Shelley Mann knows the ins and outs of dining in Columbus and is using her wealth of knowledge to put the local scene on the map through her newly-founded venture, Umami Consulting. Mann’s flexible and diverse services can help a restaurant at any stage of the process, from a startup to a well-established eatery. Her goal is to not only provide businesses a tailored plan, but help them execute it. Ultimately, she would love to garner more attention for Columbus on the national and regional food scene.
As for the local scene, Mann has long been present as a food editor and restaurant reviewer, but we recently asked her why she decided to take the leap and start her own business.
Q: Can you tell us a bit about your personal and professional background as it relates to food, dining and restaurants?
A: Personally, I’ve been obsessed with dining out at restaurants since I was a kid. I blame it on my mom, because she was not the greatest cook. Eating at restaurants was always much more exciting than eating at home, so I’ve always felt drawn to the restaurant world. Whenever I visit another city, I plan my entire itinerary around food. I draw inspiration from the ways restaurants set themselves apart through beautiful design and aesthetic details.
Professionally, I’ve been entrenched in the Columbus dining scene for the last two years as editor of Crave magazine, a glossy dedicated entirely to the city’s restaurants and bars. My job also included reviewing restaurants for Columbus Monthly magazine, so it was an interesting dual role. I got to know and became friends with many restaurateurs and chefs around the city during interviews for features in Crave, and then got to dine at lots of restaurants anonymously for the purpose of writing reviews. I was eating out four to five nights a week for a long time.
I feel I have a distinctive vantage point on the dining scene in Columbus. I have a good feel for both what restaurants need help with – running a restaurant is such an overwhelming job, there’s always something that falls to the wayside – as well as what restaurants around town are doing, marketing-wise, that works and what they’re doing that doesn’t work.
Q: What was the impetus for wanting to start your own consulting business?
A: Many factors went into my decision to leave Crave, including a desire for more schedule flexibility to accommodate the demands of having a 4-year-old daughter, and that entrepreneurial desire to be my own boss and build something of my own.
But more than anything, I was really drawn to the idea of taking a more active role in improving and elevating our dining scene. Writing reviews starts to feel, after a while, like a really passive-aggressive way of interacting with restaurants. I basically come in, judge you, and leave.
I wanted to find a way to apply my accumulated knowledge of the restaurant scene by working directly with independent restaurant owners to strengthen their businesses. The idea is not just to provide them a blueprint of what to do, but also to help them do it. The proposals I put together for clients are very tailored and also very realistic.
Q: What types of services and products will your consulting firm provide to businesses?
A: Umami offers a range of services depending on what the restaurant needs. We can help with general branding and marketing, including graphic design, interior design, photography, copywriting and web design. We can help with public relations and publicity, event planning and execution, social media strategy and execution, and advertising design and strategy.
For restaurants still in planning phases, we can help with concept and menu development, creating a mission statement and writing a business plan. For existing restaurants, we can help create rebranding strategies to help attract a different demographic or get more attention regionally and nationally.
Q: What sort of themes and trends have you noticed in the similar challenges that restaurant businesses face?
A: In terms of the small, independent restaurants I am targeting, what I’ve noticed is often a new restaurant will put all their energy and resources into planning out the concept and actually launching the business, and when the doors open they haven’t saved any energy or resources for marketing and promoting themselves. A lot of the time they know what they should be doing marketing-wise, but just don’t have the time to do it themselves and assume seeking outside help
would be too costly.
Another common scenario is a chef-owned restaurant where the chef is a genius at food, but may struggle when it comes to graphic design of menus and ads, or conveying what makes their food so amazing in writing or in photographs. Because Umami is a home-based business without much overhead, I am able to offer really customized packages tailored to each restaurant’s needs and budget. I can offer a lot of the basic services myself, but have also put together a team of experienced graphic designers, photographers and interior designers to bring in whenever needed.
Q: What are some of the emerging trends in the local restaurant and food business scene?
A: Everything’s all about local, local, local – local ingredients, rooftop gardens, Columbus and Ohio microbrews. The big trend this year is gastropubs, and I’m already seeing some restaurateurs start shying away from that word because it feels so trendy. I’m really excited about seeing some of our classic dives being resurrected, like The Crest, the Sycamore and Philco, the old Phillip’s Coney Island.
Q: Do you think that restaurants and food businesses have any unique advantages to doing business in Columbus versus other cities?
A: Absolutely. The supportive, collaborative entrepreneurial community in Columbus is really special. Not only are the people of Columbus incredibly dedicated to supporting local businesses and eating local foods, but independent restaurant owners and chefs also support fellow owners and chefs. Everyone wants to see passionate people be successful and to see our city’s dining scene grow and improve. It’s really very cool.
Q: Do you think that restaurants and food businesses have any unique challenges to doing business in Columbus versus other cities?
A: The biggest challenge I see is a lack of awareness nationally about Columbus. When we do get national media attention, there’s always a caveat. Too often, the writer introduces stories with something like, “You’ll never believe it, but there are some pretty great restaurants and bars in Columbus, Ohio!” We need to change the story—and it’s on us, as a city, to start telling the story we want to push out there.
Q: What sort of exciting business projects are you working on during the summer?
A: My biggest project for this summer will be building buzz around the opening of White Rabbit, the new restaurant project from Erik Till and Lisa Edge of Commonwealth. They’re currently deep in renovations at the Brewery District space, but the restaurant is set to open at the end of July and it will be amazing. They’re doing new American cuisine with an Industrial Revolution-era aesthetic inspired by Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
I’m also really excited to be part of the leadership committee for Independents’ Day, helping to plan the food aspect of this year’s festival. We have a lot of neat ideas in mind, so it’ll definitely be worth checking out.
Q: Anything else you’d like to add?
A: I’m currently building my client base, and would love to talk to any interested restaurants! Find out more about what Umami can offer at umamicolumbus.com, and follow us on Facebook at facebook.com/umamicolumbus.
Photos by Erin Bloodgood.