Celebrity chefs Tom Colicchio and Spike Mendelsohn today launched their first Ethereum NFT collection, CHFTY Pizzas, in an effort to build a Web3 community around culinary creators and their fans. But as the chefs said this week, they initially started down this path as the restaurant industry was severely impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The industry was upended in the early months of the pandemic, with the impact of shutdowns forcing an estimated 110,000 restaurants in the United States alone to close permanently. Those that remained in business struggled to retain staff amid plunging revenue, and had to embrace alternative service models as they waited out the storm.
Mendelsohn, the chef behind restaurants including We, The Pizza and PLNT Burger and a past contestant on Bravo’s long-running "Top Chef" TV series, said that it “was a struggle to survive” for restaurant owners. He began to consider different ways to embrace technology to connect with customers and fans.
“Our industry was looking at how to reach consumers at their homes, because people couldn’t come to the restaurants anymore,” Mendelsohn told Decrypt. “I felt very left behind in the Web2 world, where we were forced to rely on third-party delivery systems like UberEats and GrubHub.”
Colicchio, head judge and executive producer on "Top Chef" and the man behind Craft and other restaurants, was similarly impacted by the pandemic. With more time on his hands, he started consuming more financial media—and began hearing about NFTs early last year as the market first swelled. And it wasn’t always positive coverage.
“When you see a lot of the traditional media—especially the financial media, like CNBC—kind of make fun of NFTs, I thought, ‘Alright, this is something worth looking at,’” Colicchio told Decrypt. “Usually if someone is making fun of something, it's threatening in some ways and it's new. It's like, ‘Hey kid, get off my lawn’ and that kind of thing.”
Colicchio said that he started lurking in Twitter Spaces about NFTs, working to understand the technology and absorb the budding culture around them. Mendelsohn, meanwhile, saw parallels between artists and the ways that chefs create in their own medium of food, and the potential for chefs to hold onto created IP by releasing their own digital content.
When the chefs—which Mendelsohn described as being “crypto curious”—connected last year, they realized that they both were keen on exploring the possibilities with NFTs. Rather than launch their own individual collections, they decided to work together on a project that could ultimately bring in many more chefs over time as well.
Enter CHFTY Pizzas. Launched with a public mint today, the chefs’ Ethereum NFT collection spans 2,777 profile pictures, each with the image of a cartoonish, anthropomorphized pizza slice with randomized characteristics. Each sells for 0.07 ETH, or about $210.
As with many such projects, the image attached to the NFT is just one part of the value equation. Each CHFTY Pizzas NFT acts like an access pass of sorts, letting holders plug into an exclusive Discord community that includes other notable chefs such as Rocco DiSpirito, Cat Cora, Jeff Mauro, Andrew Zimmern, and Top Chef winner Kristen Kish.
It will also unlock future benefits, such as streaming classes from chefs and live events, such as one in Washington D.C. next month. The chefs also plan to launch pop-up pizza restaurants across the United States, as voted on by NFT holders.
There’s a charitable component, too. Each mint and secondary sale will contribute a portion of funds to the food-focused Big Green DAO, the decentralized autonomous organization recently established by Kimbal Musk—yes, Elon’s brother. Colicchio knows Musk from the restaurant industry, and the donations happen automatically through CHFTY Pizzas’ NFT smart contract (i.e., the self-executing computer code that makes things like NFTs tick).
Colicchio and Mendelsohn told Decrypt that they’ve been working on the project for about nine months, and that it was originally planned to launch much sooner after the December reveal. However, they realized that they needed to learn a lot more about the NFT industry and how to roll out a project that can potentially sustain an active and growing community.
“We probably could have launched something four or five months ago, but we realized that we weren't ready. We weren't even close to being ready,” said Colicchio. “You just don't go out there and come out half-assed, because people are going to know that and see it.”
Ultimately, amid changing developers partway through the project and rethinking the economics and potential for future expansion, they cut down the number of NFTs (from 8,888 to 2,777) available in the mint. But CHFTY Pizzas presents an opportunity for the chefs to “get their feet wet” in NFTs, said Mendelsohn, and then explore larger-scale plans thereafter.
“Launching this NFT project is very similar to launching a restaurant,” said Colicchio. It can take time to refine a restaurant’s formula and overcome initial hitches, but ultimately it’s a starting point to build from. “The worst day in a restaurant’s life is the day you open,” he added. “It just gets better and better.”
After the CHFTY Pizzas launch, Colicchio and Mendelsohn will eventually expand the community with the CHFTY Pass, an NFT passport tied to larger ambitions in the space. Each Pizzas NFT owner can claim a free CHFTY Pass at launch, but additional passes will also be sold as the team targets 10,000 in total.
The chefs describe the CHFTY Pass as a way to bring even more creators into the community and use CHFTY as a platform for adjacent projects from chefs, culinary brands, and more. Coliccho likened it to Art Blocks, the Ethereum generative art platform that has hosted drops from hundreds of artists, but for cooking-related communities with various perks.
It’d be a way for other chefs and notable figures in the industry to launch NFTs and Web3 projects without all of the technical legwork and infrastructure that the CHFTY team had to build in recent months. They’ve already been onboarding other chefs into the NFT space, such as those already in the CHFTY community, to help them understand the possibilities within.
And as the metaverse takes shape in the years to come, they also want to help lead the charge for how the culinary world comes to life in digital spaces.
Colicchio imagines a future in which his restaurant ships a customer a physical meal kit, and then they put on VR or AR glasses and eat the real meal in a digital recreation of the restaurant with other patrons. They won’t have to be in a culinary hub like New York or Las Vegas. But however the metaverse takes shape, he doesn’t want to be a passive bystander.
“Who knows what it's gonna look like? I have no idea, but my feeling is I don't want to wait around to find out and have it done to me,” he said. “I want to be involved and be part of it.”
It could be a long road to reach that point, but Colicchio and Mendelsohn have become deeply immersed in the NFT scene in recent months. They’re ready to keep building to expand the CHFTY community and add more benefits—and bring more of the culinary world into Web3.
“To me, the most successful projects keep layering and layering and layering,” said Colicchio. “We're here for the long haul. I wouldn't do this unless I really loved it.”