Making a go of it as an independent public relations agency can be as daunting as opening a new restaurant – as many as 90 percent of which close in their first year, according to the old saw about the industry.
But don’t tell that to Linda Kavanagh, owner of Stamford’s MaxEx Public Relations. Not only is the PR firm now in its 20th year, it’s also made a specialty of representing restaurants. Its current roster ranges from the stalwart Frank Pepe’s Pizzeria, which started in New Haven but now operates several restaurants, including ones in Danbury, Fairfield and Yonkers, and Gabriele’s Steakhouse in Greenwich to South Norwalk’s hip Room 112 bar and one of SoNo’s latest additions, Peaches Southern Pub & Juke Joint.
The confluence of restaurants and public relations is no coincidence: in her previous professional life, Kavanagh was a chef in New York for more than a decade.
“I got burnt out, which the restaurant industry can do to you,” she said. “But I was fortunate enough to have someone take me under their wing and train me in the PR world.” That someone was publicist Gary Stromberg, founder of The Blackbird Group, a boutique PR firm based in Westport.
“There are a lot of elements that public relations and the restaurant industry share,” Kavanagh said. “They’re both very event-driven, involve creativity and, when done right, an adrenaline rush — all of which was very comfortable for me. Combining the two made sense.”
After meeting with Andy Pforzheimer, who was then opening his first Barcelona Restaurant and Wine Bar in South Norwalk, Kavanagh found her first client. Today, Pforzheimer’s Barteca Restaurant Group in Norwalk maintains establishments in five states and Washington, D.C.
From there, MaxEx was off and running. “No one was really doing restaurant PR in Fairfield County or Westchester when we started out,” she said. “And that was right when the restaurant industry was really taking off in both places, so we were very fortunate.”
“The restaurant industry is very incestuous,” which also worked in MaxEx’s favor, she added. “Word of mouth has always been the best way for us to get clients.”
The firm’s roster can vary — she estimated that it now has 10 to 15 clients. Some keep MaxEx on retainer while others drop their business with her for a time and come back, Kavanagh said. “PR is about as much or as little as the client wants. There are different goals and expectations with each one.”
Kavanagh and her staff — Senior Associate Andrea Viscuso and Social Media Director Julie Webel — have also gone outside the restaurant industry by representing such lifestyle brands as The Pure House, a Westport designer and builder of energy-efficient passive homes, and Lord & Taylor, as well as travel and tourism clients such as Woolworth Building Lobby Tours in lower Manhattan.
“The PR formula pretty much stays the same,” she said, “but it benefits us to have a niche. It reinforces your credibility and helps grow your business by building your knowledge of what you’re representing and pitching.”
One common misconception about public relations is that the publicist does all the work, she said. “Clients usually end up being even busier, so I always try to make sure they’re ready before we start. Arranging interviews or visits, helping to get the word out to the general population — that’s all something that the client should have a hand in.”
Among the frustrations of the PR business, “There’s no instant gratification usually, and there’s no way to guarantee outcomes. It’s always deflating when something doesn’t work … when a client hasn’t worked any less hard than the next guy but it just didn’t happen. Maybe there was something about their concept that didn’t work or five other similar places opened that quarter.”
A pet peeve of Kavanagh’s is the apparent fascination with a restaurant “failing.”
“Whenever somebody closes, it’s always painted as a failure,” she said. “But a restaurant can close for many reasons. Maybe the owner is simply retiring or is transitioning to another business or has an offer to be bought. For some reason, people always jump to conclusions when a restaurant closes.”
And Kavanagh disputes that old saw that 90 percent of restaurants go out of business in their first year, well, Kavanagh isn’t having any of that either.
“That was popularized by an old Rocco DiSpirito ad for American Express, when he said that nine out of 10 restaurants fail in their first year,” she said. “But that’s bad information, and it isn’t backed up by anything.”
Asked if she had any free advice for budding restaurateurs, Kavanagh — who’s also co-founder of the New England Culinary Group, a nonprofit organization composed of hospitality industry professionals — said, “Stay true to your concept. Don’t try to be everything to everybody, and don’t panic that you don’t have A-B-C on your menu when somebody else does. You can’t be reactionary or decide what to do out of fear that you’re missing out. Stick with your target market.”
“Is every restaurant for everybody? Absolutely not. But that’s what can make dining such a great experience.”