Debby Fortune, Fortune PR, Part 1 ~ Food Interviews

Monday, August 11, 2008

Debby Fortune, Fortune PR, Part 1

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Debby Fortune and her husband, Tom, own Fortune PR, a PR firm that focuses solely on food. You may not have heard of her, but you have almost definitely heard of some the products she represents: Amy's Kitchen, Annie Chun's, and Amano Chocolate (Amano Chocolate was featured in a Food Interview).

In this two part interview, Debby talks about how food product companies and restaurants use PR firms, the role food bloggers play, food trends she has seen over the years, and the joy and fulfillment that she has enjoyed from owning a successful home-based business doing something she loves.

Debby Fortune loves working in her home office.

Tell me a little about Fortune PR.

We’re a boutique food agency in the San Francisco Bay area. We’re actually in Berkeley and we decided to be a home-based business a long time ago. We built ourselves a fabulous home office before it was popular to do so and now everyone’s jealous of what we have.

All we do is food because we felt that it’s what we both love and we also felt like you just can’t be too much of a generalist. You can’t really know everybody in this media world and we really like knowing the food people, so that’s where we focus.

I do products and Tom does restaurants. We offer a whole variety of services that way without being in each other’s hair too much - which is important if you want to stay married, of course. That’s kind of the secret to making it work. We both like to be the boss and that works out really well.

For people who don’t know, what is the difference between PR and advertising?

Advertising is something that you totally control because you pay the publication for space or time and you put what you want in there. It can be very, very expensive to buy a half-page ad or a full page ad or thirty seconds on NBC - huge, huge money.

PR is a whole different ball game. Essentially when you hire a publicist in a PR firm, we’re here to help you share your message and your product with appropriate journalists who actually write about things like what you do - to offer them samples to try for journalistic purposes and information about what your product is so that they can then write about you.

We’re sort of your lobbyist. There are people who can’t take samples, but usually the food writers can and that’s a good thing because they need to taste things and get things into their mouths and try them. Often, they need it way in advance to meet their deadlines so that it can come out in their magazines in a timely way.

We’re sort of the information packagers and we try to keep it really simple and give all the facts about your product: the price, what it’s made out of, where you can buy it, how it’s made, what’s special about it - to get it to people who are interested in it. That’s what a publicist does. We’re not spin doctors. We’re not about any kind of emergency or crisis management.

We’re about sharing interesting, delicious foods that small purveyors or medium-sized purveyors make with journalists who are interested in them. That’s really what it is. We don’t do advertising. There’s never any guarantee with PR. We can just share the information and it’s up to the journalist to decide whether he or she is really interested or really going to write about it. We’re kind of like reference librarians. We can get the information and the product to them within their deadlines/schedules and communicate with them in a way they like to be communicated with and hopefully you’ll get lucky and they’re going to like what you have to offer.

I’m really into the food part of how it’s made and how it tastes. In the kind of PR that I do, that’s what really matters. I mostly work with the magazines and bloggers, just like you, who care about good, quality food.

We have to go through crazy, careful processes to make sure, for example, that for our clients that make frozen products, they get there on time. A lot of detailed coordination goes into that like making sure your chocolate doesn’t arrive melted. We count on FedEx to do a good job for us. I won’t comment on when they don’t do a good job, although, that does happen occasionally.

I can only do so many clients at a time because we’re small and also because they can’t have any crossover. It’s so important to have no conflict of interest at any current time. I can only do one frozen meals company, one Asian foods company, one ice cream company, one bakery company, one chip company. I have to spread it around like that so that each one is unique and gets all the attention that it deserves.

Fortune PR is very careful about choosing which companies to represent. Here are a few companies on their client list.

Do most PR companies represent only one of each kind of company?

I think they should. Conflict of interest is really important. Think about it - Amy’s would never want me to be working with Seeds of Change or Kashi Frozen. It would not be right because I would then be offering up two similar products to the same writers and I have to be fully focused on taking care of the one brand that I can really work for.

I’m not sure how it works in a larger company, but I do think they have to be careful about that. We’re ultra-careful about that because we like to make sure that we’re giving all the attention we can to each specific type of food. It makes our clients feel like they’re number one and they should be because they are paying us a lot of money to do a good job for them. I think that’s important and we do have one chip company, one ice cream company, one Asian food company, one bakery company, one frozen foods company, and one chocolate company.

We sometimes work with retailers. We worked with Andronico’s Market which is a small really nice chain of groceries and we’ve worked with coffee, we’ve worked with meat (we don’t do any meat right now, but there was the sausage company), we’ve worked with Noah’s bagels (back when there was a Noah’s bagels – they were a big national chain), we’ve just about done everything.

We do a small Italian company A.G. Ferrari that imports foods from Italy - beautiful vinegars and oils and cheese. It’s named after Paul Ferrari’s grandfather that started the business. They are really cute little stores. They are here in the Bay Area, not national yet, but you can go to their website and order anything to be shipped. If you like Italian food, it’s a great place to go. The farro that they import is to die for! It is so delicious. Italian farro rocks! You just cook it up like would spelt or pasta or you can make it into a salad for a risotto. I can’t think of a better way to get a whole grain. It’s is absolutely delicious!

How is the PR process different with restaurants?

With the restaurants, it’s a little different and Tom has his special way of doing it. It's essentially the same thing, but what Tom will do is make sure that he knows everything that he needs to know about the restaurant - when its going to open, information about the chef, information about the menu, in advance.

Particularly with restaurants, I think the local newspaper food sections really want to know what’s happening in their local community. It’s about knowing when it’s going to open and then making sure that the people who do reviews are aware that it’s open. There’s no control on the reviews, but just making sure they know about it. Sometimes there’s a ‘What’s New?’ section. They really like to get in there quickly. I think they count on people like us to let them know when the actual opening time is so they can get a photographer in there and have it in their food section within the first week or so and let people know about it. Often they’ll send people in to dine who just give you some of the details, not necessarily a review, but to let their readers know what’s happening.

Then, later on, the reviewers come in - after they’ve been open a while to reach their potential when they are really working at their best. You don’t want to go in and review them in the first week, it’s just not fair and they usually come in several times to get a good review.

Tom will create a press kit that has all the things a journalist needs: menus, fact sheets, hours of operation, a bio on the chef, where the chef came from, maybe who the owners are, historical property (what they need to know about that), sometimes pictures of food - just every detail that you’d read about in an article or in a review and making sure that all that is super easy for them to get in press release format.

He works with journalists like John Mariani and reviewers who write for national publications and invites them to come in when they can or when they come around to be sure to drop by. So, it’s kind of the same thing. Being a good librarian of all the information of your clients and making sure that everyone knows what’s new. Everyone wants to know what the new, hottest place is in the Bay Area.

There’s usually not as long of a sustained relationship doing restaurants. You get them open, you help them through the opening parties, make sure all the local reviewers know, make sure national reviewers know, and then after that, it kind of fades out. Sometimes there are maintenance things to do like sending chefs off to the James Beard House to do events or to Aspen Food and Wine and helping them field calls. When you have a really famous chef like Nancy Oakes, a lot of people want information continuously.

With a product company, we’re always dealing with new product introductions and that’s a really, really important part of the PR spectrum. Often, that’s coordinated with different shows like the Natural Products Expo. A lot of companies will introduce their products in coordination with those shows. It just kind of makes sense.

Hungry Girl is a blogger who works with Debby. Debby says that Hungry Girl's Cookbook rocks!

When did you begin to use food bloggers for PR?

I really believe in my core that the food bloggers are the future. Over the last 20 years, we’re seeing newspapers disappear. One big company buys up all the local papers – here in the Bay area we get a whole bunch of different newspapers – 6, 7, 8, 9 all have the exact same food section every day, because they were all bought up by one. It’s like the USA Today effect where it’s all the same news, the same story. The economy of newspapers is going down and as they sadly disappear, the food bloggers are rising. Talk about variety and special interest and interesting characters and great writers! I think it’s absolutely the future.

We started this [working with food bloggers] maybe 2 years ago. We started it with Amy’s. Because of Amy’s being a vegetarian company and being great for weight loss and special diets, Amy’s had a variety of products that are friendly to people with Cesoliac Disease and children who had food allergies. We noticed that these particular special interests are really represented in the blogs, because people are trying to help each other. We started reaching out the same way we would to food editors, offering samples and information, and we saw it was growing and happening.

We had another client that made allergen-free foods and there’s a huge amount of people being supportive to one another - bloggers helping with raising children with food allergies and people with Celiac Disease. So, the special interest sector is sort of where it started for us and then from there.

We have hugely made efforts to get to know as many bloggers as we can in as many different categories that’s appropriate for our clients - ones we enjoy reading, ones we think are doing a really great job. A really good one is Hungry Girl. She’s done an amazing job. She started this really fun food blog. Talk about a funny turn – what happened then is some of her stories ended up getting syndicated in newspapers. Now, she has a cookbook out which just rocks and is enjoying incredible, deserved success.

