Consider the power of David Venable, a towering Southerner with a helmet of brown hair who moons over cookware on television.
Between his two weekly live shows on QVC and his broad digital platform, Venable last year sold more than $250 million worth of egg poachers, frozen crabcakes and backyard smokers. When he posted a recipe for Philadelphia cheesesteak dip, it reached 5.5 million people on Facebook. The two cookbooks in his “In the Kitchen With David” series have sold more than a half-million copies on QVC.
Unless s’more martinis and French onion soup dumplings are your idea of innovation, few would argue that Venable is creating food trends. But this former broadcast journalist who grew up in Charlotte helping his single mom cook dinner is a master at driving them right into the heart of Middle America.
And it’s not all just pasta bakes and party bites. For cookbook authors and food celebrities of all types, a trip through Venable’s kitchen is the crown jewel in the publicity plan. Though a merchandising team ultimately picks which items will be featured on his show, he holds great sway over which books are selected.
His guests range from the Italian cooking authority Lidia Bastianich, who has her own line of QVC cookware, to lesser-known authors like John T. Edge, the Southern food and culture writer who sold more than 4,000 copies of his “Truck Food Cookbook” in about eight minutes.
In what remains a QVC record, Ina Garten – the only guest who Venable says made him feel like a crazed teenager at a rock concert – sold out of 30,000 copies of her latest book in 25 minutes, 4 seconds. And that doesn’t take into account what the publishing industry calls the QVC effect. That is, the extra sales and marketing power that rises up through Amazon sales and bookstore orders because QVC has deemed a book worthy.
“It was really just stunning,” said Garten, who remains in awe of both QVC and Venable’s ability to work three hours straight with few notes and no teleprompter. “At some point we had 5 minutes to go, and 2,000 people were on the line,” she said. “I just remember thinking to myself, ‘How do you even field 2,000 calls at once?’ It’s a very impressive business model.”
To be sure, kitchen cookware is a small slice of sales at QVC, whose name stands for Quality, Value and Convenience. In 2014, the company took in $8.8 billion in revenue among the seven countries in which it broadcasts, selling a variety of items, including expensive art, Apple computers and bathroom deodorizers. Still, Venable has a singular star power. His is the most-watched show, which gives him a lot of sway over how America cooks.
As rendered by Venable, selling cookware on TV is not unlike finding salvation through televangelism. He comes across as so trustworthy and familiar that it is easy to believe a $389 turquoise Vitamix is a path to a better life.
“If you feel alienated and alone, it’s a quick fix for a connection,” said Amy Bentley, an associate professor in the department of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University. “They are telling you we love you. You have made a great decision.”
QVC knows its audience. A typical shopper may be an upscale metro suburban woman over 35 who wears Spanx, drinks Starbucks and is thinking about ordering a KitchenAid mixer on her iPhone. The company operates on the same premise that salesmen like Joe Ades, New York’s late master potato-peeler pitchman, have banked on for more than a century: demonstrating how a piece of kitchen equipment works almost guarantees a sale.
Then there is the excitement of live TV – who knows what crazy thing Venable or Mary DeAngelis, his wacky sidekick and social media maven, might do?
That a home shopper has a shot at talking directly to a culinary celebrity like Gordon Ramsay or Rachael Ray is part of the appeal. The guests like that, too, Ray said. She appears on QVC at least six times a year. During one overnight marathon, she moved almost $4 million in cookware.
“I can give them a better value on QVC, and I can explain the story behind all this stuff,” she said. “When I sell a spaghetti pot, I can show them why I made an oval 8-quart pan, because spaghetti is long and I had a small stove and couldn’t fit all the pans on it.”
Still, the overarching appeal is Venable himself.
“He is so insanely sincere when he goes to work,” Ray said. “David doesn’t go to work to sell. He goes to work to be enthusiastic. His audience can smell a fake, and David is not fake.”
Venable, 50, sought out a QVC job in 1993 after six years as a broadcast journalist in West Virginia and Altoona, Penn. The company was just 7 years old and known mostly for its low production values and its ability to move large amounts of costume jewelry. Venable worked the overnight shift, selling patio furniture or whatever else the company put in front of him. He started filling in on the cooking show. The fit was a natural.
