When Jeju Noodle Bar opened in the West Village in 2017, chef and owner Douglas Kim knew there was no way he could afford to spend the $40,000 to $50,000 it would take to hire a publicity company. But after being in the red for months — some early press, based partly on his experience at restaurants like Per Se, never quite paid off — Kim decided he had no choice. Unfortunately, every public relations firm Kim and his manager Kyungil Lee approached turned them away. They said that there was nothing they could do to help; the restaurant was no longer “new,” and getting media attention would be nearly impossible.
Kim and Lee decided if PR didn’t want their money, they didn’t want PR’s help. They took the cash and put it toward improving the food. Within a couple months, the New York Times gave Jeju a glowing two-star review. Now, just two years later, it is the only noodle-centric restaurant in America with a Michelin star — obtained without ever hiring PR.
Conventional wisdom suggests that restaurants need paid publicity to get attention, but that’s not always the case. Increasingly, some are going without it. “Restaurants already battle against the high costs of labor, food, and more, which makes succeeding in the industry that much harder,” says Lee. “With the heavy addition of PR agency cost, it’ll slowly start eating from its profits. If results aren’t significantly better, the restaurant is really gambling on that heavy cost.”
Hiring a publicity company is expensive: According to multiple industry sources on both sides of the transaction, restaurants pay anywhere from $5,000 to $10,00 per month to retain a PR agency, and many require that restaurants agree to a minimum number of months, usually six, before signing the deal.
For restaurateurs who have never interacted with the press, that price is the cost of instant access to rolodexes and the relationships the publicists have spent years building with writers — people who, in theory, can publish stories that will convince people that a restaurant is worth trying. Some restaurateurs even believe that retaining a publicist is required if they’re seeking the major awards, like Michelin stars or James Beard nods. Not only do many in the fine dining world consider these awards the ultimate signal of professional success, restaurants can see a huge bump in business after earning one.
But like the rest of media, the publicity game for food and restaurants has changed radically over the last 15 years. Restaurants can now talk to customers directly through Instagram or Facebook, while user-generated review platforms like Yelp have upended the traditional critic-driven starred review system that was the backbone of restaurant appraisal for decades. There are also simply far more places for diners to get info on where to eat, from blogs and influencers to Google Maps, and a restaurant or dish can go viral before it ever shows up in a full-blown publication. The power of food media — and in turn, the power of publicists — has diminished. And with seemingly more “hot” restaurants opening every week, it can seem harder than ever to attract the necessary attention to get butts in seats.
“Restaurants used to have this three-month glory period where everyone wanted to come in, and there weren’t as many big magazines to write about them,” says Jesse Gerstein, a longtime New York restaurant publicist who opened On the Fly Communications in 2018. “Now there’s so many more outlets, so many different outlets, reaching so many more people, and attention spans are shrinking. Places open today and they’re lucky to be hot shit for a single week.”
In the past — like a decade ago — there were just a few key writers at a few key publications for publicists to curry favor with to solicit positive coverage about their clients. One glowing write-up later, everything was set. Restaurants simply had to be willing and able to shell out the cash for one of the half-dozen or so elite publicists who could get it done.
The power of these high-profile publicists was such that some people believe they can use brute force to master the process of winning awards. “Becca can get you a Michelin star,” was one refrain I kept hearing — referring to Becca Parrish and her firm, also named Becca, which she established in 2004, one year before New York got its first Michelin guide.
The proof would seem to be in the corn-hibiscus pudding: Today, Becca PR does publicity for some of the most famous restaurant clients in New York City; its current roster includes Michelin-starred darlings Le Bernardin (three stars) and Jean-Georges (two). There have even been paeans written to Parrish. In W Magazine, she is described as “New York Chefs’ Favorite Gatekeeper.” (She politely declined to talk to me, and availed me of none of her glossy clients.)
A former Becca employee, who asked to remain anonymous, says Parrish has specifically instructed clients to cozy up to people who matter, like potential award voters at James Beard after-parties. Parrish’s belief, the ex-employee says, was that a restaurant has a better chance of winning when chefs and restaurateurs personally keep media up to date on their work; she reportedly instructed clients to send personalized holiday emails out to as many voters as possible.
Other industry insiders, however, scoff at the idea that any publicist could get a restaurant a Michelin star or Beard award. “A publicist has zero control over awards, and anyone who says otherwise is full of shit,” says Gerstein, who thinks chefs should build organic relationships with the kinds of people who write about restaurants and vote for awards. “Could you reach out to every voter? Theoretically, but that’s kinda gross.”
