Hugh Richard Wright is perhaps the most recognisable and well-known public relations professional in the wider hospitality scene: a stylish Issey Miyake fan and enormously good company.
Over a complimentary lunch at Paladar, an excellent Latin American restaurant in SE1 and one of Hugh’s long-term clients, Hugh (HRW) met with Palate writer Amanda David (AD) to discuss what makes a good restaurant PR professional, the role of social media, plant-based eating and much more. The choice of venue is singularly appropriate too; as he explains, the word ‘paladar’ in Cuba means a lively little family restaurant where everyone goes to drink rum and chat – and is Spanish for ‘palate’.
Cocktails arrive and we both take photographs.
AD: As a reviewer, it’s nice not to be the only one taking photographs before anyone is allowed to touch anything.
HRW: Well, as I’ve got used to saying, the camera eats first.
AD: I’m absolutely stealing that. So how did you get into restaurant PR?
HRW: I’ve always loved eating out and I’ve always loved writing. I had a blog when I was 30, an online diary, the whole male Carrie Bradshaw thing. After a while I realised I didn’t really have time to write about everything I was doing, because I was too busy doing it. So I had to focus on one topic, between fashion, travel or food. And I chose food.
Back then there weren’t actually all that many restaurant blogs. Not to blow my own trumpet but it became moderately successful and well-known. Then Twitter came along, which was a good way of promoting it, and actually through Twitter I met some lovely, like-minded people. You’ve interviewed Nick Gibson, that’s how I know Nick.
AD: At the beginning Twitter was such a great way to connect with people who shared your interests who you would never otherwise meet.
HRW: Absolutely. Perfectly encapsulating that, the first time I went to The Drapers Arms I went with James Ramsden, who is a restaurateur now but back then was blogging and had a supper club, and that was the first time we’d met in real life. The idea of someone you just chatted to about a shared interest in 140 characters or fewer, got to know and then suggested meeting up with, it just didn’t happen.
AD: Do you think Twitter has changed? A lot of the people I used to follow have left.
HRW: There are corners of it that are toxic but I follow people who interest me and if someone upsets me, or is rude, or just ceases to be interesting, I unfollow them. I’m quite brutal like that. That is how I’ve always used it, so to me Twitter has always been a positive place and through it I’ve met some lovely people who are now real life friends.
AD: Were you working in hospitality when you started your blog?
HRW: No, charity fundraising; the writing was purely a hobby at first. Then through the restaurant blog I started getting asked to contribute – anything from one sentence about a scotch egg to whole paragraphs or complete pieces. I actually started to get work, some of it paid (although lots not). It got to the stage where the blog was sufficiently well-known – and I was sufficiently well-known – that when people found out I wasn’t a full-time writer, they were surprised. Then I got made redundant from my charity job and it made me think about what I really wanted to do. If other people think I’m a writer, do I believe I’m a writer? So around 2012, 2013, I decided to make a go of it and declared myself freelance. I wrote to all the people who weren’t at that stage paying to me to write for them and let them know I was doing this for a living now and could no longer do it for free. You realise you have a value. Sure, some said they didn’t have the budget but the others said that’s fair enough, so I was able to make a living out of it.
Then about six months later an opportunity came along. I got talking to the Aqua Restaurant Group who were opening two restaurants in the Shard. Initially they were looking for a social media manager and Eliot Sandiford [currently the Director of PR and Partnerships at The Set Collection], to whom I am forever grateful, recommended me as someone who was into food and was social media savvy. It quickly became apparent that there was the capacity for someone full-time rather than freelance. I said I would do it for six months and ended up staying there for three very happy years.
AD: Were you still writing?
HRW: I didn’t give up social media and writing entirely, but I gave up my blog because it didn’t feel compatible – being in-house for a restaurant group and reviewing other people’s restaurants. Personally for me it didn’t sit right. Also I wasn’t in-house for just, say, a Spanish restaurant; they had restaurants over four different cuisines. Suddenly I’d gone from being the writer courted by PRs to the client of some quite big agencies. I saw what they did well but also the ways large agencies operate that simply don’t work for small businesses.
When I recommend places I’m so naturally enthusiastic about it that people would say, “Oh you should do our PR”; honestly, people said that so much. It certainly wasn’t what I’d intended to do, but over time, the germ of an idea started growing. Then one of my best friends died. It really hit me hard and I found myself reevaluating my life. I realised there was a part of me that did miss writing and the freedom of being my own boss. Over the next few months I talked to friends in the industry, talked to restaurateurs about what they might like to see from PR, then I got this business idea and I went for it. That was seven years ago in October.
