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’ . . .

Cowboy Up, Girl

Timing is everything. When Ty Largo and I became friends in 2008, I had no idea that two years later, I’d be willing to forsake my 22-year career in the restaurant reviewing biz to join with him and Stacy Pearson in our brand new PR firm called Up Agency.

I had been unceremoniously swept out the door by PM in April of that year and I was wondering what on earth to do with myself. By early summer, I was thinking of trying to create my own food, chef and restaurant-related website, not understanding that such a thing probably couldn’t make me any money or that, in fact, everyone was already blogging instead. Looking back, I would say that I was ridiculously out of touch.

I asked Mari Belardi at Cowboy Ciao who might be able to help me with web stuff, and she suggested Ty Largo, adding, “We love him.” I got online first thing and checked out the websites he had designed for Ciao and Digestif. “Cute!” I thought, watching the little graphic of steam rising from a coffee cup over and over again. It was crisp, it was whimsical and I imagined he could make something just as darling for me.

So I called Ty and we met for lunch at Digestif. There he was: black and white-checked glasses, silky black hair standing on end in a faux-hawk, sitting up straight and putting on his best business-like demeanor.  “Cute!” I thought again.

We hit it off instantly, oohing and aahing together over Payton’s farm-to-table yummies, talking about our favorite restaurants and my possible future plans as a web-based food wonk. We promised to get together again soon and did, this time at the bar at House of Tricks, where we drank too much and got to know each other better.

By mid-summer of 2008, I was working freelance for the Arizona Republic, thanks to Howie’s suggestion that I call Jen Johnston, who would become my editor, friend and occasional dining companion. Life felt slightly more stable. I had work. Not enough work to really live on, you understand, but enough work to keep the wolves from the door for a few more months. Ty got busy. I got busy, wrangling as much freelance work as I could find and we didn’t speak for months.

Last spring (2009), we met at Quiessence and over cocktails on the lawn, we commiserated about feeling adrift. Ty raised his eyebrows and looked at me over those crazy glasses and, lowering his voice a bit, asked, “Would you ever consider coming over to the dark side?” That’s PR-speak for journalists who leave journalism for PR.

I laughed . . .  and then I started thinking.

I’d harbored the PR idea for years (as many of my pals will attest) but I could never work up the nerve to leave my career and try something new. Then too, after all that early tutelage at New Times (where publicists were characterized as having “666” tattooed on their skulls) PR still smacked of used car salesman in my snobbish little head.  More importantly, no one in PR had ever actually invited me to come on board before.

I was flattered, but I wasn’t ready.

No sir, I wasn’t willing to give up a single thing after losing so much already. I was hanging on for dear life to whatever I had. After about a month of back-and-forth, I confessed that I just couldn’t do it. Ty was clearly disappointed, but he rallied and with a little help from his friends (see his own blog post at Juxtapalate.com), started carving out an impressive client roster as he transitioned from web development to PR.

We remained friends, and, in fact, became better buds over more shared meals than I could ever remember.

And then, this spring, after starting the full-time job at the paper, something just snapped. I realized I was tired of doing the same thing, or more accurately, the thing that was purportedly the same but that had changed dramatically (but in piecemeal fashion) over time. I had become less enchanted with writing reviews and more enamored with the prospect of PR. Suddenly, working with journalists I knew and liked or chefs I admired sounded pretty fun. And just maybe, I’d have the chance to exercise the sort of creativity I yearned for. I didn’t give a hoot about being Nikki Buchanan, Restaurant Critic, anymore. The title didn’t mean squat. It was interesting, challenging work I wanted in a field that, in the scheme of things, wasn’t wildly dissimilar from what I was already doing.

Ty and I talked. Then, after he met with Stacy (who brings a boatload of her own impressive clients to the table), it all sort of fell into place. Suddenly, I had faith in Ty, Stacy, myself and the universe in general.  I was ready to dive off the cliff.

Well, now I’ve done it. And you know what? The water may be deep in places, but it feels just fine.

Stay tuned for my Goodnight, Sweetheart letter to the Republic.