Earlier this week, I was emailed by a representative of a company that is launching a new restaurant in Montecito. They wanted to be featured in the paper before their doors open in June and offered me an “exclusive” to do so.
This is a pretty common request. My old self — the news-reporter-trained one who cared about scoops in an era when exclusives weren’t immediately swallowed up and spit back out by social media and aggregation websites — would have jumped at the chance to be the first one to tell this story.
But over many years of writing about restaurants (and all sorts of other things), I’ve developed a strategy that works well for the paper, fits my skill set and availability, and, I hope, helps restaurants achieve success as well, at least on the marketing front. So here’s a rundown of what I told this week’s emailer and most anyone who asks.
Our food coverage is multi-pronged, but the most immediate way to get attention is through our affiliation with The Restaurant Guy, the blog about restaurant news and rumors written by John Dickson on SantaBarbara.com. In a partnership that we set up many years ago when the Daily Sound folded and stopped publishing his column, I collect the best parts of the blog every Tuesday morning, turn them into a column, and run it in print every Thursday, almost without fail.
The Restaurant Guy is a very popular part of our paper, so much so that it has dedicated advertisers running nearby, and we even protect a special space for it. We don’t get the online traffic because John wants to keep his blog relevant. That’s an okay trade-off for us, and it doesn’t require heavy lifting on my part or dropping everything I am doing to post a story about the next closure.
So about 99 percent of the time, if you have restaurant news that needs immediate attention, I advise you to send it directly to John for quick posting. He usually also publishes press releases directly as they’re written, so you really have a chance to shape your message without filters. Then I will put it in print the following Thursday.
Exceptions exist, particularly when I have a real scoop on prominent businesses and/or a personal connection, like when I did this story on the Sea Legs restaurant coming to Goleta Beach. (I also did a Full Belly Files newsletter on that one.) Very occasionally, I will do a hybrid of this, in which I post the news on Independent.com, immediately alert John, and then wait until deadline to decide what we do in print. We did that on this news about Chuck’s and the Endless Summer closing back in April 2020.
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After the Restaurant Guy recommendation, I usually also offer to publish a full feature on your new restaurant. These are typically written by me or by our regular freelancers, Rebecca Horrigan and George Yatchisin. Since exclusives no longer matter, I try to make these features as definitive and detailed as possible about the restaurant, getting into the history, the chefs, and the owners as well as the menu itself.
I want our food features to be the best stories written about these restaurants, so that readers from near and far continue to reference our reporting when they want to know the real deal. Sometimes that means for longer stories than maybe most people have the attention span for these days, but I feel like it’s a good use of our knowledge and experience. (I’ve also employed this sort of approach in much of my wine writing, and that worked well enough to lead to the book Vines & Vision: The Winemakers of Santa Barbara County.)
As for the timing of these features, most everyone wants our story to come out right when a restaurant opens. I always advise otherwise, for reasons both strategic and practical.
On the strategic front, there is a natural buzz that happens when a new place opens — everyone wants to check it out, even with just the slightest mention on social media. Why waste the impact of a longer article right then? I believe that it’s better to have our articles come out two weeks to even a month or so later, providing a second, more sustained bump of interest and business. That also gives some time for any updates, which can happen fast in today’s restaurant world. (Sometimes these features do linger, though — sorry, Bar Le Cote, which I started reporting last fall and am still working on…)
I also believe most restaurants are better prepared a couple weeks after opening. How many times have you heard people complain that the new restaurant they just visited had service or menu problems? I prefer to send people to places when they are shining brightest.
On the practical front, it’s hard for us to report about a restaurant that’s not even open yet. While we don’t do restaurant reviews — which require multiple anonymous visits, which the paper simply cannot even pretend to afford — we do want to see the restaurant in action. The management almost always knows that we are coming, and, yes, they probably present a better face to us than the average customer. We will occasionally mention disappointments if they occur, but these feature articles are meant to tell the story that the new establishment intended and is most proud to share.
Also on the practical front, I’m juggling about a dozen stories at any given time. With the extended timeline, I am able to better plan my own time and predict when we can realistically expect to publish an article in print.
There is occasionally a third coverage angle too. If a restaurant story is truly big business news or represents a significant real estate story, our news department might jump on the story, like Ryan P. Cruz did on the sale of Longboard’s and The Harbor restaurants last week.
So that’s the gist. For the TL;DR crowd: Send your immediate news to The Restaurant Guy, then hit me up with a plan for more detailed coverage down the road.
From Our Table
In this week’s issue:
- I write about the history behind the Beefsteak tradition, and how chefs Anthony Endy and Neal Fraser are bringing it to the Alisal Guest Ranch next week.
- I also touch base with Santa Barbara’s Richard Lambert, the man behind National Tamale Day.
- Madison Smoak, who is an intern with the paper, writes about the Oat Bakery opening at 8 a.m. now under the banner of “Hygge Hour.”
- George Yatchisin took on the tough assignment of trying out literary-leaning cocktails at The Manor Bar inside the Rosewood Miramar in Montecito. He expressed happiness at not actually having to pay for the $24 drinks.
And, as described above, we also featured The Restaurant Guy column with many scoops this week, including Shalhoob’s and Matty’s Hot Chicken coming to the Public Market.