Legendary Restaurateur Phil Roberts Tells How Edgy Marketing Works…If It Fits the Concept

Phil Roberts is a legend in the restaurant business, having launched over ten successful restaurants, including Buca di Beppo and The Oceanaire Seafood Room, which both went public. He owns Parasole Restaurant Group, which runs ten extremely successful restaurants in Minneapolis.

Phil is bold, innovative, and knows what people want before they do. He isn’t politically correct, and he’s refreshingly unafraid to offer very honest opinions on any topic. Here’s an excerpt from our upcoming book, Restaurant Owners Uncorked, from a conversation he and I had about his sometimes edgy marketing.

How is your marketing edgy and unique?
“It depends on the restaurant. The marketing is a couple of the spokes in that wheel. However you express yourself on the outside has got to describe the promise of what you’re going to get on the inside.

Manny’s Steakhouse is a good example. We do $17,000,000 a year there. It’s all prime beef. I don’t know what steakhouses you have there in Charlotte, but it’s like The Palm, or Sparks in New York, or any of those. But Manny’s symbol from day one has been this really red-eyed, horny bull. Just frothing at the mouth. Just a sexual predator. I mean, that’s the look that he has. There’s just no doubt that he’s kind of a guys-guy kind of a symbol. You can see him on our web site.

So in our marketing, we always use the bull. And let me digress a little bit on the story of the bull. When we decided on our meat supplier – this is 1988 – our meat supplier tells us that the American Meat Council had an artist that does marvelous paintings of bulls. The guy is named Frank Murphy.

I called him, and I could tell over the phone that he was a quieter, gentler, older, man. I said, “Frank, I need a painting of this bull. And I want him to be the horniest thing you have ever painted in your life. And I want him to be about three feet wide and four feet tall.” He says, “Yes, Mr. Roberts, I can do that for you. Why don’t I do a pencil sketch, and I’ll fax it up to you.” That was before the days of email.

So the next day I get this fax of this bull, and it’s good. It’s really good. Because he’s frothing at the mouth and he’s doing all this kind of stuff. I called Frank back and I said, “This looks good. When you paint him I want to make sure that his eyes are red, and that he’s really lusting after the cows. And there’s one thing I’d like to have you do. I’d like you to make his balls bigger.” And this gentle, older man says, “Why, yes Mr. Roberts. I can do that. Why don’t I repair the drawing, and I will fax another copy up to you?”

About an hour later, I get this fax, and I call Frank back, and say, “Frank, that’s great. You are really moving in the right direction, buddy. But I’d like to have the balls even bigger.” He says, “Oh, uh, Mr. Roberts, that would be anatomically incorrect.” I said, “Well Frank, let’s just do it. I don’t give a shit. I’d just like to see them anatomically incorrect.”

About an hour later I get another fax, and the balls are damned near hanging on the ground. I call Frank back and I say, “Frank, I’ve just got one more request.” He says, “Oh, Mr. Roberts, what’s that going to be?” I say, “I just want you to make them shiny.”

So his balls are shiny. I mean, you could comb your hair by looking at ‘em. But that’s the symbol of Manny’s. But you know, it all makes sense. Because Manny’s is a steakhouse. Manny’s is a guys place that women love. You know, it’s naughty. You can’t believe the number of women that get their pictures taken in front of the bull, tickling his balls. So, you know, it all fits. It’s a guys-guy joint.

So that’s the way we market Manny’s. We always use the bull, and we use him in a number of different ways. Sometimes we only feature his balls in some of our ads. So that’s Manny’s.

My point is that it fits Manny’s. It doesn’t fit Chino Latino. It doesn’t fit The Good Earth. It doesn’t fit Pittsburgh Blue. I doesn’t fit Salut. It doesn’t fit Muffuletta. But it does fit Manny’s. So the marketing has to be tailored, and has to be in lockstep with what the concept is.”

Want to hear Phil’s story about how he got $100,000 in free publicity by using an edgy billboard? Stay tuned and we’ll let you know when the book is ready.

The Schedulefly Crew