Back in the late ’80s, when Steve Haweeli was building a reputation as one of the great Manhattan bartenders—slinging drinks at now-defunct joints like Thomas Keller–owned Rakel on Varick and Carmine and the Red Caddy on Houston Street—he got his first taste of the public relations game. “I wanted to let my former bar customers know where I was,” he says, “so I composed a letter.” His new boss loved it and even agreed to pay postage. “It turned into a small direct-mail business; I walked around downtown to offer this service to restaurants.” The same boss who had covered postage asked Haweeli if he’d ever written a press release. “I asked him, ‘What’s that?’” Haweeli’s first draft got picked up by Newsday. “That’s when the light bulb went off,” he says, “this is what I want to do.” When one of his steady gigs closed, Haweeli, inspired by a regular customer in the marketing business and looking for another line of work, decided to go door to door before his nighttime shift, below Broadway and above Canal Street, offering to write marketing letters “to put fannies in seats.” Think of him sort of like a garment-hawker of an earlier Gotham era or a get-out-the-voter of today. Haweeli tweaked and tested the letter language to maximize effectiveness and, at a time before iPads and Google Docs, kept a handwritten list of addresses.
Nearly 30 years later, having moved to the East End to bartend at Nick & Toni’s in 1991, Haweeli captains WordHampton, the leading Long Island public relations and marketing firm. From his offices in the upper reaches of Springs, he counts as his clients nearly all the top restaurants and hotels on the East End, as well as hundreds of others throughout Long Island. He is regularly on the phone with the food critics of the New York Times, Daily News and Wall Street Journal, not to mention leading online voices like Eater and Tasting Table. His firm launched Hamptons Restaurant Week and the even larger Long Island Restaurant Week, as well as Long Island Restaurant News Group, an online clearinghouse for Nassau and Suffolk County food businesses. Last May, the Public Relations Professionals of Long Island honored Haweeli with its Lifetime Achievement Award. “He’s an industry leader at national conferences, sharing his expertise with others on why and how he is successful and how he interacts with the press,” says Patricia Gambale, PRPLI president and marketing manager of CBIZ in Manhattan. “He’s also a very humble guy. For a PR professional that’s very unusual. When he won the award, he thanked his staff, some of whom have been with him for more than a decade.”
That staff includes Nicole Starr Castillo, executive vice president and partner at Wordhampton, who has worked with Haweeli for 15 years, as well as eight others who share his single-minded drive to get clients the exposure and social media traffic today’s hospitality landscape requires. The latest phase of expansion, this past fall, took aim at fannies in the big city; Haweeli started Metro Restaurant Marketing, which will bring WordHampton’s tested PR strategies to restaurants in New York City and the tristate area. An innovations junky with a tendency to over-prepare, ahead of Metro Restaurant Marketing’s launch, Haweeli and his staff reviewed 30 metropolitan marketing studies from Seattle to Orlando, winnowing them to the five most promising strategies and techniques, many of which did not exist during Haweeli’s 1980’s PR pavement pounding. “We think there’s thousands of successful neighborhood restaurants in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, Jersey, wherever,” he says, “that would love to run powerful Facebook pages and would love to take advantage of text-messaging campaigns and e-blasts.”
In the 20-plus years between his forays into marketing to metropolitan neighborhood restaurants, Haweeli has become something of a legend in restaurant circles. Colleagues speak of his love of the restaurant business, his love of people, his love of words, his love of art. “People thrive off his energy, his vibrancy. It’s contagious,” says a Manhattan PR peer. Along the way you hear how he swims in the bay every morning, how with an untrained hand he picked up a paint brush and now turns out serious canvases. And you hear of some fabled exploits. Once a film producer gave him money to study with Lee Strasberg for a summer after watching Haweeli “goofing around imitating Marlon Brando behind the bar at a place called Memphis at 75th and Columbus. I was an extra in Crocodile Dundee. But I couldn’t stand the waiting in line for auditions,” he says.
There’s no formal hospitality or food training in Haweeli’s background, although his was a household where both parents were teachers that loved to cook. His father was Lebanese, his mother was Irish, and his dad regularly turned out fried chicken, as well as Lebanese staples, including m’judara, a combination of lentils, bulgur and sautéed onions. Haweeli wrestled and played football at Manhasset High School, captaining both teams; he still inhabits a broad-shouldered frame to go with his bespectacled clean-shaven pate. For side money he dug graves at his Manhasset church and then headed upstate to Hamilton College, where he also played football. His following 15 years as a waiter, bartender and maître d’ helped Haweeli “learn the knack of putting a sentence together.” But never in his wildest dreams did he see himself as a business owner. “ I was antiestablishment, anti-business, anti-everything as a young man.”
In 1991, newly married and having followed restaurant friends to the Hamptons, he was hired on as bartender in East Hampton’s Nick & Toni’s, during an era where the restaurant’s staff included an intoxicating group of talent that would go on to open Almond Restaurant, Foody’s, 95 School Street, Red Bar Brasserie, Fresno Restaurant, the Beacon, Little Red, and Bell & Anchor. Six years after that first press release written from Houston Street, and now fraternizing with the restaurant’s up-and-coming staff and surrounded by celebrity clientele, Haweeli sensed that Nick & Toni’s, as hot as it was, could benefit from a little PR. He launched WordHampton in his basement after urging Nick & Toni’s, and their latest venture, the Honest Diner, to send out press releases. This was in the mid-’90s when the best placement was on Page 6 of the New York Post. Post readers wanted to know who was dining out in the Hamptons over the past weekend.
