In the Spotlight
Food publicists set the stage for Austin's culinary rock stars
It seems Austin’s status as the Live Music Capital is being increasingly challenged by its reputation as a food destination. Though we’re certainly not “the city that never sleeps” (in fact, sleep is imperative to maintain our Slacker chic), there are constantly a baffling number of events — both delicious and musical — happening in our fine city. Choosing, on any given day, can be quite difficult.
And while it’s not a bad problem to have, there actually exists a people whose profession is designed around making that decision a little bit easier. Enter: the publicist.
Once reserved for celebrities, musicians and authors, public relations agencies are being now utilized by, well, just about every industry. And with the rise of the celebrity chefs and “foodie culture." thanks to the Food Network and shows like Top Chef, more and more food professionals are realizing the benefit of hiring professionals to create buzz around their culinary talent.
“We have a saying in our office that chefs are the new rock stars,” says Veronica Vallado of Nom Nom PR.
“And there [are] a lot of parallels between a chef and a rock star, we’ve learned. You know, you look at a rock star and they put out music, they write it, they perform it on stage. The stage is where they come alive. The end product, being the album that they deliver — if people gravitate toward it, then it’s going to do well. Same thing with a chef. The kitchen is their stage, the food is their music. It’s just a different medium.”
Vallado worked in music marketing in New York for four years before meeting now-husband Carl Schultz who had been working as a music publicist for 10 years in Philadelphia. The two started their own music PR company, Action! PR, in 2005 and relocated to Austin in 2009. It wasn’t long before they fell in love with the urban farms surrounding their East Side house and Nom Nom PR was created to promote local producers and the restaurants and chefs who support them.
“It’s very rewarding,” says Schultz. “Sonya [Cote, of Hillside Farmacy] and I were going to Good Day Austin last week to do a chef demo and I remember telling her, ‘This is the kinda thing I’ve been doing for years with lead singers and guitar players.’ We both laughed about that. We’re very lucky to do what we do.”
“Austin is on fire and has become a great food town, with restaurants popping up everyday,” says Biehler. “Eating out will always be entertainment.”
Though there are a good handful of food-focused PR companies in Austin now, Paula Biehler was the first one to take the plunge in 1999. “When I began my career as a restaurant publicist, I anticipated my distinguisher would be national media contacts,” remembers Biehler. “At the time, Austin had not seen much of any national restaurant press, with the exception of Jeffrey's and Fonda San Miguel.”
She recalls working for little pay and entertaining national journalists on their first visits to Austin in order to establish herself as their “go-to” person for the Austin restaurant scene. Now, over a decade later, her clients include Larry McGuire, Shawn Cirkiel and Bridget Dunlap, to name a few. “Austin is on fire and has become a great food town, with restaurants popping up everyday,” says Biehler. “Eating out will always be entertainment.”
Meredith Vachon felt the same foodie intuition about Austin. She had already worked for a food PR agency in Los Angeles where, she says, “[PR] was very much a part of the culture. I attributed a lot of it to Hollywood. If you’re going to make it in LA, you have to have a publicist. So for the restaurants there, it was built into their business models.”
Paula Biehler & Associates was the only food PR agency in town when Vachon arrived six years ago, and the city was still largely Tex-Mex and barbecue. But she had a hunch Austin was on the brink of something good. She remembers calling up her best friend, and now business partner, Rachel Ayotte, “and I said ‘I don’t know what I’m going to do, but I can sense a change in the air in this little Austin town... I think the food scene’s about to blow up.”
Vachon and Ayotte started out freelancing, but soon got their LLC designation, built a website and had business cards printed. Bread & Butter PR was born. Says Vachon, “I remember texting [Rachel], ‘I’m pretty sure we just started a company.’ “
Though Texans were initially a bit resistant to the need for PR, Bread & Butter PR is now 17 employees strong, with offices in Austin, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Brooklyn, and a branch opening in Dallas this summer.
“Now it’s changed,” says Vachon, “with this wave of celebrity chefdom and food TV. Now it’s more of an automatic thought with people when they open their restaurant... I think people are trying so hard to compete, especially in Austin where it’s so crowded with restaurants and everyone’s concept is fabulous and everyone’s doing really great things. You need help to try to stand out from all that.”
