Celebrity chef Jamie Oliver can't seem to catch a break in Australia at the moment. Fresh from the collapse of his restaurant chain and closure of his Canberra eatery, now his lucrative partnership with supermarket chain Woolworths is looking wobbly.
A private label range of ready meals and frozen foods bearing Oliver's name, launched with much fanfare four years ago, has seen lines axed. Originally planned to be a selection of 60 products, there are now less than 20 available.
In some cases, Woolworths has launched similar products, but under its own name rather than Oliver's.
Woolworths said the range had "evolved" and its partnership with Oliver was focused on a number of areas, rather than one private label offer. He also still acts as a brand ambassador for the supermarket chain.
However, a retail guru has told news.com.au that tie-ups with famous names are expensive and, now the products were established, the retailer may have decided to move to using solely its own brand.
Woolworths launched the "Created with Jamie" range in May 2014, just months after Oliver was announced as the supermarket's new brand ambassador to compete against Coles' successful marketing arrangement with Curtis Stone.
At the time, Woolworths said the range was an "incredible selection of easy-to-cook meals using the best Aussie ingredients".
Products included a "showstopping" Tutti-Frutti lemon meringue pie, "scrumptious" stem ginger hot cross buns, focaccia loaves baked with whole roasted tomatoes, "smashin'" Moroccan style chicken fillets, and five fresh soups.
In 2014, Oliver said the range was for time-poor families.
"It's essentially the kind of fresh meals I cook for my family on a regular basis but even more easy," he said.
Launched with 29 products, Woolworths confidently predicted the range would double in size.
Today, the range has shrunk to about 20 products. On the Woolworths website, only 16 are available, including chicken fillets, meatballs and soups.
All the bakery and dessert products have vanished while no new products appear to have been added to the range.
But that's not to say ready meals have been a failure. Far from it. Woolworths has expanded its range of products, many very similar in look and ingredients to the Created with Jamie range.
Woolworths now has around 11 fresh soup varieties, in almost identical packaging to Created with Jamie, which has a mere three soups to choose from.
The supermarket also now sells a purely Woolworths branded easy-cook lemon thyme and garlic chicken breast product alongside, sometimes right next to, the established Created with Jamie lemon pepper chicken fillets. Both similar sizes, the Woolies branded chicken is more than A$5 per kilo less expensive than Oliver's.
Associate professor Gary Mortimer, a marketing expert at Queensland University of Technology, told news.com.au using celebrities helped to draw attention to relatively new food categories, such as ready meal kits.
"Celebrity chefs like Jamie Oliver and Curtis Stone add an element of credibility and brand equity to supermarket ranges," he said.
Celeb chefs are expensive
Mortimer said private label ranges delivered more profit for retailers, as products were produced by contract manufacturers and supermarkets owned the intellectual property.
"However, celebrity endorsement is expensive and the cost of having the celebrity chef's name or image on your packaging must be costed in to the overall product, hence, margins are reduced," he said.
"So, once you have trialled it and customers love your fresh meal solutions, it becomes a habitual purchase. You remove the endorser, but keep selling the meal — albeit in new packaging."
A Woolworths spokesman said its link with Oliver wasn't dependent on the Created with Jamie range.
"Our partnership with Jamie is focused on supporting our customers looking for ways to make better food choices, and ensuring they have all the information and inspiration they need. That could be anything from balanced lunch boxes for kids, to making the most of leftovers to waste less food at home."
Range has 'evolved'
The Woolworths spokesman insisted the range wasn't about to go the way of Oliver's restaurants with the Smashin' chicken fillets the most popular. But many of the products hadn't appealed to shoppers.
"The Created with Jamie range has evolved over the past few years and is now focused on categories that have resonated with our customers," the spokesman said.
While he said Oliver was an "integral part of the development of these products," he couldn't point to any recent additions to the Created with Jamie range or any new products on the horizon.
In recent years, Woolworths has had a shake-out of its private label range. The venerable Homebrand and Select names have been given the flick. The company now throws its promotional weight behind the Woolworths brand as well as the Macro healthy eating and Gold premium labels.
While his range might have waned, however, Woolworths doesn't seem to have given up on Oliver as a brand ambassador.
In the latest issue of its in-store Fresh magazine, the chef is mentioned no fewer than 64 times.
This will come as relief given the pickle his restaurant empire is in. On Monday, the Australian arm of the Jamie's Italian casual dining chain collapsed.
The Canberra store failed to open following the weekend's trade with the country's five remaining branches sold to Hallmark Group, a company that currently runs an Irish-themed pub in Brisbane.
Two years ago, Oliver bought his Australian restaurants outright and placed them into a new company after hospitality firm Keystone Group, which had operated the eateries, went under. It is that new firm that has gone into voluntary administration.
Hallmark said those stores will remain open under the new owners.
In January, Oliver's company announced it would close almost half the UK branches of his Jamie's Italian chain, with the loss of 450 jobs, after racking up debts of A$130 million. Unpaid staff wages accounted for A$4m of that debt, reported The Sun.
The 42-year-old has reportedly pumped millions of pounds of his own cash into his restaurants to keep them afloat.
News.com.au contacted Jamie Oliver's company in the UK regarding his Woolworths tie-up but has failed to receive a reply.