Sometimes, the best-kept secret is the most famous name in town.
In a city known for taking activities to the streets (drinking, dancing, driving gargantuan papier-mâché trucks), “street food” seems like the logical next step. In fact, a thriving foodie scene exists just below the surface, requiring a second or third look. The irony is that the second or third look is exactly what is propelling these businesses. Marketing by anti-marketing, whether by legal or financial necessity, has helped several quasi-restaurants establish a presence in the city.
Shadows and secrecy aren’t normally thought of as brilliant marketing schemes, but in New Orleans, they might be. Being in the know can do more than raise your social status; it can help sate your hunger.
The R Bar is enjoying a quiet Thursday early evening when her bright pink bicycle cart whips around Kerlerec Street and screeches to a stop out front. She pops the top off her cart, revealing a chalkboard where she scribbles in her loopy script “Holly’s Tamales” and the day’s tamale specials. R Bar patrons glance over, but they’re used to her and her flamboyant cart by now.
Five bucks will buy one of the 50-100 tamales she makes daily in her home kitchen, complete with as much fiery sriracha sauce as the tortilla can soak. It’s a business passed down from her grandmother’s grandfather, taken up during the Great Depression. Finding herself in need of an immediate income two years ago, her mother suggested taking up the old family business and slinging tamales. What better place than the Faubourg Marigny bars to find customers?
Of course, there was always the nasty issue of legality. According to city ordinances, even with a vending license, a mobile food vendor (save for Lucky Dog and, in some places, Roman Candy) must remain 600 feet from “any lawfully operated restaurant, cafeteria, public or private school, or any concession operated by a booster club.” It’s one thing to be passing illegal items illegally, but to sell legal items illegally created a problematic paradox.
“[The police] can give me a court order to stop doing what I’m doing,” the Alexandria-born Holly says, though the thought doesn’t seem to cause much bother: “I will never get a fucking vending license in this city.”
The legal issues presented the need for secrecy though, something Holly used to her advantage. Instead of advertising her locale, she chose to become “a Sherlock Holmes” by leaving clues in the form of risqué postcards around the city.
“You can’t put an illegal business on a billboard,” she says. “But you can put postcards on people’s fridges.” And anyway, “when you drive a bright pink cart, that’s advertising enough.”
By creating postcards depicting herself in costume with her pink cart and posting them in homes around the French Quarter and the Marigny, Holly built buzz in the community through her guerilla-marketing scheme. Coupling this with a noticeable (and transportable) establishment and a unique and theatric persona proved to be the ingredients for success.
“The other part of marketing is persona,” Holly says, reminiscing on a run-in she had with the police during Jazz Fest. When asked for her name, she shot out “Holly Tamale” and fled, leaving herself virtually untraceable. Since then, she’s stuck with it. In addition, she created rules to ordering tamales on certain nights (“Sometimes I’d say, ‘Three pork tamales? No! If you order three, one’s gotta be different!’”), creating a sense of being in a club if you actually got tamales. “To be seen without being seen became a novelty,” she says.
Most nights, Holly says the tamales sell out with enough time for her to hit a dance floor or two. As long as she keeps a good relationship with the bars (asking helps) and the police (free tamales help), she isn’t too worried about her business. Her recently acquired wholesale license might expand her business, but for now she says she’s pleased with her business and secret marketing.
And it seems to be working. “You’re the famous Holly Tamale!” shouts a man, almost on cue, as he rushes to get two of the pork tamales. As Holly puts it, “I’m Holly Tamale forever and ever, and I’m okay with that.”
But staying under the radar for legal reasons is not the only issue leading to unconventional marketing. Pizza Delicious is a pizza “speakeasy” in the Bywater that’s anti-marketed merely because its owners never expected to be popular. Now they are.
The set-up: Call, order a pizza, receive a time to pick it up. Walk through a purple and green door on Rampart St. (marked by “delicious” lettered above the brick wall), walk down a small alley to an open pink and yellow door, barricaded by a table covered in pizzas. Identify yourself, receive your pizza.
The idea: Make good, New York-style pizza.
The marketing: none. Co-creator Mike Friedman, 24, says “the only effort we put in has been we post the menu online.”
Friedman and Greg Augarten, 23, hail from New York, and spent a few years as roommates at Tulane University. “We had been cooking a lot together as roommates,” Friedman says, mentioning the only experience they had prior to opening.
Missing pizza from their hometown, they read a few online cookbooks and started futzing around in the kitchen. Suddenly, they had a good product, and even more suddenly, they were in a co-op kitchen in the Bywater selling the pizza to their friends.
The kitchen, where the dough is made on Fridays and the pizza baked and sold on Sundays, offers three large wooden tables where a staff of six stretches dough, spreads sauce, sprinkles cheese—the works. Almost a little hazardous, it would seem, as Kate McNeely, 25, chops peppers so strong they begin to burn through her plastic gloves. But the mood is jovial—there are arguments over whether or not pop star Brandy hit-and-ran back in the day while Friedman oversees the kitchen work and Augarten studies four cast-iron ovens where the heavenly aroma of bubbling sauce and cheese lives.
When they opened Pizza Delicious on February 21, they weren’t planning on selling to many more people than their friends. A few fliers were made, but nothing major. Soon the fliers were abandoned. That day, they sold around 30 pizzas. On October 17, by 4 p.m., 23 pizzas had been sold. The store opens at 5 p.m., at which time there were so many orders, no new ones would be ready until 8:10.
The restaurant has a blog, where they post the weekly menu, and a Facebook fan page and Twitter page, both linked to the blog. But Friedman thinks the mystery is part of what makes the pizza so enticing to customers, a sentiment LSU Manship School of Mass Communication associate professor Dr. Lance Porter agrees with.
“Trying to create mystery around [the pizza] to try to create a buzz” is a difficult gambit, according to Porter, but one that can yield a high payoff. “If you do it the wrong way, people won’t buy it,” he warns. On the other hand, the right amount of mystery can create enough buzz to generate word-of-mouth advertising.
Luckily for many businesses such as Pizza Delicious, now there is social media. Artisan taco vendor Taceaux Loceaux roams Uptown in a truck and notifies people of its whereabouts through Twitter (@TLNola).
“There’s nothing more powerful than word-of-mouth in terms of what we trust,” says Porter, but the diamond in the rough lies with the fact that people tend to trust peers they don’t know well, rather than close friends and family.
Called the “strength of weak ties,” Porter illustrates as thus: If a close friend, who is a Mac fanatic, tells you the new Mac is a stellar machine, you’d take it with a grain of salt. But if a random acquaintance mentions he doesn’t normally buy Macs, but it’s a neat machine, you might give it a second thought.
“Twitter really blows that up,” Porter says, as he points out Twitter puts the “weak ties” in touch with each other in multitudes, which helps mobile and underground food vendors. “Before, they had to go where the crowds are. Now they do a good job with social media.”
This fact is not lost on Friedman and Augarten, who have considered the power of mystery and word-of-mouth while deciding on the next step for Pizza Delicious.
“[We’d] lose the underground, back-alley feel,” Mike says when considering opening as a traditional restaurant. “We have customers who come every week. They aren’t going to come every day.”