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June 2011
Turning the Tables
By Zenda Douglas

     Not everyone can successfully weave three loves into the fabric of their lives, but Bruce and Jill Hensley have done just that with their passion for public relations, fine restaurant dining, and each other. Owners of Hensley Fontana, LLC, a full service public relations and marketing agency, the Hensleys are the creators and marketing gurus of the semiannual Queen’s Feast, otherwise known as Charlotte Restaurant Week.

     This 10-day celebration of Charlotte restaurants spans two weekends, next taking place this summer from Friday, July 15, through Sunday, July 24. Each participating upscale restaurant will offer a spectacular three-course, prix fixe dinner menu for only $30 per person (not including tax and gratuity). It’s a royal opportunity to experience Charlotte’s ever-expanding array of dining options and remarkable chefs, from popular favorites to new hot-spots.

     The Hensleys have developed the Charlotte Restaurant Week concept into a huge marketing tool for the participating mid- to high-end restaurants. “For restaurants, it’s a month-long marketing blitz,” says Bruce. “For diners, it provides an opportunity to explore fine culinary options in the Queen City at a bargain price.”

 

Bill of Fare

     “We encourage the participating restaurants to provide as much choice as possible, preferably giving the diner at least three options for each course,” says Jill. “Some are wise and put their whole menu out there.

     “What we don’t want are special dishes for Charlotte Restaurant Week. Show us what you normally do,” she tells restaurants. “It’s all about trial business.”

     The restaurant week concept is designed to capitalize on slow times in the restaurant industry—in this market, January and July. Charlotte Restaurant Week (CRW) is strategically scheduled during these two months.

     “There aren’t huge profit margins for the restaurants, but it helps to fill seats during this time, keep the staff working and maintain cash flow,” says Bruce. “Most importantly, it raises awareness for the restaurant and its offerings. Customers who ‘try out’ a dining experience during restaurant week will often return, with a good number becoming loyal patrons,” affirms Bruce.

     CRW has caught on well since its first run in July of 2008. “In the public’s eye, it’s an event; something anticipated twice each year,” says Jill. In fact, it has become somewhat of a tourist attraction, a fact not lost on these two seasoned public relations professionals. “We encourage folks to take a ‘culinary vacation’ in Charlotte,” she states.

 

The Course of Progress

     The concept of restaurant week has been around for quite a while. New York City held the first one in September of 1992, during the Democratic National Convention, as a way to attract media to upscale restaurants. It is not a national franchise, and no one owns the concept. Rather, individual cities have developed their own versions of it as a promotional program.

     It came to the Hensleys’ attention when clients who had participated in other restaurant weeks told the Hensleys about their experiences and asked if they could establish a similar event for Charlotte. Bruce and Jill did their due diligence, researching the concept in major and secondary markets.

     “Through friends and colleagues in the industry, together with our own research, we learned how restaurant weeks in other cities functioned,” says Jill. The agency chose something similar to Denver’s blueprint, developing the Charlotte theme and campaign. Hensley Fontana owns the federal trademarks on the names and logos for Queen’s Feast and Charlotte Restaurant Week.

     With financial support from the Charlotte Regional Visitors Association and American Express, and striking a deal for half-priced ads from The Charlotte Observer, the Hensleys organized the premiere restaurant week in July 2008, inviting over 150 restaurants with a minimum goal of 40 participants. Bruce recalls that shortly before the registration deadline, they had only 20 restaurants on board—not enough.

     “I was away on a client-sponsored fishing trip,” remembers Bruce. “Instead of fishing, I was sitting on the bed in the Day’s Inn making phone calls to restaurants. Fortunately, by the end of the day, I had doubled the count. All told, at our premiere event, with 42 restaurants participating, we served over 35,000 dinners in a seven-day period for an economic impact of $1.9 million.”

     Then, the economy tanked. “American Express dollars went away, as did The Charlotte Observer’s discount,” says Bruce. But by then, the interest among restaurants for another restaurant week in the winter was firm.

     With decreased outside funding, the agency raised the price for restaurant participation from $300 to $1,000 plus two $60 gift certificates used for contests, radio giveaways and the like. The next CRW in January 2009 featured 56 restaurants. For the July 2009 event, the Hensleys decided to extend CRW to 10 days—covering two weekends—as a result of feedback from restaurants.

     Over the last couple of years, restaurant participation and public response has continued to grow. In July 2010, 88 restaurants participated and over 80,000 dinners were sold for a $3.76 million impact. January 2011’s CRW closely matched that level for a $3.995 million impact.

     Hensley Fontana has partnered CRW with AAA Carolinas, which has 1.8 million members in North and South Carolina, with 859,000 in the Charlotte metro-area alone. Restaurants participating in the January AAA “Show Your Card & Save” promotion sold over 1,000 $50 gift cards.

     Each restaurant week represents a three-month project for Hensley Fontana, starting at the top of November and May, respectively. After solidifying partners, inviting and registering the participating restaurants, and obtaining their CRW menus for the website, the Hensleys begin the work of marketing the program and experience.

