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RELATIONSHIPS KEY INGREDIENT AT 5-STAR MAISONETTE, ADS ARE MORE LIKE FROSTING ON THE CAKE

By Published on .

It's trivia time: In what U.S. city will you encounter the only restaurant awarded five stars by the "Mobil Guide" every year since Lyndon Johnson roamed the White House?

If you named New York, San Francisco, New Orleans, Chicago or Los Angeles, guess again. And no, you won't find it in one of those chichi resort locales such as Palm Springs, Palm Beach or Scottsdale.

Try Cincinnati, that bastion of Middle American decorum planted solidly on the north bank of the Ohio River. On East 6th Street in the Queen City's compact and orderly downtown sitsan undistinguished two-story building with a small canopy bearing a single word in script-"Maisonette."

Maisonette, as much a Cincinnati fixture as baseball's Reds or mighty Procter & Gamble, has reeled in the maximum five-star rating from the "Mobil Guide" for 30 years-longer than any other restaurant since the guide started publishing in 1958.

How does Maisonette stay atop this culinary hill? Wonderful food, of course. But marketing, too. Not double-barrel, high-price media blitzes, but modest and essentially local forays into print, outdoor, telemarketing and public relations, along with more intensive one-on-one "relationship marketing," primarily on the part of the owners and staff.

What advertising Maisonette does is handled by Powers & Associates, which also does the restaurant's PR. One- and two-column b&w ads that run about six times a year in The Cincinnati Enquirer, community newspapers and other local publications use the tagline "For special occasions, there's no place more special."

And a single outdoor board trumpeting Maisonette's Mobil rating is rotated among six heavy-traffic locations in the area. The five stars dominate, with the copy line "Only one restaurant in America has won 30 times" and the Maisonette logo. The board has been unchanged for years, except to alter the number.

Maisonette was opened in 1949 by members of the Comisar family, which has operated dining establishments in Cincinnati for more than 60 years. Now in its third generation of their ownership, the restaurant, specializing in French cuisine, is run by Marc Comisar, 40, and his cousin, Nat, 35.

At least one of the cousins is always on the premises, and at lunchtime on a recent weekday, both were present. Eating with them in one of the tastefully understated, salmon-hued dining rooms, I got a textbook example of both hands-on management and relationship marketing.

During the meal, the Comisars were distracted, their eyes constantly roaming over the scene. First, Marc spotted a table without a sugar bowl and unobtrusively pointed it out to a busboy. Then Nat saw a familiar face across the room and bounded off to greet him, stopping at two other tables en route.

When Nat came back, Marc left to deal with an unspecified problem, then returned-stopping on the way to greet a table of diners-and complained to the maitre d' that a high school French class heading to another room for lunch had marched through the middle of the dining room. His instruction: Next time, steer them around the periphery.

I had gotten my first taste of Maisonette's highly personal style minutes earlier, just after arriving. An elderly, well-dressed man told the maitre d' he had come for his annual birthday lunch and that others would be joining him.

"Yes, Mr. -------, welcome back; a year ago, you sat right over there," the maitre d' replied, pointing to a table. The gesture wasn't lost on the guest, whom I later overheard telling his companions about "that man's wonderful memory."

When I mentioned the vignette to Marc Comisar, his smile betrayed no surprise.

"We keep track of birthdays and anniversaries," he said. "Our captains and waiters send out cards a month ahead [of a celebratory date]. They keep notes on what people have ordered in the past and mention similar items that now are on the menu. And they also ask if they can help with a reservation this year."

While this Dean Witter-style "one person at a time" marketing approach clearly is effective, Powers & Associates would like to see Maisonette do more advertising.

"We urge [the Comisars] to keep in mind that even the most wonderful publicity only lasts for a while," said James Jacobs, VP-creative at Powers and formerly head of his own agency, which also had Maisonette as a client. "We shouldn't shut the door on awareness."

But the Comisars are a hard sell, and only occasionally have ads for Maisonette run in The Wall Street Journal or other publications read by business travelers.

"I'm not a real believer in print advertising for this restaurant," Marc Comisar said. "Our clients aren't leisurely readers."

He added that Maisonette relies heavily on word-of-mouth and its reputation as "the place to go when you're in Cincinnati" and that research by American Express Co., based on credit card charges, indicates that 56% of the restaurant's business is from outside the area.

In an effort to book more group business parties for lunch, dinner or meetings, the Comisars hired a telemarketer in 1993, with the goal of using meeting rooms and other underutilized spaces at Maisonette and the three other Cincinnati restaurants the family owns.

Powers' most extensive work for Maisonette is in PR. The "wonderful publicity" Mr. Jacobs referred to isn't only the continued Mobil ratings but also the arrival in January of a new chef. Always big news at a world-class restaurant, this was particularly so with Maisonette, where Belgian-born Georges Haidon had reigned since 1974. His 22 five-star Mobil awards tie him with Chef Andre Soltner of New York's famed Lutece.

When Chef Haidon last fall announced plans to retire, the Comisars began their hunt for a successor with all the planning and deliberation of a university seeking a new president.

The criteria, said Marc Comisar, included "European experience, graduation from the Culinary Institute of America and current experience in New York." He added that though California cuisine in the past decade seemed to overshadow that of the Big Apple, "now New York is more vibrant, more cutting edge, with the continued infusion of European chefs."

After networking with restaurant owners in the U.S. and Europe, receiving more than 100 applications, interviewing several applicants by phone and studying their menus, the Comisars flew three candidates to Cincinnati for food testings for the family. The winner: Frenchman Jean-Robert de Cavel, 32, who had worked at several restaurants in France and had been executive chef at La Regence and La Gauloise in New York before moving to Cincinnati.

The Powers PR machine garnered wide local coverage for the appointment and subsequently for Chef de Cavel's first menu, which is lighter than that of his predecessor, using, as Marc Comisar said, "more reduction sauces, purees and compotes. Our contemporaries don't want to eat a lot of cream or butter anymore."

Indeed, current trends have been a big part of Powers'-and Maisonette's-marketing thrust for several years. To boost its flagging lunch business and address changing tastes, Maisonette introduced a bistro lunch in 1988, with inexpensive entrees and fast service.

Marc Comisar said the restaurant made the change to address an image that its lunches were too long, too costly, too staid. The bistro menu, and the promise that diners could be in and out in an hour, helped change that.

Chef de Cavel's dinner menu has 13 entrees, ranging from roast rack of lamb nicoise served boneless for two ($32.50 per person) and sauteed red snapper with red wine sauce, spinach and sesame seeds ($28.50) to breast of chicken with olive oil, citrus and tarragon, flan of vegetables and portobello mushrooms ($19.75).

Every restaurateur who scores well in a guidebook gets asked how important ratings are, and I posed the question to Marc Comisar: "[Mobil is] the most consistent, most valid ranking system, along with Zagat's [guide]. And the five stars are very important on the local level. It's a lot like winning a pennant race-there's a great community spirit. We get cards, flowers, congratulatory notes."

Mobil, which gave five stars to 12 restaurants in its 1994 edition, makes three visits, the Comisars said. Two are anonymous, strictly to dine, while the third, also unannounced, is to inspect the kitchen.

Shortly after his retirement, I called Chef Haidon at home in Cincinnati and asked if he felt pressure about the annual kitchen visits. "Definitely. The award is not just given out-we earn it. The person asks questions ... makes a general inspection of the facilities ... looks in the lockers, everywhere. But then, in the kitchen there is always pressure, pressure every day."

That five-star pressure now falls on his successor, Chef Cavel, and of this you can be sure: Cincinnati is rooting for him.

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