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Cover story: Ready for your close-up?

You didn't ask for it. You might not even want it. But you got it—big-time publicity. Now what? Frank Ostini had a steady, if not knock-out, business going with his Western-themed restaurant, the Hitching Post, located in Buellton, CA, in the middle of scenic Santa Ynez wine country. The well-worn but comfortable eatery had been in the family for over 50 years—half of that under Frank's father's stewardship, and half under his —and rang up around $2 million last year, with another $200,000 in sales of wine produced on the family vineyard.

Then came the film "Sideways"—the sleeper hit of 2004 about a couple of old friends who plunge into a wine-soaked last-hurrah week in Santa Ynez before one of them gets married. The film, made on the cheap and starring a collection of B-list actors, started humbly, originally released only in select cities. Yet like "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" before it, it just kept gaining momentum, and by year's end had grossed almost $50 million, though it cost a paltry $16 million to make. It won an Academy Award for best adapted screenplay (it had been nominated for Best Picture), and six Independent Spirit Awards, the art-house equivalent of the Oscars.

Which meant much of America got a close-up of the Hitching Post, as several scenes involving lengthy meals and staggering wine consumption were shot in the restaurant, in the dining room, and even out in the parking lot, its huge illuminated sign glinting right off the foreheads of the audience.

"As I walked out of the movie, I thought, This could be the best product placement I've ever seen," says Ostini.

Him or anyone. While it's common enough for audiences to see real restaurants featured in films, they seldom see the name and location of the place shown so obviously. Since the film's release, business at the Hitching Post has jumped 30%, with a 100% increase in sales of the vineyard's wines—a seven-figure boost, Ostini estimates. "It's like getting a million dollars in free advertising," he says, "without a catch."

Whether it's a Hollywood picture giving a restaurant star billing, such as "Sideways" and "Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle", Playboy magazine featuring the women of Starbucks or McDonald's, or even a celebrity getting murdered in the place, restaurants have always been candidates for huge and sudden blasts of publicity that they didn't invite. And in this age of media saturation, where information and entertainment course into the home via outlets as varied as satellite radio, online magazines, and internet streaming, the chances of a restaurant being mentioned in a story, being in a photo shoot, or popping up in a movie scene are greater than ever. Suddenly, there it is: Free advertising, often to an audience larger than any the restaurants would or could pay to reach.

Add the fact that traditional advertising is not just more expensive but, many say, less effective than it once was, and it's easy to see why some restaurant owners and operators are only all too happy to ride the wave that such windfall publicity can provide.

Yet the issue with inadvertent publicity is precisely that: It's inadvertent. Never mind that it might be huge exposure—a restaurant may neither invite nor welcome it. In many cases, it can't control it, either. And while many operators would dream of seeing their place in the backdrop of an Oscar-winning film, there's just as much chance of it showing up in a story that's negative and controversial. It's enough to test one of the oldest maxims in the biz: Any publicity is good publicity. But is it?

One day, Vitello's was a modest neighborhood red-sauce restaurant in Studio City, CA. But when the actor Robert Blake's wife was killed after the couple left the restaurant, suddenly Vitello's was all over the media, and continues to be even though the case is over. "The real reason to go here is the fact that this is the Robert Blake restaurant," wrote one online reviewer. "This is where he and his wife had their last meal together."

Perhaps it's a little macabre, but owner Joe Restivo says gawker biz has been quite good. "Lots of curious people come in for meals," he says. "Any time the story is in the news, business goes up."

Bad news was also good news for the News Cafe, a see-and-be-seen restaurant in Miami's bustling South Beach neighborhood. Fashion designer Gianni Versace was known to stop into the eatery every morning for his coffee and paper. He did so one morning in 1997, and was shot dead on the way home to his mansion several doors away. Not only did business jump just after the incident, but the spike continues now, nearly a decade after his murder. "People still come in and mention it to this day," says manager Emil Busse.

Southern family-dining chain Huddle House received a media plug last year when a mother reunited with her daughter for the first time since she gave the girl up for adoption 40 years ago. The moving reunion took place inside a Huddle House, and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution covered it with a big story.

Huddle House marketing VP Ron Rumley could claim no credit whatsoever for the mother and child reunion. "We found out about it when it hit the newsstands," he says. "They were hugging and crying, meeting grandbabies for the first time—and we were right in the middle of the story."

Readers noticed. Lots of new faces turned up at the Dublin, GA, restaurant, a spokesman says, and remarked on having seen the article in the paper.

