Herb Karlitz Q&A

Herb Karlitz Harlem EatUp

Throughout his career, Herb Karlitz has always found himself surrounded by the culinary world. From when he was young hanging out at his parents’ New York City restaurants to now where he produces one of the coolest food and wine festivals in the country. Herb had his start working in PR and eventually made a name for himself through his dedication to create positive, unique, and most importantly memorable experiences. His dedication to the industry has given him the credit of being the mastermind behind the celebrity chef.

Herb Karlitz decided to step out on to his own with Karlitz & Company in order to help pursue his passions, today Karlitz & Company have helped to produce culinary events and festivals like Flavor! Napa Valley, The Chocolate Show, The Breeders’ Cup, The New York City Wine & Food Festival, The Atlantic City Food & Wine Festival, Vegas Uncork’d and of course Harlem EatUp! Now when a chef can be bigger than a rock star, Herb continues to push to industry in a more definitive and socially conscious way.

How did you find yourself in the industry?

When I was a kid my parents owned restaurants in New York City. I think it’s from there that I got my love for cooking, hospitality, entertaining and truly making people happy. It is what I always had a calling for. I even went to law school as a back up.  When I first got out of college I fully believed I was going to have a career in the entertainment industry, and I did. I worked at a large PR agency right out of college and created their entertainment division. 

It was not until the early 90s when I had a bit of an epiphany, which I arrived at with a dear friend of mine, Shep Gordon. Shep Gordon was on the West Coast and I was on the East and together we produced the very first South Beach Wine and Food Festival before there was a South Beach Festival. We had 35-world class chefs like Roger Vergé next to Emeril Lagasse before anyone knew who Emeril was. This was before there were celebrity chefs, it was so ahead of his time that the person with the largest line was some guy in a rib truck that had driven down from Atlanta. He had lines bigger than Charlie Trotter!

My passions were food and wine driven but what really helped me to find my niche in the industry is that I saw chefs as artists. They made people happy by what they put on the plate and that effective marketing could be done to help people get together over food and wine. It didn’t have to be fancy; it just has to be memorable and special.

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At what point did Karlitz & Company find itself primarily focused on the culinary industry?

I consider myself very grateful that my passions of food, wine and cooking get intertwined with my career. When I started my company it was really through gradual evolution of what I was doing. I formed Karlitz & Company in 1990, and am lucky that its sweet spot is able to do so much in the culinary space. By design, you would think we handle marketing for chefs and restaurateurs but that is far from the truth. We don’t represent a single chef, personally because I don’t want to take money from friends.

There are two buckets of what we do in our agency. We do corporate consulting for American Express, Chase, and Merrill Lynch to a degree in helping them entertain their clients. It’s a lot of B2B initiatives where we help corporations figure out a culinary marketing program for their marketing plan for acquisition of new customers, retention of existing customers or introducing a new product. Along with helping our clients remind their customers with Centurion and Platinum cards that they have special access to restaurants and events with specific chefs. 

Herb Karlitz Harlem EatUp
Herb Karlitz with Michael Douglas, who was a special guest at the Roger Vergé Tribute dinner that took place last September at the Lighthouse at Chelsea Piers.

The second aspect is that since we are so ingrained in the space with chefs that trust us and understand that we share their sensitivity, we understand them, and get what their needs are. We were trusted by chefs and were brought into the culinary festival scene. We were the agency to help Lee Schrager and Southern Wine and Spirits to create the first New York Wine and Food Festival and produced it for the first five years right out of my office. If we were not helping producing the event we would work on the marketing side. For the Aspen Wine and Food festival we brought in American Express as a marketing partner. Creating an overlay where card members could attend the festival with special access, and set up special dinners with outside chefs like Nobu Matsuhisa. We are now doing projects all over the world from consulting projects in British Virgin Islands to Israel to a top secret project in the Middle East.

Let’s talk about Harlem EatUp and how that festival came together.

What we have created that always puts a smile on my face is Harlem Eat Up. This festival was created about four years ago at 2:00 in the morning at a chef after party at South Beach with my dear friend Marcus Samuelsson. We were sitting, chatting about Harlem and how it is being transformed and how it’s such an incredible neighborhood that is evolving with such amazing restaurants.

I grew up in Brooklyn, and I said to Marcus that I think Harlem is ten years behind Brooklyn. We looked at each other and we said yes, let’s do this with us both knowing what each other meant. Harlem has a ton of events that happen throughout the year like Harlem Week but they all focus on the people that are in Harlem and we wanted to shine a spotlight for people outside of Harlem and even outside of New York. We did this through bringing in celebrity chefs to come up to Harlem to be hosted by local chefs.

Another strategy we implement is to bring in media partners who work outside of Harlem. We brought in USA Today, ABC TV, National Cinema Media, and partners you would not normally see like Ernst &Young, Aetna Insurance, and Citi as our founding partners. Another interesting sponsor is the Bordeaux Wine Council, where I was called out of the blue from a woman with an English accent who told me Harlem EatUp is the coolest festival. Now in its third year we know that it is a home run, last year we attracted people from seven different countries and 36 different states. It has organically grown into this beautiful festival that is all about a sense of place. Harlem EatUp is all about the roots, the history, the art, the culture and most importantly the food. 

