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Food Network’s 'Sandwich King' Jeff Mauro Partners with Hot Pockets

Food Network’s 'Sandwich King' Jeff Mauro Partners with Hot Pockets

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Believe it or not, Hot Pockets are 30 years old this year. And if you’ve eaten a Hot Pocket at any point since college, you most likely agree that they were in need of a makeover. The microwaveable pouches of meat, cheese, and sauce stopped being revolutionary years ago, and had largely been relegated to the domain of unhealthy snacks and late-night stoner food. But the brand, which is owned by Nestlé, has revamped its classic lineup of offerings, and has improved upon the old formulas. They’ve also brought on Food Network Star winner and host of Food Network’s Sandwich King Jeff Mauro to help them promote the new releases.

We met up with Mauro and had the opportunity to sample some of the new products, including Pepperoni Pizza, Philly Steak & Cheese, and Ham & Cheese. Other options include Meatballs & Mozzarella, Beef Taco, Chicken Bacon Cheddar Cheese Melt, and a limited-release Cuban-Style, with diced ham, sliced pork, Swiss, mozzarella, and mustard sauce. You could certainly tell that real meat was used, the quality and flavor of the crusts were good, and overall these were tasty little packages of food.

"Hot Pockets have become a part of pop culture; everyone knows what a Hot Pocket is," Mauro told us. "It follows the fundamentals of a great sandwich: the holy trinity of meat, cheese, and bread. And it hits each note perfectly."

As for why the sandwich-like snack has become such a popular staple, Mauro said, "They’re easy to make, delicious, and everyone knows that jingle."

If you haven’t considered eating a Hot Pocket in a while, you might want to give into the guilty pleasure again and pick some up (Lean Pockets are a bit healthier than the full-fat ones). While they're still not exactly healthy meal options, the new releases most likely taste a lot better than you remember.

The Italian Condiment That Jeff Mauro Claims To Eat Every Day

While the sandwich may seem like a pretty plebian dish, it does have royal roots, having been invented by an Earl. The modern-day heir to the Earl of Sandwich, and current reigning monarch of all things served on bread, is someone who's aspired to an even loftier title, that of Sandwich King. While Jeff Mauro's Food Network show of the same name may have gone off the air in 2014, he's still hanging around the Food Network kitchen, or rather, Food Network's The Kitchen, of which he is one of four co-hosts. While not everything Mauro dishes up is bread-based, he still holds a place in his heart for his favorite on-the-go meal as well as a place in his refrigerator for his favorite sandwich topping: giardiniera.

In a recent tweet promoting his own line of craft giardiniera (available from Mauro Provisions), Mauro called it "Definitely the best Giardiniera I've ever had and not just cause I invented it," and went on to claim, "I eat it daily." The product website confirms this, with Mauro saying that for anyone born and raised in Chicago like him, giardiniera is "a staple in your fridge, right next to the ketchup and mustard," and says his family "put[s] it on everything."

Pork & Mindy’s, Food Network Star Jeff Mauro’s Sandwich Chain, to Close All Locations

Pork & Mindy’s, Food Network star and “Sandwich King” Jeff Mauro’s mini-chain of restaurants that includes a line of barbecue sauces, filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy early this month. The filing serves as the final death knell for the ambitious brand that closed its original Bucktown restaurant in August. Crain’s first reported the news.

This means all locations inside Mariano’s grocery stores will close. The supermarket chain will replace Pork & Mindy’s with its own restaurant brand called Mariano’s Smokehouse, according to the Tribune.

The first Pork & Mindys opened in 2016 with visions of global expansion. The restaurant got its name from the 41-year-old TV sitcom Mork & Mindy, which starred the late Robin Williams. The company went on to open restaurants in the Loop and Wrigley Field and planned to launch locations in Irving Park and Elmwood Park. A deal signed earlier this year with Mariano’s anticipated 28 in-store stalls in 2019, but only a few were operational after the filing.

Mauro was flying back to the U.S. on Tuesday from Western Asia, where he visited with and cooked for American military personnel stationed overseas. The chef and TV star said he was not involved in the restaurants’s day-to-day operations. Pork & Mindy’s owner and founder is Kevin Corsello, who runs a private investment firm.

The decision to file for Chapter 7 came as a shock to Mauro. He’d heard about the filing before his trip. The “Sandwich King” said there’s a small chance the name could survive, but unlikely.

