Jo Barnes, Sauce Communications

The bump that restaurant PR supremo Jo Barnes is sporting – although barely perceptible thanks to ‘clever dressing’ – is not a sign of her having sampled too many culinary delights. She is eight and a half months’ pregnant.

Barnes, 32, admits she may ‘vanish for a few weeks’ when her child is born, but she plans to continue working at least part-time soon after the birth. Gordon Ramsay – who she has represented for five years – must be relieved to hear that.

Ramsay was Sauce Communications’ first client when Barnes and her business partner, Nicky Hancock, set up five years ago. Barnes had been promoting Ramsay’s books when she worked in publishing, and he inspired her to launch the agency: ‘I thought, I’m never going to meet anyone more exciting than Gordon, and this is what
I want to focus on.’

At the time, Ramsay had only one restaurant, and was best known for swearing and losing his temper on Channel 4’s Boiling Point. ‘He was sort of national hate figure number one,’ admits Barnes. Luckily for her, he does not treat his publicist like he does his kitchen staff. ‘In the seven years I’ve know him, Gordon has never sworn at me – that is very much a product of the kitchen environment,’ she says.

As Ramsay became more successful, so did Sauce: ‘Our companies have really grown hand in hand,’ Barnes says. Now she claims that Sauce, with 11 staff, has ‘probably the largest portfolio of restaurants of any UK restaurant agency’ – its clients include Maze, Roca and Zuma.

Sauce’s office in Shepherd’s Bush, west London, is full of cookery books, framed Observer Food Monthly covers and, of course, pictures of Ramsay. According to OFM editor Nicola Jeal, Barnes is ‘definitely one of the top three restaurant PROs because she’s straightforward, she makes things happen, and she understands what we’re looking for’.

Barnes says a good deal of the agency’s success is down to her relationship with Hancock – the two have been friends since they were ten, and Barnes claims they have not argued once in the five years they have been
in business.

Hancock’s father was a caterer and Barnes grew up in Hertfordshire, eating seasonal vegetables grown in the family garden and making jams and pickles. ‘It is a cliché that restaurant PROs never eat, but we love our food,’ she insists.

Barnes claims the biggest challenge in her sector is ensuring restaurants maintain their profile after the publicity around opening has died down. But she believes that regularly fabricating gimmicky news angles ‘smacks of desperation’, so strategies must be long-term and innovative.

She also advises against depending on celebrity endorsement to promote restaurants. ‘The celebrity crowd tends to be a bit transient. Restaurants that have been über-hot get loads of coverage and then everyone moves on. Most of our restaurants have a steady stream of celebrities going to them – but we don’t play on it.’

Although unremittingly upbeat about life as a restaurant PRO, Barnes concedes one tough career moment – when Sauce whipped up publicity around the opening of a restaurant (which she declines to name) only for the critics to slate it.

 ‘We felt awful for our client, but critics, by their nature, are totally objective,’ she reflects.

Barnes believes that the ‘celeb-chef boom’ is over, but  does not see that as a problem for Ramsay: ‘“Cooking to camera” is pretty much extinct, but programmes such as those of Jamie Oliver and Gordon don’t do that. They have raised the bar.’

While other national fixations may come and go, Barnes reckons Britain’s love affair with food will endure. ‘There will continue to be an interest in food because there is so much on which we can improve. We have been eating badly for years, but now everyone’s talking about organic, traceability and provenance – and chefs are at the heart of the debate,’ she says.

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