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In the winter of 2001, a blizzard threatened New York—Manhattan residents faced being snowbound in their apartments. NBC’s Today show planned a segment about cooking at home with items from pantry shelves—a novel idea for urbanites more accustomed to dialing for takeout than peeling a potato.
Meantime, in upstate New York, Rachael Ray was working in an upscale grocery, doing cooking demonstrations at the store and on a local Albany TV station. That’s when the call came: It was Today.
Setting off in that blinding snow en route to NBC’s studios, Rachael Ray did not foresee the changes coming her way. Millions watched, including a Food Network exec, as Ray unabashedly combined common pantry items and fresh ingredients into stews, soups and “stoups,” while cutting up with Today show’s Al Roker. The following day, Ray held a $360,000 Food Network contract in her hands.
Harnessing the Fear
The naturally self-deprecating Ray thought the Food Network folks had it all wrong. Surely, they’d forgotten about her lack of culinary training. “I’m just teaching people how to make supper,” she says. But her “everyman” quality was exactly what consumers had been waiting for.
None of this was scripted. But Ray’s natural marketing savvy helped fill consumer needs and she grabbed hold of opportunities, even the ones that scared her.
“You know, when the Food Network called me I was scared to death and didn’t even want to go down to meet them,” she tells SUCCESS. “But you have to be brave enough to close your eyes and be a bit of a visionary. Try to imagine yourself doing all these impossible things.”
She considered her heroes, Emeril and Julia Child. They weren’t so different from her—food lovers with easygoing personalities. Harnessing the fear, Ray asked herself, “Why not me?”
When she burst onto the Food Network, Ray’s unconventional kitchen methods put some culinary purists off. But she was up front with her critics and fans, claiming only to be a great cook, not a chef. Instantly, the once self-important food television genre became “everyday,” accessible, relevant. New audiences of stressed and busy Americans responded to Ray’s unmatched energy and enthusiasm for teaching them how to cook nutritious and delicious dinners—fast!
Consumers caught a glimpse of themselves in Ray’s signature can-do style. She hacked onions, gave vegetables “legs” (slicing off a rounded side first to make chopping easier), invented acronyms for commonly used ingredients like extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) and poked fun at her own on-camera missteps.
When Rachael Ray told audiences they could, audiences believed. Soon a brand new kind of cooking superstar emerged.
No one was more surprised than Ray. Television was never part of her plan. In fact, she really didn’t have a plan or an agent, for that matter. This former waitress from upstate New York simply followed her heart and stomach into a career she loved while staying true to herself and her instincts.
“If you’re already a happy worker and you go to work with a positive state of mind, then you don’t really have anything to be afraid of,” Ray says about taking career risks. “If you’re not afraid of where you’re coming from, it sort of makes the future quite easy to navigate. The worst that can happen is that you start back at go, and if you liked where you started then it’s not so bad.”
With fierce bravery and zeal, Ray leapt into television heeding the words of her mother and mentor, Else Scuderi: “You must strive to get wherever it is you want to go, but remember that you can’t be all things to all people. So decide who and what you are and don’t try to pretend that you’re something other than that.”
Luck and timing weren’t fully responsible for Ray’s emergence as a superstar. Long before television came calling, Ray connected with consumers, learning what they need, want and expect from food, and working hard to make it happen.
She cut her teeth in restaurants managed by her mother— busing tables, mopping floors, and anticipating customer needs. She put her natural inclination as a people-pleaser to work waiting tables, tending bar and managing restaurants in the Adirondack Mountains where she grew up. Family fun was a big bowl of her grandfather’s pasta and gathering round the kitchen table to eat, laugh and chew on opinions.
Eventually, Ray headed to New York City to manage pubs and restaurants, but a couple of muggings told her the big city was not for her. She headed back north, landing a job as a food buyer at Cowan & Lobel, a large gourmet market in Albany. Here, Ray conceptualized and taught 30-minute Mediterranean cooking classes. Her goal was to sell more groceries, but 30-minute meals delivered far more.