“I helped build a brand and I think it’s known and it’s got name [recognition] — whether you hate the name like Eater or love it,” Mauro said.

After the Bucktown location closed, Mauro began concentrating more on TV. The news to close the remaining restaurants was a surprise, but he acknowledged communications between ownership and himself was somewhat muddied in recent times. Ultimately, Mauro said the Mariano’s expansion happened too fast, and “got out of control too quickly.”

While he wouldn’t rule out a return to the restaurant world, Mauro’s focus is now TV and writing. He appears on Food Network’s the Kitchen and is working on a cookbook that should be published in 2021. Locally, he wants to do a few food truck pop-ups where he’ll take over a food truck for a day and slang some sandwiches using recipes he’s been yearning to test out.

Hot Pockets get gourmet makeover with Angus beef, Food Network spokesperson

No more Hot Pockets for Snoop Dogg and David Hasselhoff — Nestle's upgraded to a Food Network star for its latest pitchman.

The celebrity endorsement from a famous foodie is all part of the company's multi-million dollar plan to heat up demand for frozen Hot Pockets among gourmet eaters.

Food Network star and self-styled "Sandwich King" celebrity chef Jeff Mauro is plugging the new Pockets — and may even design one himself.

"It's had a resurgence," Mauro told the LA Times Tuesday.

As part of its new upscale appeal, the wedge-like blocks of frozen dough will get two new types of crust — as well as savory innards made from upscale sandwich meats like slow-cooked Angus beef, the company said.

L.A. rapper Snoop Dogg pocketed some dough from Nestle last year when he remixed his famous "Drop It Like It's Hot" song into a commercial jingle called "Pocket Like It's Hot."

That same year former "Baywatch" star David Hasselhoff — also famous for a viral video that showed him rolling in a drunken stupor on his kitchen floor eating cheeseburgers — signed on to pitch Lean Pockets for Nestle.

He played his German cousin in a short commercial touting the low-calorie frozen snack.

Nestle's banking that Mauro's gourmet reputation will appeal to millennial eaters, whose picky tastes have meant a fall-off in sales of pre-packaged foods.

New buttery crusts with pizza or garlic flavor are part of the roll-out, along with high-end fillings like smoked Angus beef, a delicate shaved hickory ham, the company's "signature" pepperoni and chicken and "real cheese," the company said.

"Our fans, namely millennial consumers, have high food IQs and high expectations, and because they expect more, we gave it to them," Nestle packaging director Daniel Jhung told the LA Times.

Hot Pockets wants to be cool among foodies

To the parade of familiar products that are remaking themselves to lure foodies, add this unlikely entrant: the Hot Pocket.

The brand wants to ditch its decades-long reputation as a thawed-out brick of dough with machine-cut blocks of lunch meat. Instead, it wants the microwaveable turnovers to be taken seriously as a sandwich with street cred among gastronomes.

Hot Pockets, owned by Nestle USA in Glendale, is approaching its 30th anniversary by revamping ingredients, packaging and promotion in what Marketing Director Daniel Jhung calls “the biggest relaunch in the history of the brand.”

The hope is to better appeal to the so-called millennial generation of young foodies while escaping from a recent revenue rut.

To do it, the company is stuffing its dozens of Hot Pockets varieties with more upscale ingredients, including premium meats such as shaved hickory ham and slow-cooked Angus beef. The two new types of crust include a buttery garlic option and a crispy version akin to a savory croissant.

The items, made in kitchens in Chatsworth and Kentucky, will be available not only in grocery stores but also via the recently expanded Amazon Fresh online delivery program.

Celebrity chef Jeff Mauro, host of the Food Network series “Sandwich King,” has signed on to plug the updated products and potentially even design a Hot Pocket himself.

“It’s had a resurgence,” Mauro said of the snack brand’s public awareness.

But over the last few years, Hot Pockets sales — along with revenue throughout the frozen sandwich category — have declined slightly, Nestle said. Early last year, the company laid off a sixth of the Chatsworth factory’s staff, or more than 100 workers, and trimmed the production week to four days from six.

“People think frozen food is bland,” Jhung said. “We’d like to break that perception, to reintroduce it like something you’d make at home, just on a bigger scale.”