I’m not saying that I re-invented the PR wheel but a lot of people forget that the R in PR stands for relations; that’s relations with the press but also relations with your client. I have close relationships with my clients
AD: Where do you think the main disconnect was between what large agencies offer and what small businesses need?
HRW: The main thing I felt with some of the big agencies was that everything was very cookie-cutter; you could look at four or five press releases for different clients and you could almost see where they’d done find and paste. Launches were all being done in a similar way. People were just catching on to social media and influencers, so there’d be a big, glitzy launch party, a few people invited in on opening night and the same people invited in to review or for a freebie. Then, two months later, they’re on to the next launch. Don’t get me wrong, all of those things – press releases, launch parties, hosting people – they’re all important, but not every restaurant needs the same approach.
So when I initially set up I wanted to focus on the small independent owner-operator places that would absolutely benefit from PR but didn’t have the budget. We’re talking 2015, when a lot of small indie places were opening up: they’d find a site, get a good deal on the rent – things that seem almost impossible now – and I’d find they were doing one of two things. They were either absolutely bankrupting themselves to go with some big agency who would take the cookie cutter approach, which might deliver some high-impact early press but wasn’t terribly good value for money, or they decided PR was a luxury they couldn’t afford and were doing it themselves, either badly or not at all. That was who I wanted to help. I set out to deliver a service which was on a smaller scale than the big agencies but would still deliver results, for a price which didn’t undervalue me but which they could afford and would see value for money from. Since then I’ve also worked with some big groups and chains, big budget places who just like my approach.
AD: How would you describe your approach?
HRW: It’s very personal. Ideally I like to get on board in the development stage, three or four months before launch. I love launches – the newness, the whole Mary Poppins thing – although at the moment all my clients are heritage clients. I get very involved. I like my clients to feel as if I’m in-house but without the expense of a full-time salary. Anyone I work with I get to know the team, I get to know the chef, I get to know the menu. You’d be amazed how many people working on an account at some agencies have never actually eaten at the restaurant, or maybe they’ve eaten there once as a new client but six months ago. That menu will have changed. I’m not saying that I re-invented the PR wheel but a lot of people forget that the R in PR stands for relations; that’s relations with the press but also relations with your client.
I have close relationships with my clients. When things are done on a large scale, when you have a whole team working on an account, not everyone in that team will know everyone working in the restaurant. You’re relying on a lot. You’re relying on the account director speaking to the owner and on them briefing their staff properly. Whereas on the kind of scale I work on, I can say, okay, you’ve got X coming in: they like a corner table, sparkling water, they don’t like to be bothered, they hate having the menu explained to them and so on. Obviously it’s not guaranteed but if you’ve had that conversation you hope that things will go well.
Having said that, I always make it clear to my clients that I can show them photos of the critics (if they’re not anonymous), I can tell them their likes and dislikes, I can tell them when they’re coming in if I know, but ultimately you cannot guarantee the restaurant a good review.
During and post-pandemic there have been an awful lot of critics not wanting to say anything negative. The hospitality recruitment crisis is incredibly bad, it’s crippling a lot of places; but then if your doors are open and you’re taking money, you have to be delivering things to a certain standard. I think Grace Dent absolutely nailed it recently with a couple of her reviews where she said, “I feel duty bound to say there’s a recruitment crisis and people are trying terribly hard; however, if I’m being charged £14 for a bowl of hummus I’m allowed to expect that it will reach my table in an edible condition”.
AD: What did you do during the pandemic?
HRW: I adapted, like everyone did. My business quite literally disappeared overnight; it was absolutely terrifying. All of my clients closed. Everything happened in the space of a few days but I took the front foot and spoke to my clients, saying I wanted to support them and if they felt they needed to pause the account to let me know and we’d talk it through. I care about my clients and wanted to support them, but of course I had to support myself too.
One client I’d just started working with went completely silent at first but to their enormous credit after a couple of months asked me to send an invoice for the work I’d already done as they didn’t want me to be out of pocket, which was lovely and really decent of them. One of my clients, to whom I will forever be grateful, said, you’ve always been loyal to us so we’re going to keep paying you in full for as long as we can afford to. And actually that was throughout, so I had at least some regular income.
Then it was the Great Pivot. People started doing takeaway, one of my clients started a delivery service so they took me back on for a while. Soho Estates hired me for the campaign to allow al fresco dining, which we won. Then new delivery options sprung up. I launched Wright Brothers at Home for them, Sola (my client in Soho) started doing delivery, and I launched Dishpatch.
AD: Was Dishpatch pandemic-driven?
HRW: 100 percent. Dishpatch was born out of the pandemic. Of course no one knew how long it was going to last and they had no idea how big Dishpatch was going to become; it’s huge now, it’s the market leader. And then, as places started to reopen, all my clients came back.