Herb Karlitz Harlem EatUp
(L-R) Chefs Marcus Samuelsson and Scott Conant with Herb Karlitz at The Harlem Stroll: Ultimate Grand Tasting at last year’s Harlem EatUp!

How does Harlem EatUp help the local community?

We are really looking to raise the profile and really help the neighborhood. We want to create a positive impact for the local organization that does work in Harlem. We have some beneficiaries like Citymeals-on-Wheels, which does a lot of great work in Harlem to feed the elderly, and Harlem Park to Park which is a dear partner of ours who represent the small businesses in Harlem.

What I think helps Harlem EatUp stand out is that it’s not just another festival plopped in a city. We are a not for profit organization, we do not have huge independent backers, we do this for Harlem and that means having the community in attendance. We want to be respectful to the community and make sure that there are tickets available at a reasonable price. It’s through these sponsors that we are able to cover these shortfalls.

How does Harlem EatUp help exemplify the local culture?

Ever since we started Harlem EatUp we have been motivated to showcase local iconic organizations, like the National Dance Theater. One of the biggest things engrained in Harlem’s culture is their jazz. Harlem Eat Up will be producing homage to the late, great Billie Holiday who got her start at the bars and clubs of Harlem. The Billie Holiday benefit concert will be held at The Apollo, another iconic Harlem institution. The concert has just unveiled one of their headliners, Alvin Ailey, who has not been back to The Apollo in years. Alvin Ailey had already prepared a curated work as a tribute to Billie Holiday that they will be performing. Our event at The Apollo will benefit our Harlem EatUp Foundation, and will generate additional funds for charities and worthwhile organizations that are located in Harlem or do great work in Harlem. 

How does Harlem EatUp help local businesses grow?

What we found after the festival was that the attendees were trickling into the local Harlem restaurants that were highlighted. The weekend activity is called The Stroll and is split into two areas, free marketplace where there are all the chef demos that are completely free and a marketplace where local businesses can showcase their stores. The second area is an enclosed paid area where there are other restaurants serving small bites and that’s where we are pouring spirits, wine and beers.

People are trying restaurants, taking cards, and discovering all of these wonderful spots that they never knew were there. It really becomes a great marketing opportunity to show themselves to an audience outside of their local community. We also completely understand that some of these restaurants are small spots that can’t afford the overhead. We set it up for them, we financially subsidize them, and we try and help them where we can.

Let’s talk about this year’s Harlem EatUp. On the chef side of things, what do you have planned?

The way we decide on the celebrity chefs is that they have to have some tie to Harlem. Either that they love the area; they love the food and are inspired by Harlem. This year we are bringing in Dominique Crenn from San Francisco who loves Harlem for its Jazz, Daniel Boulud who happens to be the chef chair for City Meals on Wheels. I have gotten calls from other three star Michelin chefs and had to say no to them because I cannot find the relevant tie to Harlem.

We will have Karl Franz, one of the best Mixologists in the city with his own-programmed area where we will possibly have a chef in there cooking for him. All of the spirit companies we’ve been working with are creating special cocktails, even including a Billie Holiday cocktail for our event at The Apollo. The Bordeaux Wine Council will also be pouring more than 85-90 different Bordeaux wines for the Harlem restaurants that are participating where they can pick a wine they would like to pair with their dishes along with making new relationships with suppliers.

Herb Karlitz Harlem EatUp
Herb Karlitz with Neal Patrick Harris at last year’s Harlem EatUp!

On the celebrity chef side we will have Michael White, Michael Anthony from Gramercy Tavern and Untitled, Carla Hall, Michael Voltaggio, Angela Dimayuga of Mission Chinese, Joey Campanaro, Jimmy Bradley, Jonathan Waxman and Roger Mooking. Along with Dominique Crenn and Daniel Boulud as I had mentioned before. We try to keep it fresh, rotating and with some sort of relationship with Harlem.

With such a tremendous response, how long do you plan on doing Harlem EatUp?

A festival is a compilation of a bunch of different experiences blended over the series of a couple days. This festival just happens to span over the time of May 15th to the 21st. It seems we must be doing something right because all of our events sell out right away. Frankly the scheduling of these events is the easy part.

We have received such amazing feed back from everyone involved, everyone who attended and everyone that’s even heard of Harlem EatUp. It takes 3-5 years for a festival to really get into the black. Marcus and I are personally committed to underwriting this festival to get it to that point where we are not raising ticket prices and attracting more sponsors and companies that want to come on this ride with us.

What does the future look like for Harlem?

I think Harlem is an amazing vibrant neighborhood that will continue to grow and evolve like neighborhoods do. I just hope it keeps its charm and cultural history of this 100-year renaissance. I think of some of the restaurants that are the first restaurants to hit Harlem like Sylvia’s and Melba’s I hope will thrive forever like the Joe Stone Crab of Miami and the Peter Lugers of Brooklyn. Culinary offers so many opportunities, it’s not about the price, it’s not about the fanciness, it’s about the experience.

To learn more about Harlem EatUp!, visit the website.
To learn more about Herb Karlitz at Karlitz and Company, visit their website.