Network television puts local restaurants in national spotlight

Exposure good for chefs and their neighborhoods
Posted at 6:00 AM, Nov 28, 2017
and last updated 2017-11-29 05:46:35-05

CINCINNATI -- Though it has been three years since Bakersfield OTR first appeared in an episode of "Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives," the Over-the-Rhine eatery attracts new business with every rerun.  

"We do get people coming in every time that show airs and (they) say, 'We saw your restaurant on 'Triple D,' " said Joe Lanni, co-founder of the Thunderdome Group, which owns Bakersfield and local restaurants The Eagle, Krueger's Tavern, Currito and Maplewood Kitchen & Bar. 

Celebrity chef Guy Fieri's popular Food Network television show featured Bakersfield's 1213 Vine St. location, and fellow Over-the-Rhine restaurants Senate and Taste of Belgium, on the episode "One Street Wonders," which originally aired Oct. 10, 2014.

Cable shows have featured at least 26 Greater Cincinnati restaurants since 2010, according to news reports and the website TV Food Maps. Three local restaurants not on the food map are the most recent to appear on television: The Littlefield, Nation Kitchen & Bar and French Crust Cafe & Bistro.

Although appearing on a national show can involve long days of taping and lost revenue from store closings, most local restaurant owners say any inconvenience is worth the exposure.

"For the couple of days of business we lost for shooting, it was money well spent," Lanni said. "What it did do was give us a lot of presence on a national stage."

Taste of Belgium owner Jean-Francois Flechet said he used the publicity to launch the restaurant's e-commerce website the evening that "One Street Wonders" aired.

"I don't make a lot of money off of the website, but I do see traffic increase whenever the show re-airs," Flechet said.

How shows are selected

Channels that have featured local restaurants include Food Network sister channels HGTV, the Cooking Channel and the Travel Channel. Each is owned by Scripps Networks Interactive, which started in Cincinnati and is currently based in Knoxville, Tennessee. The company spun off from E.W. Scripps, the parent company of WCPO, in 2008. 

Danielle McLaughlin, a director of communications for Food Network, said selection of restaurants varies by show. Producers research and contact restaurants based on a program's premise.

McLaughlin said, for example, that "Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives" focuses on smaller but well-known regional eateries that serve comfort food. When Fieri first visited Cincinnati in 2010, he and film crews visited Terry's Turf Club for its burgers and Blue Ash Chili for its 6-way. The restaurants appeared in separate episodes that focused on similar dishes from eateries across the country.

When "Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives" returned in 2014, Fieri wanted to focus on the renaissance of Vine Street, making the restaurant location important as well, Lanni said. 

"(Fieri) was so taken with OTR and how all these restaurants and bars opened in the area," Lanni said. "We are a small restaurant group, and I think one of the reasons they chose us is we are a pretty busy place."

In July 2016, Covington eatery Bard's Burgers & Chili's Facebook promotion of its New Bardzilla Challenge gained the attention of producers from Food Network's "Ginormous Foods." The show sends host Josh Denny around the country to sample giant-sized portions of food.

The New Bardzilla Challenge

The New Bardzilla Challenge is simple: Customers who can eat a 4.6-pound burger and four pounds of fries within an hour earn free Bard's hamburgers for life. 

"I always thought maybe one day we would get on a show," said Jordan Stephenson, who opened Bard's at 3620 Decoursey Ave. in 2015. "I didn't believe it until it was happening. It hadn't even been a year since we were open."

Stephenson went through an hour-long phone interview with show producers. The network called him back a few weeks later asking if crews could visit Bard's. The restaurant, along with Blue Ash Chili and Mecklenburg Gardens, appeared in the episode "Cincinnati's Hometown Heroes," which aired in January 2017.

Executive Chef Kayla Robison and Sous Chef Stephen Kovacic photographed at Nation Kitchen and Bar before the restaurant opened in June 2015.

Nation Kitchen & Bar Chef Kayla Robison said positive social and traditional media coverage also helped the Pendleton restaurant land on the Cooking Channel's "Cheap Eats" this past spring.