We’re noticing, too, that other media sources like magazines and TV shows such as the Today Show and Martha Stewart that often have on a guest editor who will talk about an article like, “Great Foods to Power Up Your Diet” with the Food Editor from Body+Soul. They are now having bloggers come on to talk about food and fashion.

I was just on Southwest Airlines yesterday and picked up the magazine Spirit, and lo and behold, there is an entertainment article on fun things to do, TV shows not to miss, DVDs to buy, and great blogs to check. One of them is called Cupcakes Take the Cake. We emailed Rachel (who I’m sure you know) and she didn’t even know – and she was like, “Oh my God, we didn’t even know!” so we scanned it for her and sent it to her. It didn’t seem to be in the online version.

It’s interesting how the newsmakers are now news. It’s telling us how powerful these blogs are and I’m so on-board with it. I so believe in it. I find new ones that I like every day, I wish I could spend more time on it. We’re just building up our database of special interest bloggers and food bloggers.

How does working with the bloggers compare to working with people in traditional media?

It’s funny that you would ask that. Other people have asked that and I didn’t really understand. I don’t know that other publicists are embracing quite this as much and I hope that they will.

Frankly, I don’t see it any differently than working with a food editor. We treat them with respect and offer information and offer product samples and they want all the same information: Where can I buy it? How much does it cost? What’s it made of? What does it taste like? I just see them as freelance writers and food editors just the same as anyone else out there.

We treat them the exact same way - hopefully, respectfully and on time, on deadlines. They need photos just like everybody else and they need samples to arrive at their doorstep on the correct day. It’s the exact same - they’re just delightful to work with.

One of the only problems we may have is that sometimes there will be a blog that won’t give enough information on how to reach them. That’s frustrating because sometimes we have something that they would really love but they don’t even have an email on there on how to contact them. But, usually there’s an email address and that’s all you need we just send a query saying, “We work with this. Would you be interested?” and they either say, “No thanks,” or they say, “Yes.” Mostly, they say, “Yeah – we want to know,” and that works out really well. It’s pretty easy. They’re obviously super email-savvy people and that makes our lives really great.

I never even mail out press releases any more. Everything is email. We are wasting a lot less paper these days.

Are there a lot of PR firms that specialize in foods?

I don’t think there are. There are some, but they usually have a mix of food and consumer products. I think we’re unique. There are some that do mostly food or mostly restaurants. They’re probably small shops, like us – boutique firms. You might find one or two of them in every major market.

You can’t build a really big firm on that, because you have to have so much more. You have to have a big base to be really safe – just like so many of the firms that were dot-com only. They aren’t even around anymore. They are long gone.

You have to think about the sustainability of your business. You can totally sustain a small business on food. I could probably do this in New York. But, I don’t know if I could do this in any other location in the US. The San Francisco Bay Area is so foodie-savvy and there are so many companies here. I may be wrong. I don’t really know. I think you can build a little firm, but you can’t build a big firm.

Ketchum is an example of one that’s pretty food-focused, but they are also an advertising agency. They do so much more with marketing and things that we just don’t do. We’re really, really, specialized in our little niche that we do and we can do that because we’re really small. We really have no desire to be big. For us, bigger is not better. It’s really about just having a great, sustainable business for ourselves and the few people that freelance with us.

We love working at home and with the price of gas right now, it is really nice to not commute anywhere. It’s the best! We’ve raised two kids and it’s been really satisfying for us to have them turn around (now that they are 19 and 16) and say to us with no prompting, how lovely it was that we were always around, that we weren’t commuting long hours away, that they knew we were here.

It was fun for them to see us working and to help us out in the office, whether it was fixing the computer or stuffing envelopes or packing boxes of chocolate or something. They’ve always been part of it. It’s been a really fun thing for them to grow up that way.

I’ve definitely raised two pretty intense foodies. Charley is learning how to cook now and I call Henry my sous chef in the kitchen.

Someone else who’s raised her children in the food industry is a writer, Bonnie Tandy Leblang. She’s wonderful. She’s a writer for Parade. She’s has her own email newsletter called Bite of the Best she writes also for the United Press Syndicate a column called Supermarket Sampler – she still writes that with Carolyn Wyman. She’s built an amazing business.

She has two sons and now her two sons work with her on Bite of the Best and they are total foodies. It’s really cool. She’s really an interesting lady.

It is possible to create your own little niche that you feel like you can do and then live it. I feel really lucky. I’ll never be really wealthy, but I feel grateful for what we’ve been able to do. It’s certainly provided us with a great life. I have a lot to be very thankful for.