The Untold Truth Of Wolfgang Puck's Frozen Pizzas

Wolfgang Puck is a name that has long been associated with California cuisine — and with pizza. The Austria-born chef famously built a Los Angeles-area empire from the mid-'70s, starting with Spago, where he served up "haute cuisine" pizzas (think smoked salmon and caviar toppings) to the cream of Tinseltown society (via Wolfgang Puck). The pizzas may have been honed by Spago's original pizza chef, Ed LaDou (via Eater), but Puck's connection with high-end pies was firmly established.

Of course, Puck would grow far beyond a single restaurant — today, his brand spans three companies. Wolfgang Puck Fine Dining Group oversees elite restaurants worldwide, while Wolfgang Puck Catering tackles luxury events. But Wolfgang Puck Worldwide might be considered the branch of the people, in charge of the chef's more-accessible casual dining venues and his slew of side ventures, from cookbooks and homewares sold on the Home Shopping Network to packaged foods like canned soup and coffee.

For a long time, frozen pizza also graced that list. Years later, in 2018, Puck would tell Forbes about his frozen pizza foray, "It was hard at the beginning .... [But] it was an interesting way of starting a new business."

The celebrity origins of Wolfgang Puck's frozen pizza line

Despite hosting a veritable train of celebs for decades at his Los Angeles hotspots, when Bon Appétit asked Puck for his "best celebrity food story" in 2012, the tale behind the development of his frozen pizzas topped the list.

Puck explained that Johnny Carson, a Spago regular, would often order pizzas for takeaway. When Puck asked why, the talk show host said he stashed them in the freezer. "I was upset, really," he recalled. "I was like, 'I make fresh pizza, and you put them in the freezer?' But then I tried it out, and it actually tasted really good. That's what gave me the confidence to start the frozen pizza business."

In fact, Puck had unsuccessfully entered the frozen food business in 1985, when his company created gourmet frozen desserts; his pizzas didn't hit the scene until 1987 (via The Spokesman-Review). Tom Warner, then-executive vice president of The Wolfgang Puck Food Co., said in 1998 that the initial attempt at frozen foods "failed because they were so expensive and the ingredients were seasonal."

But Puck, in a 1989 interview with the Chicago Tribune, had actually blamed the fail on a lack of business acumen between himself and his backer. Either way, the unsuccessful attempt did lead to another idea. Puck explained, "We were going broke, so I said, 'With the money that's left, why don't we buy pizza boxes and start with pizza?'"

The early years of Wolfgang Puck frozen pizza

By the late '80s, the new frozen pizzas were making their way nationwide. A 1989 rave review by the Chicago Tribune called Puck's creations "trim of crust, subtly flavored and svelte ... made with fresh, top-quality ingredients. The packaging is dramatic and classy. No other supermarket frozen pizza (and few fresh) can compete with them in taste, quality — or price." At the time, varieties included four-cheese with pesto and sliced tomatoes; sausage and herb; and spicy chicken.

Chicago Tribune added that the pizzas were not manufactured in the typical mass-market way, instead requiring manual labor and carefully selected components, such as hand-stretched crusts, from-scratch sausage, and chicken stir-fried by a Chinese chef.

Meanwhile, as The Spokesman-Review reported, the frozen food products (including pizzas) were personally approved by Puck himself. Warner explained, "We took some new pizzas over to Spago and cooked them in the oven there. Wolfgang tasted them and smiled, so I knew we had a winner."

Puck prided himself on maintaining a higher standard. He told Variety in 2017, "If we make canned soup, it has to be the best one, if we make frozen pizza, it should be the best."

Wolfgang Puck regrets taking his frozen pizza mainstream

By 2002, Puck's pizzas moved on to the big time, as the chef released his pizza line to mega-manufacturer ConAgra Foods, which hailed the collaboration as "the first broad-scale line of wood-fired pizzas available in U.S. supermarkets." The pizzas (in eight- and 11-inch sizes) were offered in six flavors: Italian Sausage & Pepperoni With Barbecue Sauce, Barbecue Style Chicken, Spicy Grilled Chicken, Primavera Vegetable, Four Cheese & Pesto, and Thai Style Chicken.

Later, Puck would regret the decision and slammed the product that once bore his name. As he told Korn Ferry's Briefings Magazine, "I sold my pizza business some years ago to ConAgra. I thought, they know better; I would have had to raise the money to expand. But that was one of the worst things I ever did. Because they put some guy in charge who never made a pizza, who never had any idea about pizza. All he knew is that you could make it like the other brands. So we made one like all the others in the supermarket, except it was expensive. So a few years ago, I bought the license back for $250,000. Now, if we do it, we're going to do it right, from the packaging to what is in the box."

Wolfgang Puck's frozen pizzas received mixed reviews

Over the years, Puck's pizzas were put up against bigger-name frozen-food pies in various taste tests. In 2005, his All Natural Margherita variety nabbed "Best Cheese" among Rachel Ray Every Day reviewers. But in 2007, testers from Deseret News were unimpressed, calling his pizzas "just OK," "kind of plain," and less tasty than basic rising-crust Freschetta.

By 2011, a Pizza Perfect reviewer noted that while the pizzas had previously scored an "A" grade in a taste test, they were no longer being produced and sold. To this day, it appears as though they remain a thing of the past. They're not listed among the products on Puck's website. They make an appearance on the Southern California supermarket Gelson's list of prepared meals only, but nationwide distribution has ceased.

Fittingly, it was Gelson's that helped start his entire pizza business at the outset. Puck told Inc. that after Carson gave him the frozen pizza idea, he met with representatives from the small chain to kick off sales and eventually grew his pizzas into a multimillion-dollar business before selling to ConAgra.

For Puck, putting a pause on frozen pizza (or giving it up altogether) won't be the end of the world — after all, he has his hands in plenty of other pies. And a little risk never hurt the entrepreneurial chef; as he himself once told Forbes, "If you try new things, sometimes they are not successful."