Trendsetters: Herb Karlitz on the Creative Process and Foodie Rock Stars

May 2, 2015 3:28 am Last Updated: March 8, 2018 5:30 pm

Chef Daniel Boulud calls him “the wizard of marketing in America.” Herb Karlitz is the president of Karlitz & Company, which recently celebrated its 25th anniversary. He is co-producing Harlem EatUp! with chef Marcus Samuelsson, which will shine the spotlight on Harlem’s food scene. Karlitz sat down with us last week to talk shop.

Bridging Music and Food

With that first South Beach festival in the ’90s [“Feast on the Beach”] we were really ahead of our time. We had Roger Vergé from the south of France, one of the top chefs in the world —ever. