Times Like These: The State of the Restaurant PR Industry

Love it or hate it, restaurant PR has been a necessary evil in the industry for decades. And while most attention during this down economy has gone to the restaurateurs forced to close their establishments and cut back on staff, what about the poor flacks on the front lines schmoozing with writers, pitching round ups, meting out access to their celeb clients, and charging $3k/month for the service? What about them? Based on the number of emails from newly out of work PR kids looking for freelance work, it looks like some of the biggest firms—Hall, Baltz, Bullfrog—have been cutting the fat since this recession started. And for the indie PR folk, it's even worse. A plea from a longtime PR person to call attention to their plight (and to pretty please go to Thalassa):

As a long-time independent restaurant publicist, I’m pitching the following subject for editorial consideration – that of the NYC restaurant publicist in today’s economic climate.

I began as an independent restaurant publicist almost 20 years ago. At that time, there weren’t any independent restaurant publicis ts. There were very few celebrity chefs. There was no Food Network. What PR was done was generally done in-house.

Then the restaurant boom of the 1980s and 1990s hit. Seemingly overnight, there were celebrity chefs, celebrity restaurateurs, and the launch of TVFN (later named simply Food Network). After leaving the PR agency world, I went solo. I was very actively involved in the successful launch of restaurateur Pino Luongo’s career (Sapore di Mare, Le Madri, Coco Pazzo here and in Chicago, major cookbooks, and other ventures). Tied in with this successful PR campaign was restaurateur/chef Mark Strausman who left Coco Pazzo as Executive Chef to open Campagna, Chinghialle, and Fred’s at Barneys. Other major campaigns I was involved in were March owned by famed chef Wayne Nish and his partner Joseph Scalice, Nicholson owned by restaurateur/chef Patrick Woodside, C3 (now North Square) at the Washington Square Hotel, Trata Estiatorio, F.illi Ponte, and many others. 6-month PR contracts were the norm and PR fees were $2,000 on up. Money was flowing and restaurants were prospering along with the chefs and owners involved.

It seemed like overnight, everything changed. Although the restaurant world and the publicists involved with it came to a screeching halt in October 2008, things were slowing down economically a year or so before that. Once October came, business slowed down and in many cases, a large number of establishments closed. Just before October, I had a number of major new prospects. After October, these chefs and restaurateurs had a wait and see attitude even though they all agreed that they needed PR and promotion more than ever before. I found myself struggling more than I ever had – more than when I began my solo career and even more than the aftermath of 9/11.

Nobody was willing to sign contracts at all anymore. It was verbal agreements only. PR fees dropped significantly. Clients expected major media results in 4 weeks. Checks bounced.

Recently, one of my current clients, Thalassa, significantly lowered prices of 80% of their menu items and introduced many new promotions – Wine Mondays (50% off all bottles of wine), live music weeknights, and Thalassa Lounge (a more casual dining experience in the front). Another client, York Grill, decided to take a summer hiatus from PR and focus on in-house promotions. Still, another client, Water’s Edge, newly co-owned and operated by Singh Hospitality Group based in Long Island, and recently renovated, hired me for two months, and then refused to pay for services rendered.

Eater Editor, it’s very bleak at the moment. Yes, there are restaurant PR agencies out there who may be doing relatively well. However, the independent publicist like myself, like the small business owner, is suffering terribly. I would like to speak with you about editorial coverage of my area of the restaurant industry.

Susan Rike

Doesn't any restaurateur have it in his/her heart to shell out some $$ for a struggling PR gal these days? JoeDoe? If not, you can always send your news straight to tips@eater.com.

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