Of course, there are restaurants in New York that have attained Michelin stars without the help of an awards-centric publicity campaign.
When Ann Redding and her husband, Matt Danzer, opened the laid-back Northern Thai restaurant Uncle Boons on a sleepy block of Nolita in April 2013, they hired PR; they’d never owned a restaurant before and simply didn’t know how to get customers in the door. They found a random publicity agency on Google and paid some $6,000 a month on an eight-month retainer, for a total of $48,000.
Early on, Redding and Danzer found themselves standing around with no customers, losing money. Though they were getting stories in outlets here and there, they felt like they weren’t seeing an impact from the hefty investment. Redding became concerned that they’d have to close. Media coverage or not, she believed she would need a little luck, especially after they quit using the PR agency once that initial eight-month retainer elapsed. “It just got to the point where they had gotten us in so many publications, there wasn’t much left for them to do,” says Redding. “Maybe we could have jumped in front of the camera, but neither Matt nor I are fond of that. There wasn’t really much more they could do for us.”
Then, a Times review dropped. Business picked up. One can debate whether critic Pete Wells would have gone to Uncle Boons if not for those other stories placed by PR, but in October 2017, no longer with a publicist, the restaurant earned a Michelin star.
Redding recognizes her good fortune. “We’ve just been lucky as shit,” she says. “I’ve had a few friends, super-talented chefs, better than me, who’ve had PR and still had to close. Who knows why, but I think timing and luck are the biggest factors these days.”
Many chefs now also want something more than just a steady flow of customers and acclaim for the restaurants: their own face in the limelight. They want book deals, TV appearances, endorsements — real “fame,” according to the director of hospitality at a major New York publicity agency, who asked to remain anonymous so she would feel comfortable speaking freely. She claims publicists like her have evolved into something like a chef’s agent, manager, and general counsel rolled into one, vetting any and all opportunities that come their way. Chefs were “once a behind-the-scenes profession,” she says, but “now chefs are more like celebrities.”
Still, even with such lofty goals, some major chefs handle all of their own publicity and manage to do a pretty decent job of it.
“I think PR is old and done,” says Einat Admony, chef and owner of Israeli restaurants Balaboosta, Kish-Kash, and Taïm. She spent $40,000 to retain a PR agency for a mere three months before firing them; she felt the young publicists didn’t take her seriously. Yet she’s been featured in Bon Appétit and the New York Times, made plenty of local TV appearances, published two books, and gained 70,000 Instagram followers. Taïm, a fast-casual falafel spot, has also expanded to six locations, most recently in Washington, D.C.
“Pretty much at all times, I’ve hated all my publicists,” says another major New York restaurateur who has employed several publicists over the last few years, including Becca, and would only speak on the condition of anonymity. She feels that publicists have always overpromised and underdelivered for her, blasting out the same boilerplate emails and press releases that they do for every client. Besides, she believes print doesn’t matter as much as it used to, and her business isn’t a fit for most TV opportunities anyway.
This restaurateur is wildly successful, with high-profile appearances in the Times, on Eater, and in other publications, but she believes her personal relationships landed that coverage. “These are my businesses, and I should know them better than anybody else,” she says. “Sometimes I wonder, if I could spend more money and hire the fanciest publicists, would they do it better than me? But I don’t think you’ll ever get everything you want from a company that’s not in-house, that doesn’t breathe the business the way you do, that doesn’t understand your culture fully. I’m not sure I’ve met the right publicists for me because what we do is not traditional — if I had time to do it myself, I might consider doing it myself.”
None of this is to say that getting press doesn’t matter anymore.
A review in the Times can still make or break a restaurant, according to most people in the industry. “Honestly, the New York Times review basically helped us survive — it was not looking good at that point,” says Redding. “Without it, it’s very possible we would have ended up closing.” (Of course, it’s hard to tell how Pete Wells picks his restaurants, or whether write-ups in other press influences him at all. That anonymous director of hospitality called it “embarrassing” that some publicists think they can influence Wells.)
“A really great Pete Wells review can still do it — it’s the one thing that still holds the most cachet,” Gerstein says. “People do still read the Times. It’s the paper of record, and most of its readers are interested in the food section.”
And though it’s not impossible for a restaurant or chef to do well without a publicist, it’s easy for them to wonder if they’d be doing even better with one.