As consumers become more epicurean, more aware and accepting of unexpected tastes and more adamant about sourcing, fast-food restaurateurs and packaged-food manufacturers are scrambling to adopt culinary strategies pioneered at more high-end establishments.

“The food standards for the millennial generation are increasing,” said Hot Pocket Brand Manager Kevin Holmes. “They may not be going to Bobby Flay’s restaurants, but they still expect a little bit of the same flavor. We wanted to raise our bar as well, step up our game a little bit.”

Nestle acquired the Hot Pockets brand from Chef America for $2.6 billion in 2002, at a time when freezer-aisle snacks were booming. Now, the company is spending millions of dollars on its advertising campaign, boosting its marketing budget as much as 20%.

The new Hot Pockets will roll out with packaging in bolder colors to attract young buyers. The boxes will also call out the fancy meats and crusts to draw the mothers responsible for two-thirds of Hot Pocket purchases, Holmes said.

Over the last 25 months, more than a dozen bakery technology, culinary and research and development employees have worked on the upscale Hot Pocket. Some went on food tours to major national gastronomy centers, such as New York and Chicago, occasionally visiting 14 restaurants a day.

Mauro is the first food celebrity to join the team, though the company has hired pitchmen in the past such as rapper Snoop Dogg and actor David Hasselhoff to represent its Hot Pockets and Lean Pockets brands.

Mauro has filmed a series of commercials in which he pulls people from the street to gauge their reaction as they try one of the new Hot Pockets. In another video, he tours the Hot Pockets kitchen, which he calls “my version of Willy Wonka — the most mesmerizing process on an enormous scale.’

“I think every young man has had a relationship with the brand,” he said, reminiscing about the broccoli cheddar Pockets his mother kept in the freezer for her four children.

Down the line, Hot Pockets is considering making its products in smaller sizes for consumers concerned about portion control. As for whether it’ll start using more natural ingredients, Jhung said, “We’re still working on it.”

Jeff Mauro reveals why Kitchen Crash is Food Network genius

While he might be the Sandwich King, Jeff Mauro is ready to take on a new Food Network challenge. In the new Food Network show, Kitchen Crash, the culinary competition is part mystery box and part everyday home cook struggle. When professional chefs turn those home kitchen ingredients into a delicious meal, many home cooks will be inspired to make something delicious, too.

Premiering on January 6, the Kitchen Crash is an evolution of some of the popular Food Network competition shows. Part Chopped and part Supermarket Stakeout, the food competition heads to a neighborhood and asks local homeowners to turn over food from their refrigerators and pantries. Then, professional chefs are asked to transform those ingredients into a delicious, multi-course meal.

While not the typical neighborhood block party, the chefs battle for supremacy. From the outdoor kitchens, the chefs make it look easy. More importantly, it should inspire home cooks to stop saying, there&rsquos nothing for dinner.

Ahead of the Kitchen Crash premiere, Jeff Mauro spoke to Cristine Struble of FoodSided about the new show and how home cooks will be inspired to get into their own kitchen.

Although many people have favorite Food Network shows, Mauro calls Kitchen Crash &ldquoa whole new ballgame.&rdquo That aspect adds to the excitement of this new format.

Mauro said, &ldquoNo two home pantry or fridges are alike and the Kitchen Crash bins are as varied as the family&rsquos taste buds, the season, the neighborhood or the day of the week. The strategy lies in the picking of the right home. It’s unwise to not waste time on an unanswered door (you only get 10 minutes to find a home and gather ingredients), so the chefs have really got to quickly case the neighborhood. Find a house with multiple cars in the driveway, a trampoline or swing set in the back. Where there&rsquos a lot of kids, there&rsquos a lot of food. Then they have to communicate. Cleary, from the doorway to the family, to gather everything they think they need. But they also can&rsquot neglect the essentials, because there is ZERO SHARED PANTRY. No salt, sugar, oil. Nothing. It really is a difficult but fun and exhilarating game to play and most definitely watch!&rdquo

The elimination of the shared pantry looks to be a huge game changer for this Food Network competition. If a chef forgets the salt, that dish is going to suffer.

Still, Kitchen Crash has an element of strategy. Even though the home kitchen may not be the same as a restaurant kitchen, there could be many surprises in store.