     “Our 30-day marketing blitz for each CRW includes numerous print, broadcast, outdoor, direct delivery, email, Internet, social, onsite, and publicity mediums with a value of over $100,000,” says Jill.

     CRW’s website remains up year-round. “Diners use it as a resource for restaurants, and the restaurants themselves receive added exposure. We will have a half-million unique visitors to our website this year; 200,000 of those will be during each month-long CRW marketing window,” says Jill. “The CRW name is out there, and we now have restaurants coming to us wanting to participate.”

 

The Apple and the Tree

     They say apples don’t fall far from the tree. Well, Bruce’s heritage is a prime example. When Bruce was young, his father was the sports information director at NC State University. Later he became the director of travel and tourism for the state of North Carolina, before opening his own public relations agency in Charlotte.

     With public relations in his blood, Bruce, upon discovery that his chosen college of Appalachian State had no public relations major, designed one through the interdisciplinary studies department. Many of the components of that major are still in use on that campus.

     After completing college in 1979, Bruce joined his father’s agency which was sold four years later to Cohn & Wolfe. In another nine months, the firm was acquired by Burson Marsteller.

     “So now we were the Charlotte office of Burson Marsteller, the largest public relations firm in the world,” says Bruce. “It was great experience—I got to work on Chick-fil-A, Coca-Cola, Georgia-Pacific, Marriott, Ritz-Carlton—good stuff.”

     Nevertheless, entrepreneurism won out, and he tired of working for others. “I started my own shop in 1985, and my Dad came to work with me,” says Bruce. “It’s been 26 years since I’ve had to show up at 8 o’clock in a tie.”

     In the late ’80s, Jill was studying communications at King’s College and accepted an internship with Bruce’s agency. “I got my feet wet in public relations; wrote news releases and did that thing that was foisted on all interns called the follow-up call,” she remembers.

     Following graduation, Jill held a variety of positions, including work in the insurance industry, but nothing quite compared to public relations. She returned to work with Bruce in 1992 and also pursued freelance travel and restaurant writing. “We were co-workers and best friends for years before coming together as a couple in 2000,” says Jill.

     “Part of the attraction was that we made a great public relations team. We complement each other; each does what the other doesn’t want to do,” says Bruce. Both writers, Jill is also the main editor for the agency, a role that she relishes. “I would edit the Bible if someone asked me,” she says with a mischievous smile.

     Hensley Fontana seeks to have fun with its work as is evidenced by commissions as diverse as custom cartooning for NationsBank (now Bank of America) and spending a week with Merv Griffin aboard his private plane, traveling to conduct press conferences. “He was a sweetheart of a guy, with a great sense of humor,” chuckles Bruce.

 

Home Cookin’

     Looking around, Jill smiles and says “We’re sitting in the world headquarters right now,” confirming her satisfaction with working out of their home since 2002. “Some people say they can’t get motivated without having to dress up and get out into the world. I’m more motivated here without having to navigate morning traffic. We talk business at any point. We’re passionate about it,” she shares.

     Hensley Fontana formerly maintained a large office in South Park. “Having built our company’s name, we just didn’t need it anymore,” says Bruce.

     While the couple admits to plenty of lively discussions, working together from home works. “We like each other; we get along well,” they agree. “I’m the gas; she’s the brakes,” says Bruce.

     “He’s the big idea risk-taker; I’m all about researching it—to death,” jokes Jill. Bruce says she’s correct 99 percent of the time. “No, no,” says Jill. “Sometimes he’s got the right idea.”

     Hensley Fontana remains a boutique agency. It focuses today on restaurants and the travel and tourism industry. Having conducted public relations and marketing for restaurants such as BLT Steak Charlotte, Longhorn Steakhouse, and The Palm Charlotte, it is appealing to national chains that come to Charlotte and need grand openings and nine to 12-month publicity blitzes.

     The agency continues to work with Autobell Car Wash, Inc., a client since 1999 which, since 2008, has opened 15 new car wash facilities and hired 450 new employees for a current total of 63 locations. “That’s as strong as a garlic milkshake,” says Bruce, proudly.

     The two highly skilled executives offer hands-on account management and a cadre of talented freelance artists, graphic designers, media buyers, specialized copywriters, art directors, photographers and videographers. Services include ghost and by-line writing, media relations, newsletters, calendars, artwork, civic relations, marketing, branding and research.

     The website for the Summer 2011 Queen’s Feast, www.CharlotteRestaurantWeek.com, will be updated on Friday, June 24, with the participating restaurants’ information and menus. Additional links to hospitality and tourism resources will help both city dwellers and out-of-towners maximize their restaurant week experience.

     “We love fine cuisine,” chime the Hensleys. “It’s great fun to discover and market new restaurants and very rewarding to support Charlotte in revenue growth. We want to help the Queen City earn a name for fine feasting.”

Zenda Douglas is a Greater Charlotte Biz freelance writer.
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