Dealmaking Spree Hints at Potential Puck Stock Offer

By DEBORAH BELGUM
Staff Reporter

Wolfgang Puck is on a national expansion campaign that has analysts wondering whether he is positioning his company again to go public.

Wolfgang Puck Worldwide Inc. has made two major business transactions that will help the company grow rapidly beyond California.

Last week the Beverly Hills-based company acquired Cucina Cucina Inc., a small chain of Italian restaurants based in the Seattle area, for an undisclosed price. This is the first restaurant acquisition for Puck's company, which will continue to run the restaurant chain under its original name.

The company also has signed franchise agreements with five restaurant executives to expand the Wolfgang Puck Express concept, a fast-food version of the Wolfgang Puck Cafes, to various regions across the country. Currently, there are 16 Wolfgang Puck Caf & #233;s in California, Colorado and Florida, and 19 Wolfgang Puck Express quick-casual restaurants.

And a global licensing partnership has been struck with food giant ConAgra Brands to mass market Wolfgang Puck pizza and packaged food products in supermarkets.

All this has been under the aegis of Robert F. Kautz, the company's president and chief executive since January 2000. (Wolfgang Puck Worldwide is a separate entity from Puck's higher-end restaurants, such as Spago in Beverly Hills and from Wolfgang Puck Catering and Events.)

"I would think that going public would be their eventual goal," said Randall Hiatt, president of Fessel International, a restaurant consulting firm in Orange County.

If all this sounds a little familiar, it's because back in the mid-1990s there were also rumblings that Wolfgang Puck Foods (which became Wolfgang Puck Worldwide) would go public. "There is not a bank that wouldn't take this public today if we wanted them to," then-Chief Executive Selwyn Joffe said in 1995.

But Wall Street was not enthused perhaps because both the frozen pizza line and the cafes were considered underwhelming performers.

Kautz has expanded the Wolfgang Puck Express franchise concept, signing the five partners to build as many as 75 franchises in the next five years for the areas covering primarily New England, the mid-Atlantic region, Florida, Georgia and Hawaii. "The Express units are our major growth vehicle," Kautz said.

More franchises available

Fourteen more franchise regions are still up for grabs. Kautz also launched Puck's weekly TV cooking show on cable television's Food Network and increased his media exposure through cookbooks.

With this ramping up comes new speculation about going public.

"It is always the ultimate goal for a private company to go public because you have the public exposure and you can cash out your investors with the public offering," said Janet Lowder, president of L.A.-based Restaurant Management Services, a restaurant consulting company.

But Kautz is circumspect. "When you are positioned right and the financial markets are right, you do it," said Kautz, who has a master's degree from Harvard Business School.

Cucina Cucina's menu is similar to those of Wolfgang Puck Cafes, which contains nouveau-California cuisine with an Italian bent.

Cucina Cucina consists of 15 caf & #233; restaurants located in Washington, Oregon and California and seven quick-casual Italian restaurants known as Cucina Presto in the Seattle area. The Cucina cafes have wood-burning ovens to bake pizzas. The Presto establishments are similar to the Express concept.

But the acquisition fits into with Kautz's business plan. "We are trying to build the Express franchising program and the major partners to bring additional economies of scale to our company which can be a benefit to everyone," Kautz said.

Buying the competition

Bill Schwartz, the former chairman, president and chief executive of Cucina Cucina, said he approached Wolfgang Puck Worldwide last year about acquiring the company launched in 1994.

"They saw it as an opportunity to enter this market without having to compete with us," he said. "It would take them a longer time to develop a bunch of units that probably would have inferior locations and higher rents."

Schwartz, who has been in the restaurant business for 30 years, said his company invested $25.5 million in three rounds of financing to get the Cucina chain off the ground.

The chain expanded rapidly in the late 1990s, only to have to close one fifth of its eateries in Denver, Phoenix, San Francisco and Portland. Expansion plans were put on hold. "We expanded too quickly into too many markets and were unable to establish the same presence and following we had in the Northwest," Schwartz said.

Kautz will retain almost all the Cucina staff except for the top executives and run the Seattle-based company as a division of Wolfgang Puck Worldwide.

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