COOKING UP A STORM: From making stars out of chefs to giving the wine list the once over, an extra helping of PR has become an integral part of a restaurant's success. Claire Atkinson digs into the glitzy world

Just as culinary tastes have evolved over the years, so has the role of the restaurant publicist. While PR used to be all about securing good reviews and generating all-important word of mouth, agencies are now offering a full menu of services.

Just as culinary tastes have evolved over the years, so has the role of the restaurant publicist. While PR used to be all about securing good reviews and generating all-important word of mouth, agencies are now offering a full menu of services.

Just as culinary tastes have evolved over the years, so has the role of the restaurant publicist. While PR used to be all about securing good reviews and generating all-important word of mouth, agencies are now offering a full menu of services.

Take one of New York's most influential PR firms, KB Network News, which represents 20 hot spots, including Lotus, AZ and Ferrier. KB offers to come up with the name, design, chef selection, cuisine and image as part of a consultancy service. There's even a direct marketing package available.

KB founder Karine Bakhoum tells how she helped remake the Central Park Boathouse restaurant, disposing of its touristy image and reputation for sub-par food. It began when Bakhoum went to the restaurant for a meal.

Afterward, she told the owners: 'This is atrocious, overpriced and poorly presented.'

She recommended a name change from Central Park Boathouse to Park View at the Boathouse and brought in chef John Villa. Those moves helped the restaurant gain a new Zagat rating and encouraged other reviewers to return.

'It was extremely successful, and then it was sold,' says Bakhoum .

Before the opening of Lotus, Bakhoum worked with chef Richard Farnabe on menus, tastings of dishes suitable for high-volume catering, and how many covers the kitchen could cope with.



From soup to nuts

Steve Hall confirms that the role of restaurant PR has moved far beyond the press release. 'The media doesn't realize how much we do for our clients,' says Hall, a former waiter and restaurant manager who now heads The Hall Company, which represents restaurants across the country. 'We are their eyes and ears. We let them know what's happening, and we act as spotters, making sure the food is consistent and letting the owners know when the wine lists start looking shabby.'

But this new generation of restaurant PR doesn't come cheap - retainer fees range from dollars 25,000 to dollars 45,000 a month. As Hall explains, the workload is the same for all restaurants, regardless of their size, but he adds that if he meets an owner or chef with 'potential,' he'll be flexible on the retainer.

Basic restaurant media relations has also been changing. As in most industries, the Internet is playing an important new role in marketing to customers.

Beverly Hills restaurant Chadwick's - operated by Harrison Ford's son Benjamin and his wife, Elizabeth - offers an online reservation service.

City-based web sites such as AOL's Digital City are also becoming popular among restaurant lovers.

With new restaurants opening up all the time, PR practitioners have had to become more savvy about attracting the attention of the media - from turning chefs into celebrities to using venues as a backdrop for high-profile media events.

Richard Laermer, CEO of RLM Public Relations, is currently devising a pitch for a New York venue called China Fun. His brainwave is to change the image of the chain's fleet of delivery bikers by dressing them up and giving them a more respectable image.

Christopher Langley, who represents Boston's Rialto and Red Clay, recommends organizing events around specific times of the year. For example, he planned a Valentine ring giveaway to lure couples and helped organize a millennium night benefit at Rialto, one of Boston's top five restaurants, rather than charge premium prices. According to Langley, that move helped win favor among critics.

Benita Gold is executive vice president of marketing and public relations for the Glazier Group, which owns Michael Jordan's Steakhouse in Grand Central Station and Tapika, among other hot spots. Gold says she sometimes comps other publicists in the hope that they'll think of her venues when they plan their own media events.

Getting the word out to the media is not the easiest task in the world, especially when the competition is hotter than an oven. The booming economy has led to an increase in the number of people eating out in recent years.

In New York City alone, there are an estimated 18,000 restaurants in the five boroughs, and according to the latest Zagat dining guide survey, more than 300 restaurants opened there this year alone.