He grew up in North Carolina, the baby in a family of three children run by a single mother who worked full-time as a nurse. She insisted the family eat together. The others grudgingly helped cook. Venable relished it. Later, at the University of North Carolina in the mid-1980s, he honed his stage presence as a member of the Cliffhangers, an a cappella group.
During a three-hour show, Venable eats his way through a parade of sausage, mozzarella sticks, gluten-free molten chocolate cake, breaded lobster bites and pot roast from a pressure cooker.
His fans, whom he calls foodies, wait for his favorite catchphrases. “Swine is divine,” he may say. Or, “I do not want to live in a world without potatoes.” He gushes when cheese stretches over a macaroni casserole. He caresses favorite dishes. “I need some private time with that sandwich!”
When Venable tastes something he really loves, he breaks out his happy dance, and sales go up. A smart guest will do it with him, raising her hands in the air and dancing a casual jig while turning in a circle.
He sees his job as an educational one. His audience might never have cooked with ginger or sriracha, but they might if he can show them how.
“Even jalapeno we had to educate our foodies about,” he said.
But there are limits.
“Tofu was a tough sell,” he said.
Still, it seems there is almost nothing he can’t move. He made Le Creuset a star among viewers who would have never considered spending $339 on a large oval enameled French pot by convincing people that it was an heirloom they could pass down to their children.
“We tell a story that resonates,” he said. “I can’t find someone in a traditional store who will spend 15 minutes explaining Le Creuset to me or romancing it with me.”
Cookbooks are brought to life when the author presents the dishes, cooked backstage by the culinary crew, for Venable to try. “No one else is doing that,” he said. “People don’t just want the recipe. They want to be part of the story.”
Molly Gilbert, 30, a quiet cook who wrote a book called “Sheet Pan Suppers” for Workman Publishing, was a recent guest. QVC had ordered 5,000 of her books. The segment ran for 10 minutes. Venable did a happy dance. She sold almost all of the books.
“It was kind of a surreal, bizarre experience,” she said.
But in a good way, or a bad way?
“I would say embrace him,” she said. “He’s getting people in the kitchen, and I don’t think it’s a bad thing.”
Summer Squash Fritters With Garlic Dipping Sauce
Adapted from “In the Kitchen With David: QVC’s Resident Foodie Presents Comfort Foods That Take You Home” (Random House, 2012)
For the Garlic Dipping Sauce:
20 garlic cloves, peeled (about 2 heads)
Extra-virgin olive oil
1 cup mayonnaise
3 tablespoons lemon juice
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
1/4 cup chives, minced
For the Fritters:
1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 cup shredded white cheddar
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 teaspoon garlic powder
2 large eggs
3/4 cup cold beer
1 cup grated zucchini (about one 6- to-7-ounce zucchini), drained on paper towels 15 minutes
1 cup grated yellow squash (about one 6-to-7-ounce squash), drained on paper towels 15 minutes
1 small yellow onion, halved and thinly sliced
1/2 cup canola oil, for frying
Prepare the dipping sauce: Heat oven to 375 degrees, put garlic cloves in a small baking dish and add enough olive oil to cover. Roast until garlic is soft and golden, about 30 minutes. Cool.
Drain garlic, reserving oil. Transfer to a food processor, add 1 tablespoon reserved oil and the mayonnaise, lemon juice, salt and pepper and purée. Transfer to a bowl and stir in chives. Use remaining oil for another purpose.
Prepare the fritters: Combine flour, cheddar, salt, pepper and garlic powder in a large bowl. In a separate bowl, gently whisk eggs with beer. Pour egg mixture into flour mixture and stir until combined. Stir in zucchini, yellow squash and onion.
Heat canola oil in a large heavy-bottomed skillet over medium-high heat. Drop about 1 tablespoon of batter into the oil per fritter and fry 6 fritters at a time until golden-brown, 2 to 3 minutes a side. Remove to paper towels to drain. Serve hot, with the sauce on the side.
Yield: About 18 fritters