Last Wednesday marked the premiere showing of the last episode produced in Juneau for the popular cooking competition show Top Chef: Seattle.
Crews filmed, or taped cooking segments last August at various locations around the Capital City, including at a waterfront eatery, a salmon bake, on a nearby glacier, and at the Governor’s House.
All of the local residents and officials were contractually-prohibited from saying anything about the production or even acknowledging that it ever happened. At least until now.
It was frequently called Juneau’s “worst-kept secret” when crewmembers, chef contestants, and judges arrived last August for the week-and-a-half production of two episodes of Top Chef: Seattle.
Location scouts earlier had checked out various locations around town. The owner of Tracy’s Crab Shack, Tracy Labarge, said they were told a week ahead of time that producers were coming. But actually being selected as a site for a cooking challenge? That was last minute.
“So, we actually opened for the day. We were getting ready to open and to start serving,” said Labarge.
They just swarmed in, called us, said they ‘were going to be there.’ So, we shut down and that was it.”
Labarge lost her usual business on that wet, cool August day. But she said she was reimbursed for the crab used by the chefs.
Department of Commerce, Community, and Economic Development Commissioner Susan Bell said they reached agreement with producers for the Bravo TV show last March and tried to keep it under wraps since then. Sometimes they quietly referred to it around the office only as TC.
“There had been previous conversations about Alaska before,” recalled Bell. “But I think, recognizing that they were filming in Seattle, gave us an excellent way to leverage the fact that they were close,” Bell said.
The state contributed $190,000 and the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute, which gets much of its funding from self-assessment of the commercial fleet, kicked in about $60,000 for the production.
State, ASMI, and Juneau Convention and Visitors Bureau officials all say they helped with location scouting, or tracking down props and set dressings.
JCVB’s Elizabeth Arnett said they also suggested a list of Juneau residents to sample the food during a cooking challenge at the Gold Creek Salmon Bake. She estimates that A Mission Productions from Los Angeles brought in as many as 125 crewmembers and put them up in the Prospector, Aspen, and Baranof hotels.
There was a huge influx of money in August for Juneau from this production.”
The four chef contestants were put up at Jorgensen House, a new bed-and-breakfast. An estimated dozen locals were hired to work on set as crew or production assistants.
A handful of local businesses also helped. Tim McDonald of Temsco Helicopters in Juneau said they were approached to take eighty cast and crewmembers up to their dog camp on the Mendenhall Glacier.
“It’s going to be good for the state tourism. It’s going to bring more people up here. And, if there are more people up here, (then) I have the possibility of selling a tour to them.”
Bell is hoping the production reaps further economic dividends with a nationwide, double-exposure of both Alaska’s seafood and tourism industries with a “third-party, unbiased commentary on destinations.”
Juneau, in particular, is featured in roughly two-hours of a top-rated cable television show that’s currently draws over 1.5 million viewers per episode.
“The value of these two shows is about $5.4 million that Juneau would have to spend to get that same sort of publicity,” according to JCVB’s Elizabeth Arnett.
ASMI’s Tyson Fick, meanwhile, calculates the promotional value to the seafood industry at nearly ten-times that, or about $48-million.
“It’s the biggest thing I’ve worked on,” said Fick. “It trends very, very well with our target market: ‘foodies,’ people with enough income so that maybe they’re interested to try Alaskan seafood because it is a for-real premium product.”
The show will also live on with reruns, DVD’s, and online at Bravo TV and iTunes.
Not only is it considered a bargain over a pre-produced commercial with airing in select markets or on a few channels, but it also may be more effective.
“There’s so much media clutter in our lives these days,” said Rick Wolk, an Assistant Professor of Marketing and Entrepreneurship at the University of Alaska Southeast.
“You tend to tune out when the ads are on. So, this is very impactful because it’s a show. Your guard is down. You’re more apt to go, ‘Oh that’s interesting.’”
Wolk says the location and product placement will come across as more credible to viewers.
Most people don’t look at it and say, ‘Oh, someone paid for that.’ The producers are good at what they’re doing. They make the show entertaining and valuable. So, it doesn’t look like an ad.”
State officials say the best they could do was provide the best Alaska seafood possible. ASMI’s Tyson Fick said such a promotion does have some risk.
It’s reality television. You kind of roll the dice.”
Here’s an example, from show host Padma Lakshmi during the judging of a chef contestant:
“They locals never use chum. It’s what they use to feed the dogs. But they thought yours was very delicious.”
But Alaskans also say such attitudes about chums may be prevalent only among those already used to the equivalent of filet mignon.
“Not everyone can afford to fill their freezer with king salmon,” Fick said.
Fick said it showed chums as a nutritious, affordable option.
Yeah, indeed, subsistence areas, people fed their dogs for chums salmon for hundreds of years. Why did they do that? It’s super high in protein, very healthy, very abundant. And, those things are good for us.”
The chum dish was actually Luke Fanning’s favorite. A Juneau banker and commercial gillnetter, Fanning and his wife sampled the dishes served up at the cooking challenge located at the Gold Creek Salmon Bake.
It was really a lot of fun.”
Fanning said both he and his wife were really interested in telling the story of Alaska seafood as a wild and sustainable product.
“We were really excited that it was going to be showcased on a national scale,” said Fanning.
They were interviewed on-camera afterward about the salmon and sourdough bread served up by chefs. But Fanning said his comments were severely edited and taken partly out of context. Fanning said producers used the short clip as part of the story that they wanted to tell.
“I was really trying to complement their bread. It came out… kind of sounded a little like food snob which was not my intent,” recalled Fanning.
Fanning and his wife signed non-disclosure agreements preventing them from saying anything about the production until this month, along with a hundred other Juneau participants and handful of business owners like Tracy Labarge.
I was just dying to tell people. It was fun. It was really fun.”
Tim McDonald of Temsco helicopters says they eventually had to bow out of that potential Top Chef charter to the glacier because of logistics and aircraft availability.
Is he sore that the flights were picked up by a friendly competitor in town? Not in the slightest.
“You start getting shortsided about ‘Well, it’s only going to be Temsco.’ I’m sorry. It doesn’t work that way,” said McDonald.
The consumer isn’t that infinite.”
Local businesses are already capitalizing on the increased visibility. Tracy’s Crab Shack, which is hard to miss next to the cruise ships that dock in the summer, has a Top Chef-themed online sale this month on crab bisque.
“All the judges, chefs, took pictures, signed shirts for us,” said Labarge. “A nice bit of PR for us in the off-season.”
When will Alaskans see results? When will there be a return on the quarter-million dollars?
Elizabeth Arnett of the Juneau Convention and Visitors Bureau said they can track possible increases in web traffic, phone calls, or requests for visitor guides. But any figures on the potential economic return will have to come from the businesses themselves.
So, I think for the money that got put out for this, the return on investment is going be huge.”
“But it won’t known completely for long time,” Arnett said. “The only way we are going to know that is we get reports back that these people say that they saw Top Chef and now they’re staying at the Baranof.”
Potential visitors are now making plans for this summer. But with the show’s persistence on cable and propagation on social media, Arnett expects Alaska could be food for thought for the 2014 season, as well.
The final Juneau episode premiered last Wednesday, Feb. 13th on Bravo TV. But there are reruns with the next showing expected to be next Wednesday, Feb. 20th and Saturday, Feb. 23rd as part of a marathon of the season’s latest episodes. You can also watch online at BravoTV.com or through other digital download services like iTunes.