Showing off the chef

In an effort to stand out, many restaurant PR executives are seizing on the charisma of the head chef to weave a story around. 'Good PR makes the chef a name,' says Gold.

For instance, New York restaurants these days are looking for chefs who can work well with the media. While culinary ability is crucial, Gold says: 'A chef needs to be telegenic and handsome. Are they single? Can I media train them?' All these factors help gain coverage from nontraditional outlets, including Cosmopolitan magazine and the entertainment TV shows.

'You have to look at what's happening and try to piggyback it,' says Gold.

To set the tone for a PR campaign, Bakhoum talks to the owner about what kind of image he or she wants to project. 'I make restaurant owners define their goals. How many stars do they want? Do they want a chef who's highly promotable, or someone who's going to stay in the kitchen?'

However, the potential danger in promoting a chef with no ownership in a restaurant is that they may be tempted to leave once their profile has been raised. 'I recommend chefs get a piece of the action,' says Bakhoum.

If you want to know just how risky hinging a restaurant's image around a star chef can be, just ask Alain Ducasse.

Ducasse, who operates Le Louis XV in Monte Carlo as well as a string of other upscale eateries, has had a tough time since the launch of his outpost at the Essex House this summer. Advanced buzz prompted more than 3,000 people to phone in reservations ahead of the opening night, but the press has since turned on the celebrity chef.

First, the New York Daily News splashed with a cover story on his high prices - a fixed-price meal is dollars 160. Then the wait staff complained that Americans were being ousted in favor of Gallic customers. To top it all, the chief restaurant reviewer at Gourmet magazine, Jonathan Gold, found a caterpillar in his Romaine lettuce. Ducasse has kept quiet during the entire time.

'Unfortunately the New York media were out to get him,' says Hall. 'He came in without doing his homework about what the New York market wanted.

Had he hired an experienced restaurant PR company, he may not have stopped the hate media, but he could have used people who could have explained better.'

The Susan Magrino Agency was eventually brought in to work with in-house press attache Marion Walsh. Luckily, negative attention does not always destroy a restaurant, and Ducasse seems to have avoided any long-term damage.



Serving up celebrity

On the flip side, negative coverage can actually result in a rush in business. Spark's Steak House, for example, became an instant attraction after mobster Paul Castellano was murdered there. Allan Ripp, director of press relations for New York-based Zagat Survey, says: 'Controversy does help. People want to go to places that are talked about.'

There is also a lot of mileage in promoting a restaurant's customers.

Lotus is well known for attracting celebrity clientele, and chef Richard Farnabe is the personal cook to designer Tommy Hilfiger, which helps bring in the fashion crowd. Bakhoum says she sometimes invites celebrities, but often they will turn up anyway.

However, using celebrities to attract attention can arouse mixed feelings among PR people. Laermer thinks using celebrities to generate buzz is passe, believing that a tough reservation policy is often a better way to create interest.

Hall says it is preferable to leave celebrities alone and have them as regulars than to call up the gossip columns and scare them away. But if they were doing something out of the ordinary, he wouldn't hesitate to make the call. Gold adds that a mention of your client's restaurant in a gossip column can also scare off the serious food critics, who then typecast the restaurant as 'trendy.'

New York Times restaurant critic William Grimes dines out five nights a week and visits each place he reviews at least three times. With hundreds of restaurants to cover, he explains how he chooses where to eat: 'It is by virtue of location, seriousness of its culinary intentions and recognition of the chef.' Grimes also claims to not be influenced by the publicists: 'I don't know whether PR puts a place on the map. It doesn't touch me.'

Grimes says that the New York Times approaches the restaurant business as it would any other kind of news. He describes the Essex House opening as one of the biggest restaurant stories of the year. 'That was a slam dunk; it was going to get press whether they wanted to or not. It was a PR dream.'

'In New York, restaurants have replaced theater,' says Gold. 'A lot of people read the dining-out sections to see who's featured. People are having conversations about the food and the chefs.' Gold also tells how interior designers like David Rockwell can help gain attention from other kinds of critics, such as art and architecture reviewers.