“There was a generation or two there that lived out of the microwave because nobody was home cooking,” Ray says. “I started teaching these 30-minute classes because Domino’s took 30 minutes to deliver pizza. That’s how long people would wait for takeout. I figured I could teach them how to make a quick dinner.”
Ray intuitively zeroed in on an underserved segment of consumers, primarily double-income working families, who desperately wanted to provide more than box dinners for supper.
Soon local TV caught on and in 1998 started regularly featuring Ray’s cooking segments on the evening news. A cookbook was an obvious next step and she shopped around a 30-Minute Meals idea to lots of publishers before getting a green light from a small New York publishing house. The original 30-Minute Meals cookbook, a companion to the news segments, sold some 10,000 copies during that first holiday season in upstate New York grocery stores.
On the Food Network in 2001, she had two shows, 30-Minute Meals and $40 A Day. But the exposure quickly transformed her into a media and lifestyle maven, with a menagerie of cookware, cutlery and best-selling cookbooks; a national lifestyle magazine, Everyday with Rachael Ray; and an Emmy award-winning daytime talk show, The Rachael Ray Show. Each facet of the Rachael Ray brand meets with increasing consumer popularity and success.
Her brand’s uncalculated nature is precisely why Ray believes it succeeds. “It’s got a can-do factor,” she says. “It’s got an accessibility factor, whether you’re talking about the magazine, the travel show, the daytime show, the 30-minute meals. The whole success of those things and what connects them is that anyone— young or old, rich or poor, male or female—can look at it and say to themselves, ‘I can so picture myself doing that,’ or ‘That’s something I could totally do the next time I travel to wherever.’
“It’s that everyman quality that we’re shooting for,” Ray says. “Can everyone get these ingredients in the regular grocery store? We do travel pieces in the magazine and we certainly do them on the air, whether I’m in Europe or Walla Walla, Washington, and we get our tips from the people who live there. You see us get lost…. We do things that real people do.”
People like that about Ray, and in return, she is fiercely loyal to her customers and her brand. “I’m very specific about what works for us and I’m very protective about what we do and don’t do,” Ray says. She surrounds herself with people who feel the same way. “Life should be about this accessibility!”
‘Presidents, First Ladies, Oscar Winners’
Chatting up the guy who runs the greasy spoon on the corner or the Hollywood elite comes naturally for Ray. “I was always proud of my family, my work ethic and where I come from, so I wasn’t intimidated. But I’m certainly very nervous about 90 percent of the people who come on the talk show. I mean, presidents, first ladies, Oscar winners—if you’re not nervous and excited to meet these people, there’s something wrong with you.”
Self-deprecating wit helps Ray shake nerves quickly and get down to business, on and off the air. President Clinton sat down at Ray’s on-set kitchen table and spoke about his Alliance for a Healthier Generation, which inspired collaboration between the Alliance and Ray’s Yum-O! Foundation.
Ray’s multifaceted foundation is aimed at eradicating hunger among American children. She fervently believes childhood hunger in the United States is “a national embarrassment. It should be to all our great shame that there are hungry children here.” She actively leads the Yum-O! crusade, developing and lending her name to cooking-based products that raise money to feed hungry kids. Yum-O! also teaches kids self-esteem through food preparation and healthy family food choices, and works with the National Restaurant Association to provide scholarships to kids pursuing food-related education.
Ray’s proverbial plate constantly overflows. Sure she has days filled with quick wardrobe changes and running hither and yon taping television shows before live studio audiences. But her busy life also gives her quiet days, writing days. With Isaboo, her rescued pit-bull sleeping close by, Ray kicks back in her favorite sushi pajamas and lets her mind create the flavorful recipes her adoring customers are waiting to whip up for supper.
It’s in this environment that talking about her extraordinary success makes Ray uneasy. She calls her career a “happy accident” and has never bought into the idea that success is about things or status. Put simply, Ray says, “Success has always been being able to come home and make myself dinner, to know the bills are paid, that my family’s OK today, to have my dog and to eat good food.”