In fact, there’s so much going on in Austin’s food world right now, it really kind of makes the job easier for food publicists. Samantha Davidson of Cultivate PR has been in the industry for over 20 years, starting with a boutique home design firm in New York. She and partner Daryl Kunik now represent big name clients like Uchi and Uchiko and the W’s Trace.
“I think I was fortunate to be in Austin at a time when things were still so grassroots,” says Davidson, “but, at the same time, so high level. It’s kind of an interesting combination of restaurants being accessible but... really doing amazingly creative things. It’s fun to promote. It’s not like you’re constantly seeking things that are new and interesting. Every day you’ve got new things to talk about.”
Talking — and writing — is what publicists do best. Mary Mickel of Strange Fruit PR reasons, “I always knew I wanted to do something with food. And I can’t cook... so I have to talk about it instead!” Mickel worked in restaurants since she was 15 before going to school for journalism and working in food PR in the Bay Area, followed by boutique wine PR in the Napa Valley.
After relocating to Austin, she met Ali Slutsky while working at Bread & Butter. Slutsky had worked in the PR department of the Four Seasons Miami before moving to Austin on a whim with a friend. The two immediately clicked, then decided to try opening their own firm.
“Austin is becoming a fast market and we believe there’s a piece of the pie for everyone,” says Slutsky. “There [are] a handful of really good firms in town, and there’s even more really good chefs and restaurants and artisans. And I think we all offer something different and that’s just going to continue to grow.”
Elaine Garza, the mind behind Giant Noise, has an extensive PR background which spans from promoting books for Harper Collins to acting as PR director for magazines like Outside, Spin and Vibe. In the seven years since she founded Giant Noise, she says, “the one thing I can say about Austin that I cannot say about everywhere else is I have not seen a PR community that is as supportive as this one... Every year, a new agency pops up and I think it keeps everyone on their game honestly, which is really exciting.”
“You shouldn’t hire us unless there’s someone who’s absolutely bananas over what you’re doing,” says Elaine Garza.
Rather than focusing strictly on hospitality PR, Garza says her firm works in the “industry of interesting” and hires a spectrum of different account executives with various interests. Their clients include nonprofits like the Austin Food & Wine Alliance, major events like FunFunFun Fest, media outlets like Pitchfork, and a number of restaurants, hotels, bars and spas in both Austin, San Antonio, and the New York area (where a second office is located).
But the key, she stresses, is for the publicist to be passionate about their clients. “You shouldn’t hire us unless there’s someone who’s absolutely bananas over what you’re doing,” says Garza.
This sentiment is unanimous, whether spoken aloud or seen in the lit-up eyes of these movers and shakers as they talk excitedly about Austin’s food scene. “[Food producers] are so hard-working,” says Vallado. “It’s not a glamorous job, and it’s not like they’re making a lot of money doing it. It’s just something that they’re really passionate about. And we have the same approach and philosophy that we do with food as we do with the music we promote… It has to be something we feel very good about.”
“It’s literally our job to talk about food and drink,” expresses Mickel excitedly. “Live it, eat it, breathe it everyday… We’re reading Food & Wine just because we enjoy it, not just because it’s our job. We’re watching [food] TV shows as our entertainment after hours, but that only helps the client in the end... We are there to make their lives easier and promote them because it’s really hard to toot your own horn and people just don’t have time for it.”
Since the proof is in the proverbial pudding, I reached out to several local restaurants who have chosen not to outsource for PR. I wanted to know why they made that decision, how it’s working for them, and their thoughts on the benefits and challenges of in-house PR. I wish I had more to report on, but no one ever got back to me — and it’s no wonder.
“I think it's enough work on a daily basis,” says Schultz, “to source your food locally, to create your own menus, to oversee your staff, to make sure that every plate you put out is representational of you. To have to worry about the media and the awareness factor, I think people’s heads would explode.”
He sums it up quite succinctly: “Let other folks tell your story!”