AD: There’s been a general feeling with recent interviewees that, post pandemic, people are looking for more from a restaurant than just nice food; they want an experience they can’t get at home.
HRW: In terms of it being experiential, absolutely; they want value for money. Eating out, like everything, is becoming more expensive. I don’t know if there are actual figures on this but certainly anecdotally, the little neighbourhood places on the corner that sell a bowl of pasta for a tenner are doing fine. Also the higher-end restaurants like Sola, where you’re looking at a minimum of £100 a head before you start, those places are thriving. Of course, they’re not immune to the staffing crisis and no-shows etc, but the places that are suffering are absolutely the mid-market places. It’s the places that are doing just an ordinary pizza but it’s £25, or a decent burger but it’s £20.
I’ve always said outstanding service can rescue mediocre food but mediocre service will ruin the best food in the world
AD: Do you think people are looking for the personal touch more now?
HRW: I was going to and fro with Josh Barrie [Editor at Knife and Fork Media] on Twitter and we were saying we love a corner banquette; and actually at quite a few restaurants where I go to that have corner banquettes, they already have that on my notes – I don’t need to ask for it. That familiarity is possible anywhere if you have the systems and the training in place.
I’ve always said outstanding service can rescue mediocre food but mediocre service will ruin the best food in the world. A lot of my favourite restaurants, currently and historically, have been are places where the food has been fine – but it’s the atmosphere, the service, knowing what table I like, the head waiter having a bit of a flirt – these things make it an experience.
I remember an interview Jon Spiteri did when he reopened Quo Vadis with the Hart Brothers, where he said the trick to being a good maître d’ is greeting someone who comes in one day with their wife and the next day with their lover and not saying it’s nice to see you again – knowing you should treat it as their first visit. I’m obviously not condoning infidelity but that was very perceptive of Jon and it’s those places that have got it right.
AD: Do you think that highlights the potential importance of the current staffing crisis?
HRW: Yes, but then look at the staff here at Paladar. It’s been open just over four years and most of them have been here from the start, so they’re obviously doing something right. I was talking about staffing to a restaurateur recently and he said they’re okay because they’ve focused on staff conditions: they pay well, give people nice meals and decent time off, they do activities and trips together. He had eight people in total who left over the course of a year or so for more money and six of them have come back, simply because it’s a nicer place to work. My client Bellamy’s, in Mayfair, has had the same top team for eighteen years.
AD: Do you think Instagram can have a negative side for restaurants, where the image is more important than the food or the experience?
HRW: Much as I love social media, there are a lot of people living now through a lens rather than genuine experience. They don’t care if the food is crap – objectively they may not even know that it’s crap. They just want a pretty picture so they can tick it off on their Instagram.
Having said that, in defence of influencers we in the restaurant PR business absolutely want to harness the power of influencers. If you, as a PR, invite an influencer and they then cause disruption in the restaurant, that’s on you. You need to have a conversation with them about what both of you need. You can’t slate influencers and say that they’re so entitled because they stood on their chair in the middle of the restaurant to take a picture. You invited them in to promote your business because you like their lovely pictures – pictures that they achieve by standing on a chair. You can’t have it both ways. If you don’t want the disruption, invite them out of hours or give them a private room.
AD: Do you think critics and influencers have too much power?
HRW: I think the days of a critic being able to make or break a restaurant are long gone. There have been a handful of examples where an early good review from a national critic has raised the profile of a restaurant and then others have come. A particularly good or bad review can certainly have a short-term effect on a restaurant’s success but look at Bob Bob Ricard (a former client, for the record). They famously got one of the worst ever reviews from AA Gill when they opened, zero stars, absolutely scathing. He hated absolutely everything about the place, yet people are still Pressing for Champagne nearly 15 years later.
AD: Do you think transparency is important?
HRW: Yes. And I think I can genuinely take credit for starting disclosure hashtags. I was certainly the first PR that I knew of to #client when I was eating at clients’ restaurants. Now most PRs do that and if I invite influencers I encourage them to make that clear. When I was blogging there was this idea that if you’ve eaten for free people won’t take you seriously but actually that comes down to your objectivity and integrity. You work hard to achieve that trust.
I think there is a grey area where people who are influencers and are also in PR, or are in PR and also write content. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that – I went from being a blogger to being in-house to being a PR. I’m not being critical. But I do think integrity and transparency are important and you’ve got nothing to lose by making that clear. In fact, it shows that you are really embedded in that world.
There is a difference between PR and marketing. Marketing is targeted to a specific audience, promoting specific products and services, whereas PR is much more broadly about perception. PR is storytelling
AD: From a PR point of view, what would be your ideal scenario for a new restaurant launch?
