Special Report: Reichl puts 'Gourmet' back on track

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For Ruth Reichl, life couldn't be more different.

Once she donned outrageous wigs and outfits to remain incognito when she dined out 12 times a week to review restaurants for The New York Times.

Now, as editor in chief at Conde Nast Publications' Gourmet, she relaxes in a smart black suit, modestly complemented by her grandmother's antique locket of onyx and pink gold. Her tousled raven hair is free to frame her friendly face, which is graced by a comfortable smile. Sitting in her airy office overlooking the flickering spectaculars and raucous traffic of Time Square, Ms. Reichl admits she barely gets out, only to pick up chicken from a neighborhood food cart.

At the Times and in her autobiography "Tender at the Bone," Ms. Reichl won over foodies and literati alike with her ability to democratize and humanize the eating experience. Since she signed on at Gourmet in May, she has attempted to impart the same welcoming atmosphere to the pages of the somewhat stodgy, 60-year-old epicurean bible.

With her guidance, the magazine has become more conversational. The number of recipes has been reduced, and the editorial content of the magazine has broadened to include more reader-friendly features.

Additions include a "Good Living" section, "Gourmet Everyday" for time-pressed chefs, as well as a third regional restaurant review outside of New York/Los Angeles.

"To give over all the space to recipes is to take away from the other things that really count," she says.

Ms. Reichl also has cultivated the title's writing style. She made it more literary by having such famous authors as Calvin Trillin, Pat Conroy and Maya Angelou write about food and travel experiences.

Ms. Reichl has given the staff an opportunity to offer their perspectives. Zanne Stewart, executive food editor who has been at Gourmet for 29 years, says that compared with former editors, Ms. Reichl has given a "much larger voice" to both veterans and newcomers.

"She loves a good idea, but she doesn't care where it comes from," says Ms. Stewart.

Ms. Reichl's presence is a welcome change for advertisers as well.

"The fact that [Gourmet] is becoming more accessible to readers makes it more understandable to a wider array of advertisers," says Gene DeWitt, president of DeWitt Media, New York. DeWitt buys space for its clients BMW of North America and Land Rover North America's Range Rover.

"I love going on ad sales," Ms. Reichl says, and adds she gets honest responses about the publication at client meetings.

Associate Publisher Susan Ludlow says ad meetings get 100% turnout when clients know Ms. Reichl will attend. "We'd have her outside all day long if we could," Ms. Ludlow says.

The circulation numbers also indicate a warm reception to Ms. Reichl. In the second half of 1999, Gourmet's average paid circulation was 901,289, a 1.1% increase over the same period the previous year, according to Audit Bureau of Circulations.

This is the first time the title exceeded the 900,000 mark since the second half of 1994. Advertising pages are also up dramatically since Ms. Reichl's first issue in September.

According to Publishers Information Bureau, total ad pages for '99 were 1,261.60, a slight drop of 0.5%.

Ms. Ludlow says Gourmet, after Ms. Reichl's arrival, ran a total of 57 additional ad pages for the September-December period of 1999, 10% over the same period in 1998. Since September 1999 more than 100 new advertisers have committed to Gourmet, including Morgan Stanley Dean Witter, Calvin Klein, Saab USA, Volkswagen of America and Nissan Motor Corp. USA, Ms. Ludlow says.

Despite the brisk business, the magazine has not been without its growing pains. In the magazine's "Sugar and Spice" department, readers have cheered on the new book, but other long-time patrons have expressed disappointment.

Virginia reader Beverly Norris mourned a loss of seriousness about food to the new focus on people.

"I know there's no going back, but I feel as though I have lost an old friend," she wrote in the November issue.

"I feel terrible," Ms. Reichl says of such letters. "What makes me feel bad is not that I think we've done something wrong, but this is a beloved magazine, and there are a lot of people who feel that it's been taken away from them."

Ms. Reichl insists, however, that the magazine must grow as society's relationship with food changes.

"If you don't change, you die," she asserts. "Gourmet used to describe itself as timeless. I don't think you can be timeless when you're talking about food."

For the most part, Ms. Reichl says she is satisfied with the course of the new Gourmet and, if anything, only wishes for more space.

Her biggest success so far? "Honestly?" she asks. "I think the staff is happy."

Copyright March 2000, Crain Communications Inc.

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