Mauro said, &ldquoOne of the most entertaining and special elements of Kitchen Crash is how each chef embraced the authentic, personal and home-made ingredients they found in their family&rsquos fridges or pantries. From homemade pesto to imported Indian spices to backyard-grown Jersey tomatoes. I found the most successful chefs and dishes embraced their families&rsquo cultures by imparting these authentic ingredients.&rdquo

Although Mauro would never reveal the secrets to the show, there is something intriguing about how the chefs adapt to the environment and the foods they use. Even though this competition is not a traditional &ldquoforaging&rdquo expedition, it does require some resourcefulness, creativity and editing.

How to make holiday cocktails: Chocolate mint eggnog and more

"These drinks stand out because they offer a new spin on old classics," Mauro tells Megyn Kelly TODAY. "They are all so satisfying that you really only need to indulge in one (maybe two) during the evening.

His words of wisdom: drink wisely. "There are two camps of holiday consumers: those that indulge in everything put in front of them and those that indulge in moderation, thus preventing their waistline from expanding exponentially," says Mauro.

Jeff Mauro was born on July 24, 1978, in Chicago, Illinois, USA. His nationality is American and he is of Caucasian ethnicity.

Caption: Jeff Mauro and Sarah Mauro (Source: Celebrity Star)

He is the son of August Mauro and Pam Mauro. Jeff has three siblings. He spent his youth performing in school plays, Second City Chicago youth programs, and taking acting classes.

Chicago's Star-Powered Sandwich Joint Preps for Growth

As the season 7 winner of Food Network Star, Jeff Mauro could have slapped his name on the façade of a restaurant, collected a licensing fee, and left town. It would have been a heck of a lot easier.

“That’s not how big brands are built, through ease,” Mauro says. “And nothing is easy about this process.”

It’s been close to three years since Mauro and Kevin Corsello, a friend he met through a local bike shop in Chicago, began the framework of Pork & Mindy’s. The fast casual has since expanded to four locations, including a spot in Minneapolis’s Elevate Food Hall.

Despite the challenges, Mauro says, he doesn’t “regret one single choice.” It may not have been the painless route, but it was well worth it. And the result is scalable, too. A partnership with Compass Group, one of the largest food management companies in the world, has Pork & Mindy’s positioned to grow through an eclectic blend of corporate restaurants, licensed units with Compass, and via food halls as well.

The Midwest will be Pork & Mindy’s initial target, with locations expected to debut in seven new markets this year alone.

“For us [opening in Minneapolis in May] was kind of our first, OK, it just doesn’t work in Chicago, it also works in other places kind of moment,” Corsello says. “We realized that not only do other parts of the country rhythm with our food and our brand, but we can operationally execute it, and still maintain the ethos and ultimately the quality of the food that Jeff wants to be delivered to the consumers.”

Corsello believes Pork & Mindy’s is ready. But getting to this point, and maintaining the brand’s well-defined purpose, was only possible through slow, deliberate, and often challenging development.

Just look at it this way: To the common guest glancing at the restaurant's name, is it clear Mauro is involved?

For someone with a deep-dish sized personality, known as the “Sandwich King,” it would have been easy to leverage Mauro’s fanbase and branding to immediate success. That’s not quite the case, however. One of the main reasons being, Mauro says, because he wanted Pork & Mindy’s to rise on its own merits—culture, food, and a musical vibe that would be more sustainable long-term if they could stand on their own, not on his celebrity.

“I had several, many, meetings with restaurant groups in the city of Chicago to open up a concept,” Mauro says. “And this was the first one that came to me where it was about more than just one brick-and-mortar sandwich-heavy full-service restaurant. I didn’t want that. I wanted to reach as many mouths as possible. I wanted to have my fans from a national to international base be able to experience my food and recipes.”

“Sure I could have opened a restaurant with one of the more experienced restaurant operators in the city, if not the country, or I could build a company from the ground up,” Mauro adds. “That’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to create.”

He flipped the script with Corsello, who sold Mauro’s father a bike once. Corsello had no culinary training or restaurant experience. A Harvard Business School grad, Corsello developed the concept’s idea from barbecue competitions he competed in with friends in 2005—on a team called Pork & Mindy’s (an satirical ode to the TV series Mork & Mindy).

Corsello knew Mauro well before The Food Network Star invaded his career, back when he was a private chef for a large mortgage company in Chicago. He called him about Pork & Mindy’s and floated the idea.

