Michael Chiarello Talks Supermarket Superstar

By Tamara Palmer  |  August 16, 2013

Longtime food TV personality and restaurateur Michael Chiarello (Coqueta, Bottega) is both an executive producer of and mentor for Supermarket Superstar (Thursdays on Lifetime). The show, hosted by Stacy Keibler, introduces new contestants each week who are guided by Chiarello, cookie maven Debbi "Mrs." Fields and food agent Chris Cornyn. The mentors help each person make products marketable to grocery stores, as they compete for a chance to win a deal with A&P Supermarkets around the country. We spoke with Chiarello about how competition for such supermarket shelf space is far bumpier than trying to open a restaurant.

Zagat: How did you come to be involved with this program?

Michael Chiarello: I wrote a show in a slightly similar format and then my agents said that the Weinsteins [Bob and Harvey] were doing this and so they got us together. I like TV that's inclusive, where you're not just a fly on the wall but where you can watch someone actually do what they do and have an opinion. And this is the show that the viewer has an opinion on, the viewer is the expert on whether they'd buy it for the price, whether they'd buy it for the nutritional content or for the price or design or whether I believe the story. It's a fascinating process to watch the development of a product for market.

Zagat: It can be such a time-consuming process to develop such products, it often takes years to do it.

MC: Making something that tastes good is the easy part. We learn in the restaurant business that finding something that makes money is always the hard part. You know, if you have a restaurant, you can raise some money with some friends and do a restaurant and if enough people like it, great. But the grocery store shelves - there are some potholes on the way to that destination because it's set up where it's hogged by so many multinational companies, huge brands and their brand extensions. And even if you have a good idea and you get set up, there's nothing to stop one of these big guys from trying to knock you off your stoop. In this case, it's a wonderful chance for someone to bypass all that and have a direct relationship with the buyer and get that much closer to the consumer. The winner will get on shelves that it would take me years to get on - you'd have to go region by region with brokers and distributors. Each store has a different way that they want to buy. So you're right, it could take years to get to the same place.

Zagat: It could also be a greater challenge than with restaurants because, unless you're McDonald's, you don't have to reveal your nutritional content, right? Restaurants can hide all their sodium and fat and terrible things, unlike your competitors on the show.

MC: Yes, restaurants don't use a lot of ingredients with vowels and letters [like packaged goods do] but they certainly are not afraid to use salt and fat as a way to prop up flavor. At the restaurant you're willing to have a guilty pleasure, but at home, when you're making something to serve to your family every day, the price per serving and sodium and fat grams are something you really look at. I think it's shocking to some of these young entrepreneurs that this is really a big deal. And that if you're selling something for, say, a farmer's market, there's a little less price pressure. Now it's not just about how much you're making, so if you are selling a big, beautiful cookie for three or four dollars, you might get away with that at a farmer's market. But when you have to make room for packaging, marketing materials and retail slotting fees, that same cookie can be five or six bucks.

Zagat: The show stays compelling because each episode is divided by theme; what are some of the themes that are coming up?

MC: Spreads, sauces, snacks, barbecue - that's a big, hard category - and dinner entrees.

Zagat: What do you enjoy most about the show?

MC: These are not just products. They are great character stories, great family stories. A buyer may not normally have all the emotions of the family - a lost soldier in Afghanistan, a single mom starting this company to feed her family - and now they have the real life story.

Zagat: Do you think consumers across the country care about the story behind the product and use it as a motivation to buy it along with the price point?

MC: I think so, I think that's why farmer's markets work and they work all across the country. Ten years ago, this was much different, but now you'll see local foods being promoted in Wichita or Denver or Minneapolis. Companies like Whole Foods have done a good job of using regional buyers for their stores to give them regional flair. I think you can't help but love supporting something with your consumption if you like the story and the price and it fits in your lifestyle.