With the competition among restaurants hotter than ever, David Ward discovers that local diners, national chains, and five-star establishments alike are seeking unique offerings to whet reporters' appetitesAs a walk down any US street will attest, Americans love to eat, and the physique of many of them proves it. While most dine at home, consumers spent $408 billion at 858,000 US restaurants last year, according to the National Restaurant Association.
Such numbers make restaurants big business. As such, there are numerous media outlets competing to tell you not only which restaurant to choose, but which dish to order when you get there.
Perhaps the biggest myth is that restaurant journalism focuses only on top-tier establishments. In fact, publications are willing to celebrate everything from gourmet meals to chili dogs. "There's an audience for every restaurant,
says Kelliann Amico, who represents both small chains and individual restaurants in the Pacific Northwest. "Not everyone wants to read about high-end places."
Leading journalists include Lynn Rosetto-Casper of NPR's The Splendid Table, New York Times lead restaurant critic William Grimes, the New York Post's Steve Cuozzo, Saveur's Rich Lang, Bon Appetit's Laurie Glenn Buckle, Esquire's John Mariani, and Gourmet writer Johnathan Gould.
The issue facing many PR pros is that there are only so many influential media outlets that must review a huge number of restaurants. Christine Ziccardi Schwartz, SAE with Magnet Communications, which represents many high-end restaurants, including New York's Aquavit, says even great restaurants can go five years between New York Times reviews. But Ziccardi Schwartz says these outlets will cover newsworthy events between reviews, such as menu, key personnel or ownership changes, as well as special events.
There are also opportunities to get into the food section of media outlets by submitting recipes of popular dishes that patrons can then try to replicate at home, she adds.
Chefs are a hot commodity
But by far the biggest trend in restaurant PR and journalism has been the elevation of the chef to celebrity status. Lisa Ekus, president of Hatfield, MA-based Lisa Ekus Public Relations, specializes in media training for chefs and cookbook authors, and notes, "Chefs have been coming out from behind the stove and in front of the TV camera."
It's not just superstars such as Emeril Lagasse, Wolfgang Puck, Anthony Bourdain, and Bobby Flay who are getting ink. Chefs are being pushed to the forefront in midsize and small markets as well. Ekus argues that celebrity chefs not only drive local traffic to a restaurant, but also raise its profile outside the region, helping to turn it into a destination for visitors.
Of course, there are some hazards to having chefs become better known than the restaurants at which they toil. One is that the chef could leave, taking the positive coverage with him. The other is that the chef may become so consumed with public appearances and cookbooks, "there's a danger they may forget to get back behind the stove,
PR pros note that even the somewhat anonymous chef working for a chain or concept restaurant can be useful in generating media coverage. Ketchum/Texas VP Teresa Henderson, who is representing the Canadian steak house chain The Keg as it expands into the US, says, "We often put chefs on local morning shows. That's a great way to get publicity for a restaurant that's either entering the market or has a new offering."
Henderson recommends that every restaurant, from a single location to a thousand-unit chain, do media training with their managers and key executives so they can talk to the media on a moment's notice. Also, she says, "Everyone ought to have a crisis plan in place ... just in case, for example, somebody's twin under-age daughters get caught drinking at their establishment."
The Blaze Company's Karen GeeMcAuley, who represents the 1950s diner-themed Ruby's regional chain, suggests participating in food trend stories, such as the post-September-11 interest in nostalgic comfort foods, as well as business pieces that have ended up positioning Ruby's as the right franchise for tough economic times.
There are also opportunities to promote restaurants, especially new venues, as trendy nightlife destinations. But Liz Lapidus, founder of Atlanta-based Liz Lapidus Public Relations, warns there is a danger in pitching your restaurant to the media as the next new thing. "Every six months something newer will come along, so you've got to be more than just trendy,
she says. "Ultimately, the restaurant has to stand on its own."
While most consumer outlets tend to cover restaurants as part of their leisure and entertainment sections, the nation's eateries belong to a competitive and cutthroat industry that get written up in the nation's business pages. Business writers tend to divide the nation's eateries not just by cuisine, but also by income level as well as service style, such as quick-service restaurants, cafeteria-style, casual, and full-service.
How to best serve up a story
Ron Ruggless, Dallas-based correspondent for Nation's Restaurant News, says, "We cover a lot of mergers and acquisitions, as well as trends, such as the emergence of fast casual chains.
Ruggless says he receives a flood of press releases, but stresses that PR pros need to take more time to learn what a journalist is covering - and more importantly, what he doesn't cover. "I get press releases for local events, such as wine-tasting dinners, that I can't use because we've got a national audience."
Jennifer English, founder and president of The Food & Wine Radio Network, echoes that, saying that it's not enough for PR execs to be passionate about a restaurant client. "They must be able to put their client in context and tell me literally why this chef or restaurant is newsworthy now,
she says. "I would recommend customizing every pitch."
Her other advice is to understand the medium being pitched, adding that while e-mail or electronic press kits may be appropriate for print, they're not good for radio journalists. English, whose network broadcasts 21 hours of live food- and restaurant-related programming each week to stations in 60 markets, notes that interviews occasionally get cut off and hosts must quickly shift gears. "Personally, I like to have hard copy press kits with original menus on hand so that everything's there at a glance if we need to take up a new topic on a moment's notice,
Ronald Hanser, president of Des Moines, IA-based Hanser & Associates, notes that with so many restaurants pitching the press every time a chain tweaks its menu or pricing, there are opportunities to pitch journalists on "contrarian
stories on chains that have stayed consistent. Hanser represents Maid-Rite, a Midwestern chain that has kept the same "loose meat
sandwich on its menu for 76 years.
With Maid-Rite in the process of a national expansion, Hanser has been reaching out to media outlets in new markets, and notes, "Below the top 50 papers, there is generally not a restaurant reviewer. So we have to find another place in the paper or pitch it as a pure-play business story."
One pitch component that Hanser has found effective has been customer testimonials. Maid-Rite is such an institution in Iowa, for example, that many people ate at the chain as kids and are now willing to drive hundreds of miles to dine on a Maid-Rite loose meat sandwich again. Hanser adds that in most cases, all he has to provide is the customer's name and the quote, although he notes, "We can also set up an interview if the reporter really wants one."
WHERE TO GO
Newspapers: The New York Times; The Wall Street Journal; The Washington Post; Chicago Tribune;
LA Times; San Francisco Chronicle
Magazines: Gourmet; Food & Wine; Bon Appetit; Saveur; Esquire; GQ; urban lifestyle titles; in-flight titles; W; Travel & Leisure; Food & Wine; The Wine Spectator; Cigar Aficionado
Trade titles: Food Art; Nation's Restaurant News; Food & Beverage News; Food Management; QSR; Restaurant Hospitality; Restaurant & Institutions; Restaurant Digest
TV & Radio: The Food Channel; NPR; Food & Wine Radio Network
Websites: Chainleader.com; Timeout.com; Winespectator.com; Onlinechef.com