Yelp and the Art of Marketing

Poor Saint John’s still doesn’t have any businesses worth going to, except bars. This is hardly an exaggeration. They’ve got weird old Patty’s Home Plate—one-half retro lunch counter, one-half flea market—a Mcmenamins, a vegan market/lunch spot, a couple of brewpubs that serve little food, and a hippie, crunchy, punky restaurant. The only place I can ever think of to go is The Fishwife, which always seems to be closed, but which is the best seafood restaurant in town.

One amongst their number, a woman of apparently heroic ambition, would like to rebuild a historic hotel called Central Hotel, and she’s bought the building and put a sign outside that says Central Hotel, but it’s pretty confusing since it still just looks like the old Dad’s Lounge, a dive. They allow kids now, and they’ve put together a menu that includes latkes with lox, and a lamb burger, and a cocktail list with Punt y Mes, Weller bourbon, and nocello, which are some of the preordained ingredients for restaurant success. But man, that interior, and exterior, and the doorway with the cracked glass, and the video crack with the neck tattoo dude who needs a spit cup for his chaw—these are liabilities. Have these people heard of brand damage? I’m a hillbilly with a nine-year-old laptop and a website called Gangster Of Food, and I’ve heard of brand damage.

The idiots over on Yelp (not the ones who’ve kindly granted me permission to use their photos, the other ones) they’ve probably heard of brand damage, and they are doing their very mightiest to inflict it upon this hapless real estate agent who dreams of turning her property into a bona fide hotel and family-friendly restaurant. Yelpers have given the Central Hotel an average of 3.5 stars, and have made some very critical remarks besides. Oh my god! The fries are from a bag! Get over it Yelpers; you’ve sung praise to greater indignities.

I don’t know if you know this, but 3.5 starts on Yelp is pretty bad, except in the cases where it’s great, and it’s only great when it’s obvious that the entitled little honkies just don’t get it, which is fairly common. This time I’d say that the Yelp system worked out perfectly despite itself. The place deserves an honest 3.5 (okay maybe three) stars considering what a disjointed fucking mess it is. I like the neck tattoo dude. I like the carpet, and the paneling and the stained drop ceiling. I love the cut out piece of cardboard on the soffit over the bar listing the draft selection. These are check-check-check in my little book. The drinks are good! Weller with nocello—I’m into it. The food is…problematic, but fine. I don’t expect people with a background in property sales to understand food like I or my readers do. They’re like: “Hummus…check. Burger…check. Sausage…check. Chicken sandwich…check. Alright, the menu looks great; I think you guys are ready to move into the kitchen. Congratulations!”

But the food—despite some obvious flaws like the chicken sandwich whose actual chicken component is suffocated by the ciabatta sandwich component, and the pigs in a blanket, whose pigs have the savor of Hebrew National, while the blanket is little more than than a sage-laden cracker—isn’t really too bad. It’s at least as good as the overhyped, marketing-driven slop that Yelpers have driven me to before. What’s a really overhyped restaurant in the Rose City? Too numerous to count, but let’s take Kenny and Zuke’s for example:

The pastrami, to be fair, sucks. People go nuts for this shit, but I’m telling you now that any single one of you could prepare a beef brisket pot roast with sodium nitrite, put it on bread, and you would have approximately the same thing. This isn’t just an aesthetic consideration. This isn’t just, as the pastrami pariah Nick Zukin would have me believe, my modern, industrial sensibilities talking. Yelpers love(d) this place, although they have gotten considerably more critical of late.

The whole media establishment love(d) this place: The Oregonian, Willamette Week, Bon Appétit, Gourmet, the list goes on…, and I say that there is only one factor that accounts for its rabid popularity: Brand Strength. It’s at the bottom of the Ace Hotel (where I once stayed as a destitute transient, only it was called the Ben Stark back then), and it’s done up like a jewish deli, but sleeker. It’s Katz’s without the rough edges and somewhat worse pastrami! What more could the hipster republic ask for?

Take heed, restaurateurs. Take notice. How about Bunk? East Coast sandwiches with chef pedigree. The phenomenal popularity of this place had escaped my understanding until recently. Actually, it’s improved significantly since the early days, but if it hadn’t been for those line-out-the-door early days, they wouldn’t have five or six locations today. Marketing. A sort of underground, “oh here’s the dude from Ripe, worked for Mario Batali way back in the day. My friend says he’s really cool,” marketing, but that’s the best marketing of all! Marketing that don’t look like marketing.

Speaking of insider marketing, let’s look at some projects by Chefstable (where does the chef end, and the stable begin?): Lardo, Block and Tackle, Roe, Pok Pok! Phenomenal! How do they create so many hits?! Are they the Phil Specter of restaurants? Marketing. These are some very good restaurants, don’t get me wrong (oh please restaurant bosses—don’t get me wrong. I’m sure I’ll be back begging for alms again someday), but are they the very best restaurants that have opened in their respective fields? Maybe, sometimes. Mainly though, if you open a restaurant in The Stable, you get the very best hay that money can buy, and by hay I mean marketing. Eater and Portland Magazine will say nice things about you in advance of your opening. The guy at the Oregonian will be notified to put on his prescription secret agent glasses and and come on down to darken your doorway. You get the very best shot at it that money connections can buy.

So, do I do anything besides gripe about the success of others? Some restaurants are wildly successful; what’s the problem? The problem is that marketing is the monkey wrench in the meritocracy. For every new Bunk Sandwiches/Lardo/Pok Pok that opens, we lose another business that might be as good or even better, and give us a greater range of options for dining. Because the foodie masses will gladly queue around the block for an average meatball hoagie with rocker chef pedigree, we lose all sorts of other places —RIP Döner Kebab, Flogenes, Hillbilly Bento, Sauvage…—that broaden the palate. The gastronomic terrain becomes more predictable—”oh is that another Pok Pok opening up? Thank god, I won’t have to travel two and a half miles to for my Ricker fix anymore”—and less exciting. In my estimation, more diversity is nearly always a positive thing, and homogeneity is unequivocally evil.

So, to put this back on track: Would-be hoteliers of Saint John’s, I admire your ambition in restoring this eyesore of a dive (although I actually think the current facade is kind of cute) to it’s Gilded Age glory. And I really want you to succeed, if only so that I can take my daughter someplace nice after a day’s hiking in Forest Park or Sauvie Island. But I think there may be something you’re overlooking about this town: marketing rules everything. If the construction were done, and included lots of reclaimed wood, exposed rafters, and vintage chandeliers, and you had contracted a chef from say New York or San Francisco, it wouldn’t matter if you served fried horse poo sandwiches, people Yelpers would line up and praise your authenticity. You could be on the way to a hotel empire in no time at all. Imagine: the New Seasons Market of hotels. It could be such that the sustainability-minded traveler hadn’t even a choice in Portland anymore.

I’m telling you right now that this thing will follow you through construction, until the opening of your big, beautiful hotel. I really hope you succeed, but right now you gotta think about your brand. And fix that food, even Yelpers can tell it’s off.

 

P.S. to pastrami charlatans, hand sliced don’t mean thick as a textbook. I slice meat so thin by hand, I wrote this blog post with piece of lox on my glasses.

 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *