Startup seeks to build $1B kids' food empire

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The idea came about after West Coast entrepreneur Erik Stangvik saw his four-year-old daughter Allegra transfixed in front of the TV set-watching the Food Network.

As Emeril Lagasse would say-bam! From that simple observation came an ambitious plan to create America's next big lifestyle brand. The stunning goal: a $1 billion children's cooking empire within two years. And within that empire: a TV series; a theme restaurant chain where chefs entertain during meals; a line of kid-friendly cooking utensils; almost ready-to-cook meals with pre-measured ingredients; a Leapfrog-like computer with cooking content; a Web site; and books, magazines and DVDs.

In an occasional series of articles, Advertising Age plans to follow Mr. Stangvik and his partners' progress in developing what they hope will become the culinary version of "Sesame Street" or Barney.

Mr. Stangvik's plan comes as the U.S. Census shows the children's population exploding from 70.4 million in 2000 to a projected 77.2 million in 2020. "We see an opportunity to create a branded franchise with integrity," said Bill Bourdon, VP-business development and partner of the venture, which targets 4-to-9 year-olds.

To lure the kids-and their credit-card-carrying parents-the new brand revolves around two chefs, Gaspergoo and his brother Gusto. They are to be the centerpiece of a planned TV series with 26 episodes-yet to be shopped to a network-in which live-action slapstick characters in the Laurel and Hardy genre run a restaurant kitchen, preparing Gaspergoolash or "Take a Leek Soup" that children and their parents can try at home. Copies of the set will be the centerpieces of Gaspergoo restaurants planned for New York, Los Angeles, and Napa, Calif. Mr. Stangvik's concept is a limited chain more akin to American Girl Cafe than Chuck E. Cheese.

Among other characters are Nut Meg, a lab type who inserts a science lesson into the kitchen; and Quicha, a reporter/chef who goes to the far corners of the earth to find out where vegetables and other foods come from, teaching both geography and the sense of a food's origin.

friends and angels

Each program will start with "Our safety pledge won't soon be forgotten: Watch out for things hot, sharp or rotten." In place of Emeril's "Bam!," Gaspergoo and his brother high-five, creating a puff with their floury hands and exclaiming "Whapoo." Their motto, and the property's tagline, is FYF, Feed Your Friends.

One of Gaspergoo's key marketing strategies is to tie the program to the debate over childhood obesity. The American Obesity Association said between 20% and 30% of children are overweight and 15% are obese, with one cause linked to a lack of family mealtime bonding.

The positioning is seen as a perfect fit for a marketing pitch targeting parents concerned about children's nutritional inclinations, and it's also seen as a perfect fit by a powerful food organization signed on as an equity player in Gaspergoo.

The non-profit Copia: The American Center for Wine Food and the Arts, is the brainchild of vintner Robert Mondavi, who anted up $20 million to fund the Gaspergoo project. Among Copia's trustees are some of the biggest names in food: Martin Yan of Yan Can Cook Group; Alice Waters of Chez Panisse; Jacques Pepin; and Eleanor Coppola, wife of filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola. Together they built Copia's $55 million complex in the heart of California's Napa wine country, a combination art museum, edible garden and food cultural center.

In return for an equity stake in the company, Copia is providing Gaspergoo with resources for developing content, such as access to its food curator and library, as well as introductions to "angels" (potential wealthy investors).

Copia trustee Stanley Cheng, chairman-CEO of Meyer Corp., the world's second largest cookware company and marketer of Circulon, Silvertone and Analon brands, committed an estimated $1 million to get a mid-priced Gaspergoo cookware line off the ground.

The line, to be launched as it is featured on the show, will consist of skillets, griddles, pans and pots with colorful design and safety features such outer sides cool to the touch and longer, thicker handles for easy gripping. Other kitchen tools, gloves and aprons may be developed in child sizes.

"This is a serious commitment on our part," said Mr. Cheng. "We feel this is going to be successful." For the giant Meyer Corp., success could translate into sales of $5 million to $10 million over a five-year period, he said.

Purcell Murray is providing major appliances for the TV production.

licensing search

That's just the start, however. The enterprise has been negotiating to secure a private-equity or venture-capital firm to act as finance manager, beginning with securing $8 million for the planned 26 initial Gaspergoo episodes. Decisions also have to be made on whether Gaspergoo will partner directly with a studio for production.

The group is also searching for a master licensing partner, an entity such as United Media. Other master license holders need to be secured for toys and games. In addition, the Gaspergoo team is negotiating with restaurant chains for Gaspergoo eateries. Then there's the issue of a partnership with a distribution firm such as Scholastic Entertainment.

Already, a soft launch of the brand planned for early 2005 has been canceled, supplanted with a timeline of putting the brand into play by holiday 2005.

"We made a decision to see the property through to every aspect and not to hand it to a network or sell it off to another company," said Jeanne Smith, co-founder and creative director for the venture. "We wanted to hold onto the integrity."

Barrett Brenton, a nutritional anthropologist and an associate professor of anthropology at St. John's University, New York, applauded the Gaspergoo concept, noting the success of a 1970's era PBS series espousing the food pyramid and citing concern among nutritionists today over the "the death of cooking." To rekindle the family table and to fight obesity, Gaspergoo would also need to push children's activities, not just eating, he said. "The question is, do you turn into the plump chef people identify with."

Gaspergoo, though, doesn't have the kitchen to himself. Mr. Lagasse has begun to lay his claim to children's cooking with a book and a line of products being sold in Viking Culinary Arts Centers and other outlets. And a spokesman for the Food Network said a "cook with your kids" push is in the works.

Courtney Reeser, managing director of WPP Group's Landor Associates, San Francisco, thinks the concept, while "interesting," has a good chance to fall like a souffle. "Are kids really ready to focus on cooking?" he asked. The proposed spinoffs "sound pretty ambitious. ... Even in the adult world, it's not that easy."

Moreover, families are so busy the dinner table dynamic will be hard to change. "My guess is it will be tough going."

Rachel Geller, chief strategic officer of WPP's Gepetto Group, said Gaspergoo's target might be a tad young. "The beginning of critical thinking is 9 and 10," she said. At 5 or 6, children are still combining fantasy and reality. "They have magical thinking."

But that might, in fact, be just the ingredient this recipe calls for.

Ingredients

The cooks:

* Erik Stangvik, 44, co-creator and CEO, retail entrepreneur who brought the Body Shop to California who now owns a group of Furla stores.

* Jeanne Smith, 43, co-founder, chief creative officer, singer, actress and songwriter. She is an acting buddy of Mr. Stangvik.

* Bill Bourdon, 31, VP-business development and partner, dot-com era PR specialist who once worked for San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown as deputy AIDS policy adviser.

* Asmattering of Hollywood names, such as Michael Gross, writer of "Bill Nye the Science Guy" and Fred Fierst, attorney for "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles."

The recipe:

1. Get private-equity or venture-capital firm to serve as finance manager to secure $8 million.

2. Fold in master licensing partner, an entity such as United Media. Add other master license holders for toys and games, as needed.

3. Get restaurant chain to develop Gaspergoo eateries and cooking school.

4. Sign up networks to air the TV show.

5. Whip up partnership with entertainment distribution firm.

6. Coordinate in time for a fall 2005 TV show debut.

7. Mix and see what develops

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