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Staying open when your street is closed

Picture this: Johnny Restaurant Owner is about to take the turn he makes every morning to get onto his restaurant's street. But this morning, he slams on the brakes before a sign that appeared the night before: "Road Closed," it says.  There's a bulldozer standing next to it, in case there were any doubt.

The sign might as well read "Business Closed." Because if the restaurant's owner can't reach his place, how are customers supposed to?

Such a nightmare came to life last year for Ian Just, who runs Les Zygomates, an upscale French restaurant in Boston. South Street, where the restaurant sat, was target-of-the-moment of Boston's notorious Big Dig, the largest public-works project in U.S. history, and one that had been disemboweling whole neighborhoods downtown since 1991.

For Just, what followed was six months of digging, vibrations, dust, and noise. The road was entirely ripped up two separate times, and one day Just found a note shoved under his door informing him that the direction of traffic on South was to be permanently changed. The public was never alerted. Confused customers had trouble finding a way in, and some never did. Just watched as one quarter of his business evaporated.

"People stopped coming to the area. They didn't want to deal with it," Just says. This turmoil proved too much for several restaurants—Les Zygomates' next-door neighbor went under.

Just says he too may have suffered more if it wasn't for his staying alive strategy—Les Zygomates launched a public-relations blitz to keep its name top-of-mind with Boston diners.

"We didn't get lost in the confusion of the Dig because we made extra concerted efforts to get word out about the restaurant," says Marlo Fogelman, Les Zygomates' longtime PR rep.

Her strategy was to tirelessly flog the restaurant's special events to any media that would listen. Since Fogelman was already on staff, and since she focused on free publicity only, the special effort didn't cost the restaurant extra. The promos, too, had been planned and budgeted anyway, so Just's expenditures were kept in check.

Fogelman pitched coverage of wine tastings and live jazz nights with a slew of calls and press releases, resulting in articles in the Boston Globe and a radio spot. She also got the attention of the Boston Herald, Metro newspaper, and two TV stations (who reported live from the restaurant) by urging them to cover a party protesting the smoking ban. "We wanted people to remember us," Fogelman says.

Fogelman also realized that since newcomers probably wouldn't find the restaurant, keeping the regulars coming was more important than ever. She aggressively promoted the restaurant's anniversary party, a fete thrown yearly to thank loyal customers.

Meanwhile, Just made changes on the operations end. "I had to be clever to keep costs down because the future was so uncertain," he says. Inventory was taken weekly and some staffers were let go during the slow season. "I had to run a tight ship," he says.

Now the dust has settled, literally, and Les Zygomates still stands. Guest counts have been increasing, and Just says he has faith in the future. So much faith, in fact, that he is opening a new restaurant... right next door.

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