Sysco Embeds Products Into New Food Network 'Chopped' Series

B-to-B Company Aims to Reach Chefs in Tie-ins With Brand Ambassador Chef Robert Irvine

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Chef Robert Irvine, star of 'Restaurant: Impossible,' is a Sysco brand ambassador.
Chef Robert Irvine, star of 'Restaurant: Impossible,' is a Sysco brand ambassador. Credit: The Food Network

Sysco Corp. is tinkering with a new recipe for reaching chefs.

The sales company, well-known in restaurant kitchens but virtually unseen by diners, is sponsoring a limited-run series called "Chopped: Impossible" that debuts on the Food Network on Oct. 22. While consumer-facing companies often try to get their products into shows, the push is somewhat unique for Sysco. The company is trying to both promote its products to current and potential customers while also communicating its messaging to the consumers who largely never see the brand, unless it rolls by them on the side of a delivery truck.

Chief Marketing Officer Bill Goetz said Sysco began looking into marketing ideas with the channel a few years back, as research showed that more than 70% of independent restaurant owners watch the Food Network at least once a week. Sysco's public relationship with the Food Network began in 2013, when two episodes of "Restaurant: Impossible" featured Sysco products. That same year that show's star, Chef Robert Irvine, became an official Sysco brand ambassador.

The new "Chopped: Impossible" and a related online contest, all parties declare, takes the partnership to a deeper level. The Food Network and Sysco both said the supplier was brought in early on as the network was developing the show. The pantry items the competing chefs need to use in their recipes are supplied by Sysco, which gets a thank you at the end of each broadcast. Sysco, meanwhile, will mention the show in full-page print ads in trade publications and through its thousands of sales representatives who call on restaurants each day.

Sysco's marketing push comes after a prolonged attempt to expand by buying rival US Foods failed. Soon after, Sysco agreed to add activist investor and major shareholder Nelson Peltz and one of his Trian colleagues to its board.

While the Food Network could not say what percentage of its viewers are the chefs and restaurateurs that Sysco covets, Karen Grinthal, senior vice president of ad sales at the network, noted anecdotally that the network's ratings are actually higher from midnight to 4 a.m. than they are in the daytime. That viewership suggests those coming home from a night at the restaurant could be clicking on the channel.

And according to Nielsen data, four of the top 15 shows on the Food Network from Jan. 1-Sept. 20 were versions of "Chopped" and "Restaurant: Impossible."

"While it's a B-to-B company this is a great consumer channel for them," Maureen Barry, senior vice president and managing director at GSD&M. The agency, which has worked with Sysco for three years, helped guide creative elements of the show, she said.

Mr. Goetz declined to share Sysco's marketing budget but said the Food Network is the only channel it advertises on and that the push is roughly 5-10% of its total marketing spending.

The show mixes elements of "Chopped" with the "Restaurant: Impossible" franchise that Mr. Irvine is behind. Without giving away the ending, Mr. Irvine - who competes against the top contestant in the finale - said he would do another season "in a heartbeat."

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