HRW: That’s interesting. Not to be evasive but I think it goes back to your earlier question about my approach not being cookie-cutter. Say you’re working with a small, family-run indie restaurant; they don’t actually need the attention that a massive national review would bring, in fact it could be problematic for them. As part of my approach I always ask, where would you like to see yourself? What are your objectives? What are the kinds of publications you would like to see yourself in? The key question really is, who do you want your customers to be?
AD: Understanding the publications is so central.
HRW: Absolutely. Some of my most cherished relationships with journalists are the ones where I will send them very tailored pitches about a specific angle on a specific client for a specific section of their publication but if I send them a round-robin update press release that a client has a new sommelier, they know I’m not just spamming them. They know me, so they know I’m sending them general information which may or may not be useful on something they are working on and that I’m doing my job by keeping my client front and centre in their mind. It also means that I can send them a pitch and they can tell me quite bluntly, thanks but not for us, or we’ve run something similar recently.
If I were working with a more established restaurant they might want to be more well-known outside of their local area, so then I’d say okay, let’s try and get you into some nationals and magazines. There is a difference between PR and marketing. Marketing is targeted to a specific audience, promoting specific products and services, whereas PR is much more broadly about perception.
PR is storytelling. It’s about identifying what our stories are, what makes us stand out. It’s a difficult thing to measure compared to marketing. Historically it’s been measured by EAV [equivalent advertising value] which worked in the days when all media was print media because it was literally calculated by how much your inch of copy in The Times would have cost if it were a paid advert. But then agencies would attach an uplift called PR value, an absolutely mythical number which assumed that because you had ‘earned’ the space by a journalist deeming it sufficiently interesting to write about without you having to pay, it was worth 1.5 times more. It was entirely made-up.
AD: What would be the top three characteristics of a really good restaurant PR?
HRW: You’ve got to love restaurants. You cannot ultimately do a good job representing a restaurant if you don’t love the whole theatre and artistry of eating out. Then, integrity. I absolutely understand that when you’re running a big agency and you have costs and salaries to pay, of course you’re going to occasionally take on a client who you know is low-hanging fruit. A lot of PRs I know are very open about having cash clients; they know they can put a team on it, get it in all the papers, get a few critics in, produce a lovely long report and move on. But I think that has to be balanced with the integrity to only work with clients you believe in.
Third, I think, honesty. Honesty with your clients when things go wrong, or they come up with ideas you know are not going to work. I know a lot of PRs don’t consider it their business to get involved with service or how the restaurants run; I absolutely do. It’s unusual but I do have this kind of 360-degree perspective. I have done reviewing, I’ve been in-house as the client courted by PRs and now I am the PR. I get how the game works.
I do consultancy as well, helping to rebrand or reshape a menu. One I did last year was an Argentinian steak restaurant in the City; I said they needed more vegetarian and vegan choices in every section of the menu and that those dishes need to be as good as everything else. When they argued that they were a steak restaurant, I explained that there are a lot of high-ranking women in the City – not to gender stereotype, but in recent surveys there are a lot more female vegans than male – who will be vegan or following a plant-based diet, and they will be the decision-maker about where their whole group eats. If they look at your menu and there’s nothing there for them, they will go somewhere else. To their immense credit, they listened and the results were almost instantaneous.
AD: So do you think plant-based eating is here to stay?
HRW: One hundred per cent. Veganism has gone way, way beyond a trend. In my seven years and more in food, the move to plant-based is the single biggest paradigm shift I’ve seen. Bigger than small plates, bigger than no reservations, bigger than anything else.
AD: What’s the restaurant PR world like – is it very competitive?
HRW: Actually it’s a nice industry. There is an element of rivalry like there is anywhere but actually most of us are very good friends. I’ve got a WhatsApp group of PR pals and we’re all very supportive of each other: going to dinner, checking how someone is doing, inviting each other to launches.
AD: Finally, what three dishes have you eaten recently that you would recommend to Palate readers?
HRW: First, the Khai Dow at Plaza Khao Gaeng – the definition of ‘deceptively simple’, these are crispy, frilly-edged wok-fried eggs served with salty, fiery nam pla prik, fish sauce spiked with bird’s eye chillies and garlic. Unbelievably moreish.
Then, the fried mackerel at Crispin E1. I loved everything here but genuinely woke up the next day thinking about this perfect piece of fried mackerel, served with a chunky tartare sauce and a wedge of lemon. Sublime.
Also the Lahpet Thohk at Lahpet, Covent Garden; this Burmese restaurant is probably the place I’ve most recommended to people this year. I’ve been twice and both times have ordered this pickled tea-leaf salad. The complex layering of flavours is quite intoxicating.
This interview was published in October 2022.
Photos by Amanda David.