Twenty-five years of business is not an easy feat, especially in the food industry. WordHampton Public Relations is a boutique firm that specializes in restaurants, and just so happens to be celebrating its 25th anniversary this year.
Total Food Service sat down with WordHampton president Steve Haweeli recently to learn about his journey and how one of the region’s leading firms came to be, what he sees for the future of the restaurant industry, and how it relates to his own.
Please describe your background. How and when did you become involved in the public relations and marketing industry?
I came out of the restaurant industry; started WordHampton PR while behind the bar at Nick & Toni’s in East Hampton on Long Island. Previously I had a fledgling marketing company called Restaurant Power that consisted mostly of targeted direct mail to restaurants below Houston Street, above Canal Street, and west of Broadway in New York City. My first placement was for a restaurant called The Red Caddy on Houston Street in Greenwich Village. It was a $5 lunch deal and New York Newsday ran the item.
When you founded WordHampton Public relations, what was your vision? How has your concept evolved since founding the agency?
In retrospect, I had a PR firm before I knew what PR was. I never studied communications nor did I ever work for another agency. What I possessed was instincts – which fortunately I still possess. My original vision was to support myself as I segued out of bartending. Within a year or two, I saw that I had a company – a hot property – and thus began to educate myself on how to run a firm. I was lucky enough to work with an outstanding PR agency consultant – Al Croft – who was my mentor for over a decade until his passing.
We started out as a straight PR firm working with writers and editors. As the way we communicate changed, we changed with it acquiring expertise at e-mail marketing and some traditional advertising. We were early adaptors of social media and were offering – more like urging – our clients to get a Facebook page back in January of 2008.
WordHampton has enjoyed considerable success, being rated among the nation’s top 100 independent PR firms. What do you believe has separated you and WordHampton from other firms?
I have to give Al Croft credit. While my instincts have served me well, Al taught me the importance of tracking time, of hourly rates, of having systems and instilling accountability with employees. He taught me how to run a profitable firm. We also have the drive to be the best firm we can be as well as a continual commitment to both client and media service.
In 2012, you launched two new divisions – Long Island Restaurant & Hospitality Group and Metro Restaurant Marketing. What factors led you to create these new divisions? Have they since met your expectations?
LIRHG was created to officially separate our restaurant week efforts – we run four major restaurant weeks – from our PR/marketing division. Metro Restaurant Marketing is specific to restaurants in the five boroughs and beyond as it’s a completely different market than that of the Long Island and the Hamptons. Both divisions are right where they should be in terms of our expectations and growth.
Many of your clients are businesses within the restaurant industry. How do the needs of restaurant operators and food service professionals differ from other industries within the scope of your business?
There are two different categories of restaurant operators – those who own and manage restaurant groups and independent owners. Group owners are more deliberate and have larger teams of decision-makers; many groups employ their own marketing managers. They need quarterly meetings and strategy sessions. Independent owners are more seat-of-the-pants as they are typically involved in all aspects of the operation. They need quick answers and tend to be a half step behind thus relying on us to keep them on point. We’re very hands on with both entities despite their differences.
What is your read on the current state of the restaurant sector? What are some challenges the industry is currently facing, and what are some potential solutions?
Restaurant sales are slowly eroding as home delivery options – Blue Apron comes to mind – increase and people cook more at home. We’ve been urging our customers to get into delivery and to embrace the “to-go” market. A sale is a sale.
What advice would you give a restaurateur hoping to launch a successful marketing campaign for a new or emerging brand?
Have a firm concept, decide on messages and stick with that plan for the first six months. Adjust accordingly once the reality of the marketplace takes root. Have the appropriate tools ready and active approximately three weeks to one month out, then be consistent with messaging be it social media, in-house marketing, website verbiage, press materials or email marketing.
What does the future look like for WordHampton?
The future is bright because of our incredibly dedicated staff. Their collective talent, willingness and drive are an inspiration. We remain nimble to embrace the next marketing tool. And we stay hungry.
To learn more about WordHampton PR and Steve Haweeli, visit their website.