A well-endowed bull. Offensive billboards. This is worth reading…

Phil Roberts is a legend in the business, having launched over a dozen successful restaurants, including Buca di Beppo and The Oceanaire Seafood Room, which both went public. He owns Parasole Restaurant Group, whose restaurants dominate the scene in the Minneapolis / St. Paul area. Phil is bold, innovative, and knows what people want before they do. When I interviewed him for Restaurant Owners Uncorked, I learned that he’s also refreshingly unafraid to offer very honest opinions on any topic.

Here’s a long but incredibly interesting and revealing exchange we had when I asked him about his restaurants’ sometimes edgy marketing…

Wil: “You’re a frequent speaker at conferences and trade shows. What do you typically speak about?”

Phil: “People like to hear how you do it. Where does the idea come from? How do you build around the idea? What about your marketing?

In some of our places, we do some very edgy marketing. To the point where it really pisses people off. Which is a good thing because they aren’t our customers anyway, but we get a lot of press out of it.”

Wil: “How is your marketing edgy and unique?”

Phil: “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.

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 website.” So in our marketing, we always use the bull.

When we decided on our meat supplier, he 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.’

So the next day I get this fax of this bull, and it’s really good. 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 (in a hesitant voice), ‘Oh, Mr. Roberts, what’s that going to be?’ I say, ‘I just want you to make ‘em 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. Manny’s is a steakhouse, guy’s place that women love. 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. Now, we market Chino Latino in a totally different way.”

Wil: “Tell me about Chino Latino.”

Phil: “Chino Latino was started in 1999. We do about $7,000,000 annually. Open evenings only. It’s a small plates restaurant. Flavors exotic to Minnesota.

I came across that idea when my wife and I were in Bangkok, and we just simply noticed that life took place on the street at night, when everybody came out for their social life. And you had all of these little independent food carts selling everything from octopus to who knows what. But they were small plates. The plates were something like $2 or $3.

There was nothing like that anywhere in the U.S. I liked the idea particularly for Minnesota, because you don’t want people in Minnesota to bet the farm on a $25 entrée, and then get it and say, ‘Oh God, I don’t like it.’ There’s just way too much Lutheran DNA in Minneapolis, and the people are very conservative. So I thought if I do these small plates, they’re spending just $4 or $5 on this little octopus plate that has fish sauce and lime on it. They may or may not like it, but at least they get bragging rights at the water cooler the next morning. ‘You know what I tried last night? I tried octopus.’

You and I might sit down to dinner there, and we might order five small plates for our dinner. So I thought that would be a pretty cool thing to do. But I did worry about it being only Asian, because the incidence of eating Asian food was once every six weeks or so. And I thought, ‘How could I marry that up with Mexican?’ My statistic was that people were eating Mexican every three weeks. So, how do I get those two together?

That’s where I came up with the term ‘Chino Latino,’ which means ‘food from around the equator and the hot zone.’ So that way you could start with the Jamaican jerk chicken, do a Cuban sandwich, do a burrito from Mexico, and a Polynesian drink with an umbrella and a gardenia in it, and then you do a sate from Indonesia and sushi from Japan. You just go right around the world, around the equator.”

Wil: “What kind of marketing do you do there?”

Phil: “As you would expect, Chino draws a younger crowd. Not kids. But the demo for Chino is probably 25 to 40 where Manny’s is probably 35 to 60. So I knew that I wanted an edgier kind of message for Chino Latino when I got around to the marketing of it. I thought that the marketing ought to be a little risky. A little naughty.
Billboards are our main method of communicating for Chino Latino. I ran a billboard that said, ‘Wok the dog.’ The hippie crowd went crazy, and we got on TV. We probably got 50…60…$100,000 of publicity on the six o’clock and nine o’clock news, and it had about a three-day cycle, with people standing in front of the billboard, protesting. So we agreed to take it down at the end of the month.

Then I put another one up that said, ‘Mommy, Mr. Whiskers didn’t come home last night.’ And of course they marched on us again. Well I didn’t give a shit. They aren’t our customers anyway. But we were getting the publicity. Our sales went up like a hockey stick! And the young people loved it. The young, hipper people – they just loved it.

If you are familiar with Thailand with the resort city of Phuket – they got hit hard by the Tsunami. Well, this was prior to the Tsunami hitting them. Phuket is spelled P-H-U-K-E-T. So I put a billboard up that said, ‘Aw Phuket. Let’s do takeout.’ I got a call from the principal at Jefferson School, and he said, ‘Mr. Roberts, I would appreciate it if you would take that billboard down across the street from the school.’ I said, ‘Well, why is that?’ And he said, ‘Because of what it says.’ I said, ‘Are you referring to the resort city of Phuket, in Thailand?’ And he says, ‘No, you know what I am referring to.’ I said, ‘Well tell me.’ And he says, ‘Well, here’s my problem Mr. Roberts. All the kids are coming home from school, and they are looking up at mom and saying, ‘Aw fuckit, let’s do takeout,’ and I am getting phone calls.’

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

Wil: “So it’s O.K. to piss people off, as long as you aren’t pissing off your core customer base?”

Phil: “That’s correct. And you know, people are just wound too tight and that’s what pisses me off. They get offended by the least little thing. That just makes me want to tweak ‘em more.”

Wil: “Most businesses are trying to please everybody. They aren’t clear about who they are, eh?”

Phil: “Yep. It’s vanilla.”

Wow! As I said, Phil is refreshingly honest. I think it’s fascinating that he is not afraid to upset people who he knows aren’t going to be his customers anyway, because he knows he can galvanize his base of fans like few I’ve come across in the industry. I’m not sure I would have the stomach to create marketing like he does, but it works really well if done right and, as he said, if it’s in lock step with the brand.

Phil didn’t get where he is by being afraid to take risks. He told tons of other great stories in his interview, and you can read his stories and 19 other owners’ stories in our book (Paperback – $14.99, Kindle – $9.99).