Marketing skills on cutting edge as region's chefs get together

eter Rathmann considers himself a chef - he's got the American Culinary Federation membership to prove it - but he seldom fits a tall chef's hat over his shining bald pate.

Instead, Rathmann spends many of his working hours going from one table to the next, visiting with customers in the dining rooms at his BJ's Nevada Barbecue Co. and Hog Wild Cafe locations in Sparks.

Like many of the hundreds of chefs who will flock to John Ascuaga's Nugget for a big convention this week, the 71-year-old Rathmann has learned that marketing is just as important as culinary flair for a successful chef.

It's a message that will be delivered often during the western regional conference of the American Culinary Federation.

Chefs, food-service professionals and students will spend much of the three-day conference in seminars where they will learn about the regional cuisine of Italy, the dishes of Korea, and the fine points of Basque cooking.

But a secondary theme throughout the conference is the importance of marketing to ensure profitability.

"In addition to cooking skills, chefs must embrace marketing to succeed in the food business," says Leah Craig, a spokeswoman for the American Culinary Federation.

Gary Oien, executive chef at the Carson Valley Inn in Minden, says he spends about 15 percent of his workday specifically on marketing-related tasks.

He works with the Carson Valley Inn's marketing team to develop upcoming promotions that involve its restaurants as well as its casino and hotel operation, and he seeks the marketing team's feedback as he develops the menu for holiday special events.

"Part of the business has got to be selling yourself and your products," he says.

But Oien acknowledges that effective marketing wasn't a subject that got much attention during his training as a chef.

Instead, he learned it on the fly from other chefs, including the members of the High Sierra Chefs Association, the regional group that's sponsoring this week's conference.

Rathmann, a member of the High Sierra Chefs Association for more than 20 years, says the marketing lessons he learned have affected everything from menu selections to the layout his family developed for the Hog Wild Cafe location they opened at 80 E. Victorian Way last year.

The design features an open kitchen.

"That's a good marketing ploy," says Rathmann. "People love to watch their food being prepared."

Now as he prepares to move BJ Nevada Barbecue to the Victorian Way location from its longstanding shopping center spot a few blocks to the north, Rathmann hopes to add glassed-in space where customers can watch the preparation of barbecued meat as well.

He doesn't undertake much traditional advertising, although his eateries take every advantage of the free publicity they get from newspaper and broadcast restaurant critics.

Instead of mass media, Rathmann uses one-at-a-time media: Visits with customers in which asks about their meal, solicits their suggestions, banters about daily life with regulars.

"The most important thing is the relationship you have with your customers," he says.

Staying in touch with the changing desires of restaurant customers is among the themes of the culinary federation conference.

Farmer Lee Jones, for instance, will lead a seminar on the practice of sustainable farming and its impact on flavors.

Another seminar session will focus on lightening the calorie count of menu items while maintaining good flavor, and another will teach chefs how to deliver create sweet and savory desserts that can become a signature of their restaurants.

Also scheduled during the conference that runs through Wednesday are numerous competitions that will be conducted on the campus of Truckee Meadows Community College. Professional chefs and students will seek titles such as "regional pastry chef of the year."

(The conference is open to the public; see for registration details.)


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