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Lunch at the Tribeca Grill with: Tracy Nieporent

Published by The New York Sun on 2005-06-17

Tracy Nieporent acknowledges that New York's "Restaurant Week," over which he presides, is a misnomer.

"It's actually two weeks in June, and two weeks in January," Mr. Nieporent said. "But 'Restaurant Week' has ring to it, and I want to extend it as much as I can."

That extension involves not only persuading more restaurants to join "Restaurant Week," offering patrons three-course lunches at $20.12, and dinners at $35. Recognizing that virtually all the establishments participating in this year's event - which runs from Monday to June 24, and June 27 to July 1 - are located in Manhattan, Mr. Nieporent also wants to attract restaurants in the outer boroughs.

The five boroughs together have 17,312 restaurants - out of New York State's 55,893 - according to the New York State Restaurant Association. Their annual sales are $23.3 billion. But only 201 city restaurants are participating in next week's "Restaurant Week." When the event was launched in 1992 during the Democratic National Convention, 100 restaurants signed up.

Signing up requires restaurants to pay $2,500 to NYC & Company, the city's main tourism promotion agency. That may be too hefty for small restaurants, whether in Manhattan or in the other boroughs. It may be a bit much for the more prosperous establishments, some of whose proprietors grouse that although "Restaurant Week" fills tables, the event scarcely generates profits.
Such complaints do not faze Mr. Nieporent, who's an indefatigably exuberant man.

"There's so much great food to be had out there," Mr. Nieporent said. "This city is a diner's paradise - the quality of food, the ethnic variety, the ambiance of our restaurants. For most people, going to a good restaurant is like taking a two-hour vacation. Good food induces a sense of well-being. When people reminisce about their most memorable moments, it's often a great meal at a great restaurant."

"But restaurateurs also need to be on their guard: regardless of how well a restaurant may have been written up in the press, it's the individual experience that truly matters," he said. "That makes every meal a test for a restaurant. You've got to win people over with every bite. And for 'Restaurant Week,' it mean stronger branding, more outreach."

If Mr. Nieporent sounds like an executive from Madison Avenue, that could be because he started his professional life in advertising after graduating with an English major from the State University of New York at Brockport ("Harvard on the Barge Canal" is how he calls the school).

Working at N. W. Ayer - then one of the oldest ad agencies in America - he gained valuable experience. One of his memorable campaigns was for the Army: "Be All You Can Be." To this day, Mr. Nieporent remains a booster of the military.

"Being in advertising taught me how to promote ideas," he said. "I learned the importance of defining a product, and of reinforcing positives that people feel about a brand."

The relentless intensity of New York's advertising world, however, dismayed him. When an opportunity arose to join his brother Drew, a celebrated restaurateur, Mr. Nieporent seized it. "From a large office at the advertising agency, I went to a basement office not much bigger than a Mercury space capsule," Mr. Nieporent, a man of formidable girth, said.

It was at the invitation of restaurant-industry doyens such as Tim Zagat and Danny Meyer that Mr. Nieporent joined the restaurant committee of what was then known as the New York Convention and Visitors Bureau (later to be reborn as NYC & Company). He set about creating a collegial style of management.

"From the outset, I felt that not only did I need to help the restaurant industry, I would also need to support consumers," Mr. Nieporent said. "The idea was to make top-quality restaurants more accessible to everyday New Yorkers, and to visitors."

He pushed the six-member restaurant committee to stretch "Restaurant Week" to two weeks, and then he pushed the committee to replicate the summer event during the winter. He commissioned surveys which showed that "Restaurant Week" was gaining in popularity. He introduced the "Z Card," a wallet-sized fold-out marking participating restaurants on a city map. He successfully wooed corporate sponsors.

"And I've focused on appealing to young people," Mr. Nieporent said. "I see my job as restaurant-committee chairman as a bully pulpit. You've constantly got to prime the pump."

His advertising background has helped in enabling Mr. Nieporent to refine the event's public messages. 'We're much more coherent and targeted now," he said. "While we've gained a core of acceptance for 'Restaurant Week,' we need to address the question of how to keep people engaged."

One answer he helped formulate was the publication of a cookbook, which proved to be highly successful. A cocktail book is being prepared. Mr. Nieporent has also introduced a series of business seminars for people in the restaurant industry. Among the most popular offerings: "How to Deal with Restaurant Critics." He's also planning a radio show, perhaps broadcast from the Hotel Algonquin's famous round table, where Dorothy Parker gathered New York's literati in an earlier era.

"Perhaps we can help restaurateurs with marketing savvy," Mr. Nieporent said. "A key test for a restaurant is the number of repeat visitors. In 'Restaurant Week' we also need to guard against being elitist. Everyone needs to be welcomed as warmly as though they were paying the full fare."

"This is a tough, unforgiving town," he said. "This is New York - not a place for the timid and the weak. It takes endurance and fortitude to survive in the restaurant business. I know that 'Restaurant Week' can be a very positive force for our industry."

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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