By Karen E. Klein Q: We're starting a new restaurant. Once we open, I want magazines and newspapers to write articles about us. Do I have to hire someone who has contacts with newspapers and food magazines, or are there other ways to get in touch with the publications? -- M.S., Duluth, Ga.
A: Hiring an experienced public relations person who knows editors and reporters in your area and can produce an appealing, professional marketing package is the best way to get your restaurant some publicity. But if you're like most entrepreneurs launching a startup venture, you probably don't have a large budget set aside to do that.
What you'll need is a couple of alternatives to contracting for a full-scale PR campaign. You can try to find a reputable publicist who will accept a limited retainer and work with you for a reasonable hourly rate. Even if you can't afford to hire this person to do all your publicity, perhaps he or she would be willing to meet with you for a couple of hours, give you basic advice on writing press releases, and help you brainstorm several ideas to capture the attention of the local media and regional publications devoted to food and travel.
Alternatively, try contacting the business department at your nearest community college or university and ask if they have a marketing/PR major who would like to get some hands-on experience via an internship. While you would probably have to pay an intern something, it would certainly be less than you would pay an established professional -- and you'll get the energy and enthusiasm of a student eager to get a first taste of his or her chosen profession.
LOOK AND LEARN. If you find that you can't afford to pay anyone to start, you can do your own publicity by putting in some extra work and knowing some basic principles, experts say. First, you need to target the publications that you would like to cover your restaurant. You can access a complete list of food-industry trade publications (and much additional useful advice and information) through the National Restaurant Assn. and the Georgia Hospitality & Travel Assn., which is based in Atlanta.
Look at the articles in these publications and fashion a press release of your own along the same lines and submit it, with some photos. "The trade publications like new and exciting concepts, and they like to have statistics and data, such as customer counts, average checks, food cost, and labor cost, rather than a lot of adjectives," says Art Manask, a restaurant consultant based in Los Angeles.
If you want to get your restaurant reviewed by local and regional newspapers and magazines, pick up copies and get a feel for what kinds of restaurants they write about. "If [your] restaurant is exciting, interesting, and notable -- not just another Italian, Mexican, or family restaurant -- you can use the same approach: Write your own press releases and send out photos," Manask advises. One caveat: Don't send out your press releases in advance of your opening or during the first week and risk having a critic show up before the inevitable glitches are worked out.
NO FREE MEALS. Given that you're not located in a huge metropolitan market, getting some exposure may not be terribly difficult, says Sydney Weisman, who specializes in public relations and advertising in Los Angeles. "You don't have to do anything fancy with a local weekly or monthly community newspaper. They tend to be much more forgiving for novice publicists," she says. "Just send a copy of your menu with a handwritten note to the editor and/or publisher and alert him or her to the opening."
If the paper has a restaurant critic, also send a copy of the menu to the critic with a note that you simply wanted him/her to know you're open. Don't solicit a review or ask the critic to dine on the house. "Never offer a free meal to a journalist, because it would be unethical for them to accept," Weisman says. "But do follow up with a personal phone call about two weeks later, making sure that the menu was received."
If the local paper runs a story on you and the restaurant -- assuming it's a positive one -- be sure to put a blown-up copy in your window. Then move on to soliciting stories from other local and regional food writers and reporters.
KEEP IT GOING. Weisman suggests that you emphasize an angle that sets you apart: "You may be the only Middle-Eastern restaurant within 40 miles, or you may be using soup recipes that have been handed down in your family for 100 years, or maybe you're a fallen-away, ultrawealthy CEO who wants to give a third of your restaurant's meals to the homeless. Whatever it is that makes you different should be included in all your PR materials, even a letter to an editor or critic," she advises.
Once you're open and the initial publicity has passed, your biggest hurdle will be establishing a marketing program that sustains public awareness of your restaurant. Think about doing charitable tie-ins, youth team sponsorships, and radio giveaways or promotions to keep your establishment in the news. Also, don't neglect joining civic organizations, such as your local chamber of commerce or Rotary Club. Good luck! Have a question about running your business? Ask our small-business experts. Send us an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, or write to Smart Answers, BW Online, 46th Floor, 1221 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10020. Please include your real name and phone number in case we need more information; only your initials and city will be printed. Because of the volume of mail, we won't be able to respond to all questions personally.