I spoke with Dorene Humason to get a Chef in Black update. Her episode re-runs on CNBC Tuesday, June 3. It’s the first time this episode will be seen since a re-run on ABC back in 2010. Dorene makes Chef in Black brand California Asian Fusion Salad Dressings in bottled and dry mix forms. A lot has happened since then, so I got a Chef in Black update on many aspects of Dorene’s business.
The season 1 entrepreneurs who appeared on Shark Tank were the real pioneers. The show was “just a pilot,” as Dorene put it, and nobody, not even the producers knew what to expect.
“Dragon’s Den (the show Shark Tank is based on) has been on TV worldwide for years,” Dorene explains, “but nobody knew how it would play in the states. I heard about it when my sister saw a story about Shark Tank on Good Morning America. She called me and said I needed to check out this new show by Mark Burnett.”
“I went to the website and casting calls were all done, so I sent them an email. When they called me back a few weeks later, I almost passed out! Even though I didn’t know what to expect, I knew if the show took off – it would be a good thing. The producers said if it went well, it would be easier to get other businesses for future seasons. They didn’t give me any help, so I watched all the old Dragon’s Den episodes I could find. I wrote down the questions they asked and made sure I had my numbers right.”
“During season 1, the producers had a clause in the contract allowing them to take a 2% royalty on profits. We were willing to give that up for the exposure, even though we weren’t sure the show would air. We felt it was justified. In later seasons, the royalty went up to 5%, but now they’ve pulled that clause. We never got anything in writing that the clause was retroactively eliminated, but they haven’t sent a letter asking for numbers, either.”
The Chef in Black in the Shark Tank
Dorene was polished and professional when she appeared, along with her daughter, Brooke. Even though Kevin Harrington thought her marketing was “confused,” the Sharks liked her Jaden Chinese Salad Dressing. Barbara liked Dorene’s business acumen, and offered her $50K for 35% of the business, on the condition that Dorene focusses on the dry salad dressing packets only.
While scoring a deal with Barbara for the Chef in Black would usually be the highlight of an entrepreneur’s segment, Dorene’s previous “marketing snafu” nearly stole the show. “I was a little culturally naive when I designed my initial packaging. The dressing was initially called ‘Jaden Chinese Salad Dressing and Seasoning’ (it’s now called California Asian Fusion Salad Dressing). I didn’t know anything about Chinese art, so I just picked a picture I thought looked nice. I kept getting comments like ‘Oh this is a Japanese Dressing,’ so I asked an art expert at Princeton about my image. I took a long shot, called her, and she picked up the phone. I sent her the image and she gave me an ‘official’ finding. She told me it was the image of a Japanese prostitute and it is considered offensive. I had to pull the product!”
The mix up with the packaging may have been how The Chef in Black got on Shark Tank to begin with. “When you apply to the show, they ask you to tell your story, including your biggest mistakes. I told the story of the packaging mix-up when I sent my application. At one point we were in a sort of dress rehearsal and I started telling my story. Clay Newbill, the executive producer, chimed in and said ‘Ooooh! you’re the lady with the Japanese prostitute on your packaging!’ I’m convinced that story got me on the show. During taping, Kevin O’Leary kept commenting on the prostitute packaging – they edited out 90-95% of his comments!”
Chef in Black Update: After Shark Tank
After all the taping, businesses still aren’t guaranteed their segment will air. Dorene didn’t think her episode would make it either.
“They taped 15 shows for season one. The first five shows aired Sunday nights – the next five aired Tuesday nights – then they said tenth show was ‘grand finale.’ I was disappointed I wasn’t going to air, but ABC picked up the other five shows. We ended up being the first show to air in 2010. The 15th show didn’t air because of the earthquake in Haiti, but they ran it during season 2.”
Dorene’s segment did eventually air, but things didn’t end up working out with Barbara and the Chef in Black.
“The deal with Barbara didn’t go through,” Dorene continues, “because I still wanted to move forward with bottled dressing in addition to the dry mix. I agreed to the deal on the air because I knew it could change – we know that going in. Barbara is a brilliant business woman, but real estate is different than food. I was a buyer for the largest food distributor in my area for 8 years, then I did outside sales of perishable goods – deli, bakery, and dairy – to chefs, food buyers, and schools. I’d done it all in the food business except for manufacturing; now I am a PhD in food! I knew it was best to go forward with both the dry mix and the bottled dressing.”
“Look at the Pork Barrel BBQ guys: they are both very smart, but they didn’t know food when they started – they sure do now! In fact, we’re good friends. Barbara initially wanted me to help with her food companies, but we never went forward. We parted well, but haven’t kept in touch. She certainly knows food a lot better in season five – some of her biggest successes have been food businesses. I am going to email her today in advance of the rerun. The reruns on CNBC are big for the season 1 businesses – we’re kind of like the “lost children” of Shark Tank. Other people are reporting a nice lift in business when they air on CNBC. We’re looking forward to getting new exposure: a million new eyes is a million new eyes any way you look at it.”
“I took Kevin Harrington’s advice about my packaging and branding to heart. People kept asking me ‘what’s Jaden?’ We also changed it from ‘Chinese’ to ‘Asian Fusion’ dressing. It was really about listening to what people want. I knew what I wanted, but I had to listen to what the public wanted.”
The Chef in Black Now
“The Chef in Black is still a one-woman show, but we’ve grown to over 2000 stores. We’re going in to WalMart which should give us a big lift. The ‘Shark Tank effect’ helped a bit, but in the food business, you open doors by knowing what you’re doing. It helps to say you were on Shark Tank, but I can’t say we became big just because of Shark Tank. I got in front of WalMart as a certified woman owned business, not because of the Shark Tank effect. The bottom line is: will people buy the product.”
“In season 1, the Shark Tank effect wasn’t what it is now. We were told 10K people tried out for the show, 200 taped, and 75 made it to air. I felt like I did well considering the odds. I have a lot of respect for people who make show now because it is so much harder to make it. 50K people try out now and it’s more competitive. The show really took off when Mark Cuban joined. People didn’t know Shark Tank, but they knew him, and I think that’s when the Shark Tank effect went up a few notches.”
“Now, you see people on the updates who are doing well, but they’re not always 100% accurate. The true follow ups aren’t as ‘Disneyland’ as they seem. Some entrepreneurs BELIEVED in the fast track to success and when it didn’t happen, they were disappointed. I didn’t have those expectations, but the show’s given me everything I expected and more. The people at ABC and the Shark Tank production crew were stellar, my daughter and I had a blast. I still watch it.”
Clearly, Dorene has a measured outlook on her business and her Shark Tank experience. “It’s the gift that keeps on giving,” she says.
She offered this advice for would-be entrepreneurs: “People think it’s glamorous when you say you’re an entrepreneur, but they don’t see the other side of things. It’s a real roller coaster ride a lot of the time. You have a zero point something percent chance of growing quickly, for most entrepreneurs, it’s true grit. You need to keep moving forward, learn from mistakes, and pay attention to the customer and what they want to make sure you aren’t missing the mark.”
I had one other question for Dorene. She answers it on The Hot Dog Truck.