Media relations strategy, however, differs depending on the restaurant scene in each center. In a market like New York, people want to be surprised by their restaurants, while people in Washington, DC, are looking for comfort. Hall says: 'In Tuscon, Arizona, they want to hire a New York firm like ours, because so much depends on tourism. In Washington, it is a suburban market, so people don't go out as much.'

Of course, good PR has its limits. 'PR can only go so far in creating an initial buzz. It can't sustain it,' says Ripp. Time Out New York's restaurant editor, Salma Abdelnour, adds: 'Some restaurants have a hard time extending the buzz.' She claims that restaurants that jump on the scene and make a big deal about their arrival are often judged much more harshly.

Further, in an industry rife with egos and dramatic temperaments, being a publicist can be a tough call. Ripp says he'd find it difficult to manage expectations, as owners often refuse to be realistic about their prospects.

'PR cannot sustain a poor location or a restaurant that is jinxed in some way.'

But some New Yorkers will ignore bad reviews. As The New York Post pointed out in October, the Union Square Cafe and Aureole weren't reviewed well by The New York Times, but were still voted most popular by the city's restaurant-goers.



The recipe for success

There are some surprisingly easy ways of getting in the good books of the critics. Keeping them up to date is the first prerequisite.

Los Angeles Times restaurant critic Irene Virbila says she needs to find a new opening every week, and that's often a challenge. She finds it surprising how few restaurants tell her what their hours are, and complains that she won't hear of openings until weeks after they've happened.

Despite all the cunning tricks and razzmatazz, maybe getting a restaurant noticed by the critics (and ultimately by the public) is as simple as getting the basics right.

Says Grimes, 'I want to know about the wine list, the menu, who the chef is, who the pastry chef is, what the hours are, whether they take credit cards. I'm deeply impressed with good grammar. It's amazing the number of times I see the word Bearnaise misspelt.'



WHO'S WHO IN RESTAURANT PR

SUSAN MAGRINO AGENCY

Susan Magrino is the last word in restaurant public relations. She's taken on Alain Ducasse at the Essex House in New York and counts Martha Stewart as both friend and client. Her agency also represents a string of upscale hotels and restaurants , including the Baldoria and Frank Pellegrino Jr.'s new restaurant that opened in May.



KB NETWORK NEWS

Karine Bakhoum opened KB Network News in 1993 and has worked with just about every name in food since. The Swiss-born executive has helped generate buzz for celebrity chef Bobby Flay, chef Patricia Yeo of AZ and restaurant owner Matthew Kenney. The agency helped TAM Restaurants relaunch their Central Park venue as Park View at the Boathouse, which later earned two stars from the New York Times and praise from the 1999 Zagat review. KBNN represents 20 restaurants in New York alone.



THE HALL COMPANY

Steve Hall and partner Sam Firer founded their firm five years ago. Hall worked as a waiter, then restaurant manager, and decided to gain some experience in PR, spending time at KB Network News and then setting up his own firm. Hall and Firer now represent restaurants all over the country.

They include Red Sage in Washington, DC,and Carmine's in New York. The latest launch is for Chinoiserie, opening in New York on November 15.



JOAN LUTHER & ASSOCIATES

Luther has spent 45 years in the business and says she's seen a change in restaurant PR. Many more are hiring agencies for ongoing public relations help rather than just the initial burst, she explains. Luther confirms that gridlock has led to a downturn in the Los Angeles scene. 'We're going to see more people eating within a five mile radius of where they live,' she says. Luther's clients include Robert DeNiro-owned Ago.



GERALYN DELANEY, RESOURCES

Delaney cut her teeth in PR at Philip Morris, where she wrote a mini guide to New York. She then joined Cablevision, but her passion for food and wine led her to the restaurant world. Delaney worked in various front-of-house positions at prestigious venues such as Gotham Bar & Grill. Now she runs Resources which represents high-profile chefs such as Jean-Georges Vongerichten, and Chanterelle's David Waltuck.



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