Making Marketing Fun

November 3, 2009

 il Gatto logo reduced

Editor’s note: This is John Reinan’s weekly marketing column for To view the original, go to

You get the idea that Phil Roberts loves nothing more than devising new ways to mess with people.

The delight that spreads across his face as he describes his latest assault on Midwestern propriety brings to mind a third-grader who’s just launched a surprise spitball attack from the back row.

For the creator of Chino Latino, Manny’s, Oceanaire and a half-dozen more of the Twin Cities’ most popular restaurants, success is served with a side order of fun. Roberts may sell hundreds of thousands of meals a year, but he never forgets that he’s in the entertainment business.

“Dining is about more than the food,” said Roberts, founding partner of Parasole Restaurant Holdings. “Have fun. Know who you are and what you stand for.”

What Roberts stands for is innovation and agitation. With a 30-year record of consistent scores in the unpredictable restaurant business, Roberts is recognized for his creative thinking. He’s just as well known for the way he markets his creations.

“We can’t outspend Olive Garden,” Roberts said. “We have to have a message that penetrates. We get the word out by creating penetrating, often politically incorrect messages.”

That’s led to notorious billboard campaigns, like this one for Chino Latino: “Ah, Phuket, Let’s Get Take-Out.” Another Chino billboard, “Wok the Dog,” generated protests and picketers from what Roberts calls “the Birkenstock crowd.” He notes gleefully that several TV stations showed up to cover the protests, garnering him “about $150,000 worth” of free airtime.

“Complaints are like shooting a battleship with a BB gun,” he said. “It doesn’t bother me a bit.” Parasole’s irreverent billboards and other marketing material are the work of the Minneapolis shop Intercom Agency.

Recently, Parasole has been shaking up some of its long-established properties. A few weeks ago, Roberts closed Figlio– an Uptown institution for more than 25 years at the corner of Hennepin and Lake. Opening in the same space on Nov. 21 will be il Gatto: Uptown Italian.

Roberts says the new restaurant will be more emphatically Italian than Figlio, but with a harder edge.

“We’re taking a break from the pastoral clichés: the Tuscany, the Umbria,” he said. “This will be more industrial, more Milan. It will have the character of a locomotive, not a farmhouse.”

Last year, Manny’s Steakhouse moved out of the downtown Hyatt Regency and into the Foshay Tower. After 20 years in the Hyatt, Roberts said, Manny’s ran the risk of “becoming your father’s restaurant.” At its new location, he said, “we’ve captured a whole younger crowd, yet we managed to keep the elements that pleased the 60-year-old group.”

The formula is working. Sales at the new location are up about 35 percent, Roberts said, and last week Manny’s was named Restaurant of the Year by the Minnesota Restaurant Association.

Parasole is actively using social media. Roberts himself tweeted the announcement of il Gatto’s name, and within seven minutes had gotten a call from a local reporter. The company encourages its managers, many of whom are twenty- and thirtysomethings, to put out messages on Twitter, Facebook and other social media.

“Social media isn’t about putting free coupons out there,” said Kip Clayton, Parasole’s vice president of business development. “It’s reaching out with things that younger people might find interesting.”

At the W hotel in downtown Minneapolis, Parasole was looking for a way to boost bar business on slow Monday nights. They came up with a “Martinis and Manicures” promotion aimed at women who worked downtown, and spread word through social media.

It caught on– and when men realized that women were congregating at the W on Mondays, they started showing up, too.

“Times like this cause people to reinvent themselves,” Roberts said. True– but here’s betting that Roberts never takes his own advice. When you’re having as much fun as he is, why change?