Paula Deen Controversy One Year Later: An Empire Destroyed, Then Rebuilt

Paula Deen spent decades building an empire around her down-home cooking that included a popular cable cooking show and a string of successful restaurants. However, she saw it all come crashing down exactly one year ago.

In June 2013, Deen became the target of a lawsuit alleging that she made derogatory remarks toward African-Americans in the presence of a female employee at one of her restaurants. A deposition was then leaked in which Paula Deen admitted that she had used the N-word at times in her younger days, but said that she had since changed her ways.

“I’m sure I have, but it’s been a very long time […] maybe in repeating something that was said to me […] probably a conversation between blacks,” Deen stated. “I don’t – I don’t know. But that’s just not a word that we use as time has gone on. Things have changed since the 60’s in the south.”

Though Deen stressed that she no longer held those views and the suit would later be dismissed, the controversy would spread quickly. Deen saw her cooking show canceled by the Food Network and lost a host of publishing and endorsement contracts, including Walmart, Target, J.C. Penney, and QVC.

But as the controversy grew on, Paula Deen found many supporters. A number of companies expressed their commitment to continue endorsements, and sales of her cookbooks soared.

Earlier this year, investment firm injected Paula Deen Ventures with between $75 million and $100 million in cash. The Phoenix-based company, founded by BMG Music Service owner Jahm Najafi, said it had a “deep respect” for Paula Deen and her brand.

“I couldn’t imagine a better partner than Jahm Najafi, with his track record of success. Jahm’s vision, attention to detail and entrepreneurial spirit will help us grow to new heights,” Deen said in a statement. “Jahm and Steve are both so well respected as leaders. I know this is the right decision to lead my team, as we continue to share quality products with my fans — whose love and support have built my brands.”

Though Deen has recovered much of what was lost in last year’s controversy, she has also found setbacks. Earlier this year the restaurant that was the setting for the racial discrimination lawsuit, Uncle Bubba’s Seafood & Oyster House, closed abruptly, leaving employees to find out via a note taped to the door.

But Paula Deen has seen her cooking empire continue to expand. She has a steady stream of appearances and cooking demonstrations scheduled, and this week will travel to Tennessee to celebrate the opening of a new store.