, but that’s not the business we’re in. Unless we do it properly, the product will not sell twice. Because her business is so spread out, we have the ability to try to do the best we can, and only offer quality.”