When Jeju Noodle Bar opened in the West Village in 2017, chef and owner Douglas Kim knew there was no way he could afford to spend the $40,000 to $50,000 it would take to hire a publicity company. But after being in the red for months — some early press, based partly on his experience at restaurants like Per Se, never quite paid off — Kim decided he had no choice. Unfortunately, every public relations firm Kim and his manager Kyungil Lee approached turned them away. They said that there was nothing they could do to help; the restaurant was no longer “new,” and getting media attention would be nearly impossible.
Kim and Lee decided if PR didn’t want their money, they didn’t want PR’s help. They took the cash and put it toward improving the food. Within a couple months, the New York Times gave Jeju a glowing two-star review. Now, just two years later, it is the only noodle-centric restaurant in America with a Michelin star — obtained without ever hiring PR.
Conventional wisdom suggests that restaurants need paid publicity to get attention, but that’s not always the case. Increasingly, some are going without it. “Restaurants already battle against the high costs of labor, food, and more, which makes succeeding in the industry that much harder,” says Lee. “With the heavy addition of PR agency cost, it’ll slowly start eating from its profits. If results aren’t significantly better, the restaurant is really gambling on that heavy cost.”
Hiring a publicity company is expensive: According to multiple industry sources on both sides of the transaction, restaurants pay anywhere from $5,000 to $10,00 per month to retain a PR agency, and many require that restaurants agree to a minimum number of months, usually six, before signing the deal.
For restaurateurs who have never interacted with the press, that price is the cost of instant access to rolodexes and the relationships the publicists have spent years building with writers — people who, in theory, can publish stories that will convince people that a restaurant is worth trying. Some restaurateurs even believe that retaining a publicist is required if they’re seeking the major awards, like Michelin stars or James Beard nods. Not only do many in the fine dining world consider these awards the ultimate signal of professional success, restaurants can see a huge bump in business after earning one.