When you open a new restaurant, getting great press and reviews is one of the most important things you can do. It is like immediate word of mouth to a huge number of people at one go. We tend to trust our friends in matters of food, and we believe food critics too – after all, they are the professionals.
It might seem like all you have to do to get these reviews is to find the phone number of critics, call them up, in they come, and two days later, out comes your restaurant review. However, the truth is that in my almost one decade of arranging food reviews, I have found that the PR centred around these is far from straightforward. There are some tricks of the trade to learn and some pitfalls to look out for. Below are a few pointers for you to keep in mind while arranging food reviews for your restaurant.
Many top restaurants are a long time in the making. Service staff are ready, kitchens are in place, and everyone is just sitting around waiting for licenses or that blasted salamander which the contractor is yet to install. Impatience gets the better of the management and they demand their PR company to call the entire media universe to the restaurant in its first week of opening. This is never the best idea.
We all know that regardless of how well trained the staff are, they would still take a while to get into the swing of service. The kitchen is going to have to amend a few dishes right at the beginning as it listens to customer comments and sees which dishes come back barely touched from the dining area.
As a restaurateur, you should use your friends, your family, and your trusted advisors (including your business partners, staff, and the PR agency team) as your guinea pigs, not the media. Be aware that some publications also prefer to wait to do a review until you have your liquor license. However, you can consider getting a day license if you do have an important table to host. Two weeks is normally enough time for your newly opened restaurant to get up to speed.
I have met many clients who have held back all of these food tastings until after the alcohol license has arrived, and that in itself has taken far, far longer than they had anticipated. The result is that they do not invite any media to their restaurant for tastings until three, four, or even five months post-opening. This is way too late.
Food reporters may focus more on lifestyle editorial, trends, and commentary, but they still need to have an aspect of “news” in what they write. Therefore, something which has been open for a very long time is not really of interest to them any more. More so, something which has been open for a very long time and which no one else has even written about cannot be particularly good, can it?
At the maximum, you should wait no more than two months after the opening of your restaurant for reviews, but preferably invite the first food critics within the first month itself.
Your PR agency is doubtless the best route by which to invite the media to your restaurant. I say this not because this is what I do, but because PR professionals deal with key food critics day in and day out. This means they know how the journalists like to be contacted and what their responses really mean. The PR people are also aware of media deadlines and when journalists do not like to be bothered.
I recently had a journalist friend buy an additional mobile phone for personal use so that over the weekend she could be contacted by friends and family, but not by PR people. How sad! A good PR agency will know which journalist to SMS, who to call, and who to email. It will know what publications go to print on a Friday night, and which journalists do not reach the office until the afternoon. Together with the PR agency, you should generate a list of exactly which all journalists you want to invite to your restaurants and then let the experts extend the invitations.
When I speak at conferences on PR, I always do one or more exercises to get the audience into the shoes of the media. While other PR companies strictly ban their staff working on anything but their jobs, I positively encourage my team to have a go at writing for a publication.
Personally, as long as I have been in the PR industry, I have also written for the odd paper or magazine. The reason for this is that in our rush to achieve our goals (good reviews, listings, event coverage, etc.) we often forget that the media are not there to hand over free publicity for your restaurant whenever you demand it. Their job is to keep their reader entertained, to hit their deadlines, and to find new and innovative angles. Most of all, they are real live people, just like you and me, and they deserve to be treated as such.
I have been in a situation where I was out after work with a prominent star of a food show, and he was called and begged to come to a restaurant opening at half past ten at night. We were in the middle of our martinis! Often a journalist may take up to two months to come and visit your restaurant, especially if they also write on travel and are rarely in the country, as is true of many food writers. If they keep saying they will contact you when they want to come in, it may just be that they are not interested right now.
You should focus on those media who are happy to come, and try harder to innovate and catch their imagination. It is not the raison d’être of journalists to come to every restaurant that ever opened. You need to whet their appetite!
My PR team will always hand you a media briefing document before any interaction. A food tasting is no different. In India, with its myriad special dietary requirements, it is absolutely vital to know what your visitor likes to eat before they enter your restaurant. Sure, you are going to let them have a free choice of the menu, but you do not want to recommend the Beef Wellington to a staunch vegetarian. When you make recommendations, it helps everyone to have a few dishes that you think they might like.
Some prominent food writers are vegetarian, most do not take beef, a few are allergic to seafood, and some consider chicken to be a distinctly boring meat. I have not come across any staunch Jain food critics, but then nothing would surprise me any more! Some vegetarian critics bring along a non-vegetarian friend to help them taste more of the menu. It also helps to know who loves an amazing Bordeaux, who has a thing for New World wines, and who will feel like a million dollars if you start their meal with a glass of champagne. There is always time for a good glass of bubbles!
The familiarization (Fam) trip is like one big extended tasting, and here it is most vital to find out every preference, as often the chef prepares a tasting menu and this must include options for everyone. It even helps to know who smokes and who does not, and if a member of your team smokes they might want to step outside after dinner for a quick cigarette break. The media is often reluctant to ask but our only real job with a tasting is to make sure they enjoy every moment.
When dealing with the super high-end of media, I even like to know what cigar brand is preferred!
I am often surprised that top-end restaurants are willing to open a bottle of Cristal but would not send a taxi to pick up a media member. It is a little like the analogy of having a date. You would be concerned enough about her to pick her up from her home, and then make sure that she is home safe. If your restaurant is located inside a hotel, have the hotel car sent for a pick-up. It does not cost anything but the petrol and it is always comfortable to arrive in style. Otherwise, use a taxi company that either you or your agency are familiar with.
Many a food writer has been put out before they even reach the restaurant by a car which does not arrive or is in poor shape. If you can pick the journalist up from their home, then you save them from that most infuriating of things – driving in the city traffic – and you can begin the evening the way you intend it to go on…in comfort!