In 2008, after earning an M.F.A. in creative writing at Emerson College in Boston, Massachusetts, Johnny Auer moved to Chicago ready to start his career. His plan was to secure a gig in restaurant PR—having been a waiter since the age of 15, he had a longtime passion for food, including a keen interest in food provenance, which he’d recently begun to chronicle in a blog titled the Backyard Navel. “I thought [restaurant PR] was a cool way to apply my creative degree and my experience,” Auer says, but the job market didn’t exactly comply. “It was the worst time to graduate. No one was hiring.”
In 2009, Auer splurged on a pair of tickets for an underground dinner hosted by celebrity chef Stephanie Izard, with the hope of brushing elbows with the right people. Fresh off her season four Top Chef win, Izard was gearing up to launch her highly anticipated restaurant, Girl and the Goat, and mentioned during the dinner that she needed help managing her social media. One of Auer’s tablemates pointed at him and said, “Hire this guy!” He e-mailed Izard the next day with an offer to start for free. They met for lunch, and a day later, he went to work, joining Izard at a nearby farm for a roving dinner series called Outstanding in the Field.
“She wasn’t quite sure what she needed, she just knew she couldn’t keep up with her Facebook page and she had this Twitter account she didn’t know what to do with,” Auer says. Back then, social media marketing was a nascent medium. “I was definitely learning as I went and she knew that, too. Part of why she fell for me was that I had a simple style and a distinct voice.”
Auer’s creative writing background proved to be key. “With Steph, I wanted to tell a story. There was a constant narrative, no matter how many posts [I wrote]. She had a restaurant that everyone was anticipating. She was doing underground dinners that everyone was excited about. And she just won this big TV show and was the only woman to do it.” Knowing how to use subtext is the perfect tool for Twitter, Auer says. The limited character count helps pique curiosity and provokes a follower to click on various image- and text-driven links.
Word about the Tweeting spread quickly: By November 2009, Auer added the Bin 36 Restaurant Group and Hearty Boys to his client roster, and in April 2010, officially incorporated as Jamco New Media. Today, with 15 active clients, the 28-year-old has established himself as a social-media guru specializing in chef-driven restaurants. He helped promote two of the year’s buzziest openings: GT Fish & Oyster and the Bedford. His business has grown organically through referrals. “Working with Steph, I realized that this was exactly the opportunity I [was] looking for—to meet people in the industry, the influencers,” Auer says. “That’s why I was willing to work for free for a while.” While Boka Restaurant Group (which operates Girl and the Goat) has since hired an in-house social media marketer who could always be on site and keep pace with an increasing workload, Auer notes that he and Izard remain good friends, and he wouldn’t be surprised if they worked together again. “Anytime I’ve lost business, business has somehow found a way to come in at the same time,” he says, adding that he’s not only welcoming new clients but taking on more full-service PR responsibilities.
Clearly, Auer is finding enough to keep him busy. On a typical day, he wakes at 6am in his Andersonville home and immediately logs into HootSuite.com—a website that aggregates the 15 Twitter accounts he manages so he can monitor them all on one “dashboard.” When he’s not writing a client’s blog post, reading industry news or sending out invoices, he’s out in the field getting face time with his clients (which could mean making a farm visit with kitchen staff, videotaping a chef making bread or attending a menu tasting). “It’s important for me to be there so I know what’s going on. [Chefs] aren’t used to having to report their daily activities. The restaurants I represent are working with local farms. Maybe they’re getting a whole hog or a veal carcass…unique things that will go into unique dishes, and seeing that process is a story in itself. It’s impossible for me to [be there] all the time, but it’s rare that I have a day where I’m strictly in front of the computer.”
He’s passionate about his job, but it’s not without its challenges. Because he started by freelancing, he never created a business plan, and as a one-man shop, he’s been too busy to create one. Finding a work-life balance can also be tough. “I’m plugged in all day long, until I go to bed.”
But there’s more upside than down, and Auer has scouted New York, Boston and L.A. as potential expansion markets. He projects that by the end of 2011, he’ll have tripled his 2010 profits, landing him in the salary range of an agency executive director. While he appreciates the boutique nature of his business, he feels it’s within his reach to grow without sacrificing his personal touch and says there’s a demand for more stories about chefs, and the farmers and purveyors with whom they work. That said, adding and training staff would take time, so he’s also entertained the idea of bringing his expertise to a larger agency that could adopt his model of developing close client relationships.
“It’s funny to think that Facebook started as some college network seven years ago and now I’m building a business around it.”