“One of the things about when I initially met Jeff he said he was looking for more authentic way to get his food to more consumers out there rather than just through the recipes and data bases that Food Network uses,” Corsello says. “I thought it was a really authentic connection, because we were friends.”

In addition to offering Mauro the chance to develop a brand, not just stand on the sidelines and watch his name buzz, Pork & Mindy’s was right in his culinary wheelhouse.

The slow-cooked meats are set up in vibrant sandwich form, from the Chicken Fried Pork to the Bao to the Pork to Hot Chicken “French Toast,” which features spicy chicken topped with crumbled Pig Candy bacon, green apple relish, pickled red onions and Apricot Habanero Sauce on a “French Toast” bun.

The Pig Candy is a major hit. It is candied bacon, dusted in brown sugar, and slow cooked until brittle. The Chicago Bears and Chicago Cubs sell it at games.

“I wanted to become a partner in this and not only just help install the booths, and devise the menu, but I wanted to test out everything and really build a brand with multiple verticals and try to feed as many people as possible,” Mauro says.

The culture angle of Pork & Mindy’s is critical to Mauro and Corsello. Music and art represent essential spirals in the brand’s DNA. The restaurant hosts what it calls “Back of the House Sessions,” which are exclusive content series showcasing local, independent artists who perform right in Pork & Mindy’s kitchens. The art and décor are also fueled by local artists, and rotate every few months.

“Food, music, and art to me have always been three of the most important things in life. I come from a big Italian family and the culture of the family is everything you do we surround ourselves by food, no matter what,” Corsello says. “… To me those are the three holy grails of experiences. When I started talking to Jeff about the concept and really connecting with people’s passions, and integrating that into our brand, I think that really resonated with him as well from an authentic way.”

“It was a shared passion between us when we first bonded we bonded over food and music and we wanted to just be creative,” Mauro says. “It’s a nice vibe in the stores. Where you walk in and you’re surrounded by beautiful imagery and beautiful noises and the smell of meat-smoke in the air. Those three things, you’re bound to like one of them and come back for more.”

Among the biggest challenges so far, Corsello says he was surprised with just how difficult it was to field the right team. “I was wondering, ‘Where are the A-plus players hiding?’” he says. “It is a very challenging and time-consuming path to find the right people that really care about and have the passion for your brand, and also the skillset to execute the strategy.”

“Although it’s been quite a challenge over the last couple of years building the team and finding the right time, there’s no question in my mind that today’s team of Pork & Mindy’s is the team that’s going to bring us to what I would consider crystalizing our initial vision,” he adds.

Mauro explains the process a bit blunter: “I get it,” he says. “It’s a new business and we’ll have turnover trying to sift through the crap to find a gold nugget. But we’ve definitely got a very good team now after several years of having a couple of clunkers, to say the least.”

Mauro says he’s been surprised by just how much energy the concept has generated. From the White Sox, Cubs, and Bears to interested parties hoping to join the process, Mauro says the interest has been “gratifying and proof of concept in a way.”

“People dig what we’re doing,” he says. “And not just my aunts or Kevin’s dad. Or our friends and family. People who can change our lives.”

Pork & Mindy’s has prospered through pop ups and food halls. Corsello says Compass Group helped them identify the outlets as trendy and successful options to scale and spread the brand. He says it helped Pork & Mindy’s learn to question and focus its business model, everything from operations to the path of purchase for consumers.

Fine-tuning the concept behind the counter, and not just in a brick-and-mortar location, refined Pork & Mindy’s to the point where Corsello says they’re comfortable scaling it into new markets.

“The question was, ‘How can we fine tune to it to the McDonald’s level where it’s a well-oiled machine, and where we can execute in a 200-square-foot facility,” he says. “And how do we get our products there at a point where we can actually operate the business in a smaller environment?”

The economic-friendly reality of food halls appeals to Pork & Mindy’s as well. The shared nature of some expensive elements, like bathrooms and seating, freed the brand to promote its concept without the start-up burden.

Mauro is hands-on and pops into locations to “shake things up” when he can.

“There is not one day that goes by where there are not at least a dozen forms of communications regarding the restaurants and the brand that I engage in,” he says. “We’re giving this thing everything we’ve got.”


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