Like any business, the restaurant business is small. “You’ll find all the better restaurants and the better chefs have at one time worked with each other or worked for each other,” says Nick & Toni’s owner Mark Smith. “I’d like to think our restaurant group was like Jimmy Hoffa, buried somewhere in WordHampton’s foundation.” Before long, WordHampton took off, as many former co-workers, from David Loewenberg of Red Bar and Bell & Anchor to Jason Weiner, chef at Almond, became WordHampton clients.
In the 2000s he knitted together the first Hamptons Restaurant Week and then Long Island Restaurant Week. “There’s a lot of restaurant-week fatigue now,” he says, “but the bottom line is that with the economy the way it is, everybody loves a deal.” The promotions also work for the business owners. Hamptons Restaurant Week usually takes place in the grimmest stretch of the off-season.
Today WordHampton does more business in Nassau County than on the East End. Most recently with Tom Schaudel’s new restaurant, Jewel, in Melville, and Monsoon in Babylon, the Bohlsen Restaurant Group’s sixth Long Island venture. And his client base is expanding to include spirit brands (Diplomatico Rum), high-end retailers and real estate firms, nonprofits (Great Chefs Dinner) and at least two hashtags (#LITweetup, #SMCampLI).
But PR isn’t just about the clients. There’s got to be someone interested in your message.
Most journalists say Haweeli is “more than a contact. He’s a good friend.” These include writers at the Southampton Press, Dan’s Papers, East Hampton Star andNew York Times.
Says Dawn Watson of the Press: “He’s done more than anyone I know to bring attention to the East End restaurant scene.” In June, Haweeli was honored by the Long Island Chapter of the New York State Restaurant Association at its charity ball, which raised $250,000 for cancer research, and lauded by chapter president Jay Grossman, co-owner of Four Foods Restaurant Group: “He’s the mouthpiece of the Long Island Restaurant Industry, has the gift of gab, charisma and charm and enjoys people and food.”
Laura Donnelly, restaurant reviewer for the East Hampton Star, praises the impact his restaurant weeks have on East End by making the great restaurants affordable to everyone. “He’s full of energy. He’s hilarious. But you’re not going to get one iota of help from him, unless it’s one of his clients.”
“Steve has a clear understanding of market trends,” says Lowenberg. “People are really concerned about where their food comes from, are really concerned about where and how it’s being prepared, and are interested in the people who are dedicating their lives and souls into farming, or fishing, or hunting, or preserving. I think he just recognizes trends that, thankfully, are very healthy.”
Haweeli’s latest hunch—that these same trends in dining, and the template and technique that he has developed for translating a restaurant’s personality and offerings into Tweets and e-blasts—will work outside the East End. “We did three or four places in Queens and Brooklyn when nobody else would touch them, including the media,” says Haweeli. WordHampton’s potential reach seems all the more logical, because of the seasonal migration of restaurant customers between New York City and Long Island.
Though a few are skeptical about Facebook’s actual ability to put fannies in seats, Haweeli weaves a persuasive story of information on the move. “Social media brings with it the notion that everybody’s a reviewer and everybody’s a critic,” he says. “We no longer trust political figures, religious figures or movie stars as our heroes. We trust each other. So word of mouth is a very powerful force.”
He rattles off dizzying Twitter statistics, lists proliferating online meal deals. One can imagine Haweeli showing the same passion when the talk was of faxing news clips instead of contemporary innovations like OpenTable and Living Social. “The statistics say that more people will access the Internet from a handheld—whether a tablet or a smartphone—than from their desktop within the next year or two. What that means is there is a need for a deeper awareness of the importance of an online presence. We think there are hundreds, if not thousands, of restaurants who can use us.”
Haweeli appears to have found a personal counterbalance as a painter to the information maelstrom. And ultimately, his craft is as much about storytelling and the positioning of content, as it is about food and drink. Not surprisingly, he loves to eat and cook. His rounds often take him from East Hampton to Long Island City and back again. Current crushes include the chittara carbonara at Chio on Columbia Street in Brooklyn, as well as carbonara at Pescatore on Second Avenue and 51st; the pappardelle mole at the Italian-Mexican mash-up Miranda in Williamsburg; the classic steak frites at Raoul’s; the lamb burgers at Bistro 61 on First Avenue and at Burger Bistro also on First Avenue; the “rabbit appy” and black sea bass at Daniel; Vero (reopened since a fire) in Amityville; the old school lobster and corn pasta at the Bell & Anchor in Sag Harbor, the Montauk swordfish at Doug Gulija’s Plaza Café in Southampton; as well as “two outstanding newbies”—Roots Bistro Gourmand in Islip and the small-plates-focused Lula in Mineola.
Behind his own stove, he uses techniques picked up along the way. “I’ve really learned a lot by watching chefs,” he says, “because if you’re hanging around kitchens you should be watching what chefs do.” He is cooking simply these days for his college-bound son who recently worked as bar-back at Nick & Toni’s. “Life has a lot of layers,” he says. As does painting and figuring out a way to turn a snail-mail newsletter into the dominant player in social media for Long Island’s restaurant set. Watch out New York.
Geraldine Pluenneke writes from Montauk and blogs at thepowerofflavor.com.