Because it's harder and harder to trumpet the restaurant brand to a public with an increasingly short attention span, harried restaurant marketers are often all too happy when these publicity opportunities fall into their laps. Perhaps in a different, more refined era, White Castle would've frowned on lending its name to a film that showed a pair of potheads with a grave case of the munchies bumbling and stumbling about in search of the QSR chain for 90 minutes. But with advertising costs through the roof, and many marketing execs expressing serious concerns about their message getting through the consumer morass of 250 cable channels, ad-busting TiVos, and video games, these free opportunities are usually too good to pass up.

"The way people consume communications has changed rapidly in the last 10 years, and will change even more in the next 10," says White Castle marketing VP Jamie Richardson, who had input on the film's script long before it was released. "As a marketer, you have to be in touch with these [alternative] opportunities as much as possible."

For him, that meant not just giving the filmmakers his approval, but taking it several steps further: donating 50,000 Slyder burgers to the "Harold & Kumar" premiere in Hollywood, handing out coupons and maps to the nearest White Castle at various theaters, and even inducting the filmmakers and actors in the Craver's Hall of Fame, a virtual clubhouse on the chain's web site.

For a regional chain like White Castle, it meant brand exposure on a national stage. That's also how Hooters viewed it when 3-million-plus circulation Playboy decided to show the women of Hooters without their tank tops and short-shorts a decade ago.

"We were a much smaller company then, so we looked at it as validation that we were a national brand," says Hooters marketing chief Mike McNeil. "We liked the fact that they saw us as a national brand, and their readers would too." (McNeil is quick to point out that Hooters neither helped nor hindered Playboy regarding the project, though they did work recently with producers of an upcoming "Bad News Bears" remake to ensure that the team visits Hooters in the movie.)

Such exposure can also deliver the right brand message to guests, not to mention potential guests. Huddle House execs were elated when the reunion of Vivian Adams and long-lost daughter Tami in one of their units dovetailed with the very marketing message they were trying to send to the public anyway: That the restaurant is a good place for family bonding (and eating, of course). For White Castle, being so sought after by the young stoners fit nicely with the "crave" concept behind the brand's marketing.

"When the movie shows the extreme lengths people will go to for White Castle burgers," says Richardson, "there's a ring of authenticity there for us."

That kind of authenticity resonates far better with guests than product placements and even ads, many believe. "The younger generation is jaded by the 30-second spot, and they're savvy enough to spot product placement from far away," says restaurant marketing consultant Rob Crews. "If a brand pops up in pop culture naturally, it's authentic to the consumer. If the brand pays for it, they risk a backlash."

Yet getting that blast of free publicity isn't always what the restaurant companies desire; in fact, it can be just about the last thing they seek for the brand. One iteration of the "Harold & Kumar" script reportedly saw the stars jonesing for Krispy Kreme donuts in addition to burgers, until Krispy turned up lukewarm on the project, and the screenwriter sent the stoners to "Hot Dog Heaven" instead.

Then there's the matter of female employees of Starbucks and McDonald's showing up in a major national magazine. When Playboy magazine featured actual female workers posing au naturel, the headquarters of both chains jumped out of their shirts, too. Starbucks and McDonald's issued statements disavowing any part in, or consent to, the stunt. "It is inconsistent with our brand," said McD's, while Starbucks said they were "not involved" in the project in any way.

What's more, the publicity might generate attention, but that doesn't mean it generates guest checks. When it became known that Nicole Brown-Simpson had dined at L.A.'s Mezzaluna shortly before she was murdered, countless gawkers began arriving and snapping photos of the Brentwood eatery. Then they left. The restaurant closed not long afterward.

Even a sudden boost in traffic can wreak its own headaches. Since "Sideways" struck, Ostini had to add several more staffers and his first-ever PR person; he says the expense is justified, but it's made his life more complicated. He also had to coach his hostess on how to handle hearing the same jokes from guests about the film's main characters, Miles and Maya, over and over. "When they ask her if Maya is working tonight, she'll say, 'No, she's off this week, visiting Miles in rehab,'" Ostini says.

But whether or not the operator views the publicity as favorable, many believe, as P.T. Barnum famously said, that there's no such thing as bad publicity. Marketing consultant Scott Singer says there's almost always a way to spin what might appear to be unflattering publicity into something positive for the brand; if Playboy is featuring your female employees in the buff, he says, set up scholarships in the company name for women—and issue press releases touting how the company empowers women. "Find a way to turn the attention into something more in keeping with the brand's image," he says. "If the brand suffers a backlash from the publicity, shame on them for not making it work for them."

And as it gets harder to plant the brand's seed in the consumer's head, more restaurant companies will hold out hope that the next hit movie, family make-up, or celebrity breakup will take place in their restaurant.

Interviewed prior to the Academy Awards, Ostini said he was planning an Oscars party at the restaurant in honor of "Sideways."

"Whether or not it wins the Oscar," he says, "I feel like we already won."

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