May Day in the Best Way

For a generally cautious person who half-imagined leaving Phoenix Magazine with a gold watch in hand, I’m getting pretty good at jumping off cliffs. Probably the riskiest thing I’ve done in a while was leaving my safe, loaded-with-benefits gig at The Republic last year to try my hand at PR.  Moving into a brand new field (similar in some ways but plenty different too) was definitely scary. Seven months in, I was just getting the hang of things at Up Agency (with Ty Largo and Stacy Pearson), when an irresistible opportunity presented itself to me and I jumped again — this time to Aaron May, who invited me to become his in-house publicist.

As you probably know, Aaron is the talented chef-restaurateur who owns (or co-owns) a slew of local restaurants, including Iruña (Spanish tapas), Over Easy (boffo breakfast joint with two locations), The Lodge (a laidback North Woods-style bar), Mabel’s on Main (elegant hideaway with turn-of-the-century décor and a Mid-Century menu), Vitamin T (tacos, tamales, tortas and tequila in a tiny, cute downtown space) and May’s Counter (Tucson’s classy but comfortable new go-to for Low Country Cuisine). His company — Eatwell and Drinkalott— is growing like mad and he’s got a million-zillion things going on 24/7. From what I’ve seen so far, my job is destined to be one part marketing, one part social media, one part PR and three parts gently riding herd.

Aaron and I got to know each other by phone as I interviewed him for two free-lance stories I did back-to-back earlier this year — one a Go-List for Food & Wine, another longer piece on local restaurant empire builders for Where Guestbook (both April issues). In the course of those interviews (particularly, the Where piece), I came to admire him for his intelligence, creativity and drive. More than that, I just flat liked him for being such a charming, funny guy whose interests extend well beyond the kitchen. I guess he liked me too because a few days later, he invited me to the opening at Big Earl’s BBQ (James Porter’s new restaurant), where I met Aaron’s sister and girlfriend and a week after that, he invited me to come on board. After another week of dithering and doubting myself, I accepted the offer. Ty — who will still be my eatin-and-drinkin buddy when I’m 85 (and he’s 35 and holding) — was incredibly gracious about the whole thing, as was Stacy. We still collaborate and help each other whenever possible.

Do I know all I need to know about PR and marketing? Of course not, and I admitted as much to Aaron. But I’ll learn, and that was a big part of the appeal, relying on myself to learn what I need to do rather than leaning on Ty and Stacy, whose PR/marketing/social media knowledge is vastly superior to mine.

But what seems to matter most — both to Aaron and to me — is that we genuinely like and admire each other. He employs a little over 200 people, and from what I’ve seen so far, many of them have worked for him for years. They’re fiercely loyal to him, which says a lot about a person, don’t you think?

The other day, we were having a strategy meeting at Iruña. The group included Aaron’s partner Quinn Goldsberry (another charming, savvy guy), his GM Mark Dow (former chef de cuisine at Deseo and Mr. Suavecito), Iruna’s chef de cuisine Brian Barry (quiet guy, impressive resume, more on this later) and me. When Aaron walked in a bit later, he slapped each of the men on the back, saying, “here’s my chef, here’s my manager, here’s my partner” in an affectionate, glad-we’re-on-the-same-team sort of way. But when he got to me, he hesitated a split second and said, “here’s . . . Nikki Buchanan.” I’m guessing he didn’t want to sound possessive or patriarchal. He wanted me to know that he views me as someone who has earned a name and that he hasn’t’ forgotten it. The gesture displayed boatloads of sensitivity, which I so appreciated. But the fact of the matter is, I’m Aaron’s publicist and damn proud of it. He can say “my” with impunity.

Just so you know, I will still be writing free-lance pieces for other publications, and I swear on a stack of bibles, I plan to get much more focused on this blog. I don’t blame you for doubting me, and I fully expect a snarky comment from a certain big boy who lives in a glass house. But just keep checking back, all I’m sayin’ . . .

Whizzing down West Bell Road yesterday, I saw something that nearly made my heart stop. The sign over one of my favorite Latin American restaurants said Mi Comida instead of Mi Cocina Mi Pais.

I whipped the car around and pulled in to take a look. A taped note on the door said something about “we’re under the same ownership, blah blah blah.” Inside, I could see the same fellow waiting on tables I’ve seen a hundred times before — Michael, it turns out — chef owner Rosa Rosas’s son.

When I asked him what was going on, he said that in January, some corporate outfit from Texas sent them legal papers saying they had a trademark on the name Mi Cocina and that Rosa would have to change her restaurant’s name or risk legal action. Rosa took the matter to her own lawyer, who pointed out that although her name is registered with the Arizona Corporation Commission, the Texas big shots have lots more money than she does and the battle would be costly. Naturally, she changed the name. And now Mi Cocina Mi Pais — established in 2003 — is no more. Mi Comida (a name that also seems ripe for the corporate plucking) means, basically, “my food.”

This isn’t the first time Big Money has muscled out the little guy. Just ask Steve Friedkin who’d been operating as Lone Star Steaks at 16th Street and Bethany Home for years before another Texas group (are they just a little meaner there?) forced him to change his restaurant’s name. Lone Star became Texaz Grill.

The good news for diners (regarding Mi Comida) is that the turmoil shook Rosa up so much that she got busy and added new dishes to her already terrific menu. Now, in addition to all the old favorites, she’s offering white corn and green plantain empanadas, arepas, ajiaco Don Miguel (creamy potato and chicken soup), seco de chivo (goat stew), aji de gallina (chicken stew in spicy cream sauce) and encebollado de pescado (Ecudadorian fish soup). Oh yeah, she’s got an exotic tropical ice cream on there too. I didn’t ask, but surely it’s lucuma.

Let’s all try to get in there soon and show Rosa some support. Her food is yummy and she’s a sweet, sweet lady.

Mi Comida Restaurante Latino
4221 W. Bell Road, Phoenix
602-548-7900