Lee of Jeju thinks that the restaurant’s Michelin star should have gotten far more press. “We’re the first and only noodle restaurant in the U.S. to get a Michelin star, and I feel with that headline, we should get a lot of stories written about us,” he says. “The difference is we don’t have a PR team to reach out to influencers, to do social media. I still don’t know how they get food writers to write about you.”
(Having said that, he and Kim aren’t considering hiring a publicist any time soon. “They don’t want us! We’re too old,” jokes Kim.)
When Admony notices that her competition has picked up more press and more buzz, she says it doesn’t make sense except for one reason. “I see people get awards for food I cooked 10 years ago; it’s bullshit,” she says. “The reason they get those, I think, is because of PR.”
The restaurateur who has hated all her publicists? Alas, she still has one. Many restaurateurs continue to believe that if you can afford PR, you have to have it.
It’s not as simple as hiring any random PR firm and calling it a day. “Getting strategically meaningful coverage still takes a lot of time and care. It’s not hiding behind a laptop and blasting out a press release and hoping spaghetti sticks to the wall,” says the anonymous director of hospitality. “Game-changing articles often come from a personal relationship with a writer nurtured many years on our end.”
So do a couple of game-changing honors. While James Beard awards and Michelin stars and the Times may be as opaque to publicists as they are to restaurateurs, two other lists seem to be a bit more gameable with the right PR team.
One is the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list, which several publicists say is pretty easy to crack if you stage relentless publicity campaigns and lavish comped meals on the list’s notoriously easy-to-influence voters. (In other words, says one publicist, any restaurant that makes a dramatic leap in the top 50 from one year to the next has probably spent the last 365 days pushing hard for it.) World’s 50’s Best Bars list also sees radical flux from year to year, seemingly also due to focused publicity campaigns.
In 2015, when some Australian bartenders took over Caffe Dante — a beloved Greenwich Village espresso spot that had been open for over a century — the future wasn’t exactly bright. “Major ‘meh,’” wrote an Eater commenter upon the unveil of the cocktail bar. “THIS couldn’t possibly feel more like a wine-bar at the airport, if they tried.”
But a few months into the reboot, Dante hired PR company Lion & Lamb. The bar asked for a slow rollout: Beverage director Naren Young introduced an all-Negroni menu a few months after opening and a full spritz menu in the summer of 2017 — making the two most zeitgeist-y cocktails of this era, drinks that they knew in-the-know people wanted to consume, available en masse. “We helped to execute [the menus] and get the word out to media and influencers through outreach, tastings, and pop-ups,” explains Melanie Weitzner, Lion & Lamb’s co-founder.
Dante became an industry spot, well known among insiders as a hangout for local bartenders, brand ambassadors, and even writers. At the end of 2016, it appeared at No. 34 on the vaunted World’s 50 Best Bars list, surprising Dante’s partners. They had never really cared about awards.
That’s when PR really came in handy.
“Once that happened, it suddenly became a goal to move up the list,” says Weitzner. “It became layered into their strategy. They really looked to us to start bringing in the right people, whether media or influencers; they started holding happy hours with publications like Condé Nast and Vogue. They wanted to get as many people in to experience Dante as possible. And they started moving up the list.”
In 2017, it reached No. 16. With help and heavy promotion from Lion & Lamb, the partners opened a limited-time-only sister bar, Dante at Genuine, down in Little Italy, which featured an Instagrammable Negroni fountain. By 2018, it was at Number 9. They started doing international Dante pop-ups — London, Barcelona, Shanghai. Judges from all over the world could now see the bar without actually coming to New York.
Meanwhile, back in New York, Lion & Lamb began routinely messengering bottled Dante cocktails to writers’ apartments to alert them to the bar’s latest goings-on; as recently as February, I received a bottled martini to announce the launch of the new “martini hour” menu. Weitzner says it has always been a part of Lion & Lamb’s strategy for any of its clients to send out what they call “VIP mailers.”
Then, in the fall, at a ceremony in northwest London, Dante placed in the No. 1 spot. The bar was flooded with media attention from across the globe — more than any mass email from a single publicist could generate. Dante was suddenly the most famous bar in the entire world.
“Last night was my first night there since the awards,” Weitzner told me in early October. “It was a Monday night, a holiday [Columbus Day], and there were people waiting in a massive line outside.”
And, I guess, that’s why you still hire a publicist.
Aaron Goldfarb lives in Brooklyn and is a novelist and the author of Hacking Whiskey and Gather Around Cocktails. His writing has appeared in Esquire, Playboy, PUNCH, and more.
Laura Anastasio is an award-winning illustrator and designer based in Milan, Italy.