Paula Deen is looking to grow her brand again less than a year after being dropped from her high-profile gig at Food Network. Paula Deen Ventures — which includes Paula Deen Foods, Paula Deen Media, Paula Deen Restaurants, Paula Deen Cookware and Paula Deen Home — is being backed by Najafi Media, the deep-pocketed content and distribution subsidiary of Najafi Cos. If that name sounds familiar, it’s because it is: Founder and CEO Jahm Najafi was the principal investor and financing partner who with Jeff Berg launched Resolution talent agency in January 2013 — the first major full-service agency start-up in almost two decades. Paula Deen Ventures will be run by retail veteran Steven Nanula, who for the last two years led the development of the Paula Deen Food Company.
Nanula told the Wall Street Journal the company is in talks with TV networks and other possible partners, but no deals have been signed. The WSJ says the investment is from $75 million-$100 million.
Najafi is a former Salomon Bros banker active in real estate and private equity. The Phoenix-based firm has been in the mix of several deals as it adds to its entertainment industry holdings, which include ownership stakes in the NBA’s Phoenix Suns, Direct Brands (BMG Music Service, SkyMall, Columbia House and Book Of The Month Club), and Toronto-based recorded media manufacturer Cinram. “All of us at Najafi Companies have a deep respect for the hard work, unique content and quality products which Paula has built around her brand,” Najafi said today in a release announcing the partnership with Deen. “We know that the enterprise will be successful and valuable, as Paula and her team continue to bring quality products and experiences to her loyal fan base; and now we have a proven management team in place to build and lead the organization.”
Deen has been out of the spotlight since the celebrity chef’s hot-button departure from Food Network last June. The network that helped her build an empire in TV, publishing and via endorsements did not renew her contract after a 2012 discrimination and sexual harassment lawsuit was made public. In a deposition for that lawsuit, filed by a former manager of one of Deen’s restaurants, Deen admitted that in her past she used racial slurs in her family life and tolerated racist jokes in the workplace, all of which ran counter to her image. Food Network issued a statement condemning Deen and then said they were parting ways. The lawsuit was later dropped, but the damage had been done: aside from her TV job she lost endorsement deals from the likes of JC Penney, Sears, Kmart, Walgreens, QVC and her cookbook publisher Ballantine Books, which scrapped her latest book in the wake of the controversy.