Your Haas Network
Paul Merage, BS 66, MBA 68
Former CEO and co-founder of Chef America
Chairman, Falcon Investment Management
Newport Beach, Calif.
Paul Merage didn't set out to create a cultural icon, but he has. As the creator of the original Hot Pockets microwaveable stuffed sandwiches, he not only created a new category of food, but also created a cultural touch point.
Pursuing his dream of starting a company was a big step for Merage, who worked for a succession of major food companies after getting his MBA from UC Berkeley. "Frankly, I had no choice. I just had to do it or a question would have been hanging over my head for the rest of my life," he says. In 1977 he mortgaged his house and founded Chef America with his brother, David, who was fresh out of college.
The strategy for Chef America from the start was the focus on niche products - so they kicked the company off with Belgian waffles.
Then, in 1983 he read about women joining the workforce in record numbers and thought, "Why not develop a frozen food product that kids can prepare when Mom wasn't home?" Since Chef America did not have the resources to hire a food technologist to create this new product line, Merage did all of the Hot Pocket work at home, testing his creations on his family.
"During the day, my time was devoted to the waffle business," he says. "Evenings and nights I was formulating Hot Pockets in our kitchen at home. The kids, my wife, and whoever else happened to be there, they were the 'tasters.' That was a euphemism in our house for guinea pigs."
The motto for Chef America is "good enough is never good enough." For Merage this has meant striving for significant quality enhancements in their product lines every year and maintaining an exemplary workplace. "It was our belief that business conducted unethically is doomed to failure."
He sold Chef America to Nestle in 2002, and is now running several investment companies. He and his family have also created several charitable foundations. Merage endowed the UC Irvine business school in 2005, which now bears his name.