"'It was really cool with only being two years in business that a national TV show found us," Robison said. "I sat and had an hour-long interview with them. We talked about what got me into cooking, the history of Nation, menu items. It was a humbling experience."

For "Cheap Eats," price is a major factor that determines which restaurants producers select. The show centers on host Ali Khan visiting a city for 12 hours with only $35 to buy breakfast, lunch, dinner and a snack. 

Khan ate Nation's $10 whiskey barbecue bacon burger in the episode "Flavors of Cincinnati," which aired in August. French Crust Cafe & Bistro in Over-the-Rhine, the Littlefield in Northside and Camp Washington Chili also appeared in the episode.

How an episode is made  

Many local restaurateurs and chefs agreed that the exposure from being on television far outweighed the disruption of having camera crews inside their businesses.  

"I can't say it was free public relations, because they filmed here on Mother's Day, the busiest day of the year, but it was good for business," said Littlefield chef Shoshannah Hafner.

The Littlefield in Northside

Khan and "Cheap Eats" production crews spent about six hours filming in the Littlefield's kitchen and dining areas while staff served brunch, Hafner said. 

"The most difficult thing for me was that I'm not used to being on camera," Hefner joked.

The Littlefield's appearance on "Cheap Eats" paid off in many ways, Hefner said. First, the show did an excellent job of featuring the restaurant's $6 lemon ricotta cake, which Khan came to try, as well as other dishes Hefner creates for customers, she said. The episode also attracted new customers after it aired and made Hefner a bit of a celebrity. 

"Now since that has aired, we have had a number of people who have never been in here before come to try the cake and ask to meet me," Hefner said, adding that she also gained respect for Khan and his crew after watching them work.

Stephenson, the owner of Bard's Burgers & Chili, shared a similar experience: When "Ginormous Foods" came to Bard's and filmed an episode over a 13-hour period, show host Josh Denny entertained customers while filming, Stephenson said, and the customers enjoyed seeing how a television show is made.

"It was great," Stephenson said. "They were all very nice. It was just a unique experience. I didn't know what to expect."

His only issues with the restaurant's appearance on the show were editing choices, he said.

"They only focused on the eating challenge, and people thought we were in Cincinnati," he said. "They didn't blatantly say Latonia. Of course, the benefit was the increased business."

TV spotlight comes with surprise benefits

For some restaurateurs and chefs, the cable TV appearances led to other media opportunities. 

"I am participating in the 'Wandering Wolf,' " Hefner said. 

The "Wandering Wolf" is a travelogue created by Northside filmmaker and 2017 People's Liberty Globe grant recipient Scott Fredette. Hefner said Fredette contacted her after "Cheap Eats" filmed in the restaurant.

Lanni said many outlets have contacted him about featuring Bakersfield OTR on other shows.

"We are contacted about show pilots," Lanni said. "It is a lot of time and effort to be on one of those shows, but if the right one comes along again, we'd be interested."

Stephenson said a California production company wanted him to audition for another food show, but he turned it down because it would force him to spend too much time away from running Bard's, which is his priority.

Bard's was renamed "Dutch's" for the filming of the Robert Redford movie "The Old Man and the Gun."

The exterior of the current restaurant also might make a cameo in the upcoming Robert Redford movie "The Old Man and the Gun," he said.

"We definitely should be in a pretty big shot in the movie," Stephenson said. "That's one thing I would hope for, to get famous people on the wall."

Robison said since Nation appeared on "Cheap Eats," she is considering another television opportunity but is not able to discuss details at the moment.

"I should add the TV thing is great," she said. "But I like this. I like the community aspect of it, being in my kitchen."

There is a broader benefit whenever a local restaurant appears on national television, said Anthony Palazzolo, a commercial leasing officer for Cincinnati Center City Development Corporation (3CDC). Programs such as "Diners, Drive-ins and Dives" help show local people the transformations taking place in neighborhoods such as Over-the-Rhine -- neighborhoods they may not have had reason to visit otherwise, he said. 

"I think what it really does is that it gets the word about neighborhoods out there," Palazzolo said.

That attention then makes it easier to attract other businesses and residents, he added.

"Restaurant concepts from all over are now trying to get into the neighborhood as well," he said.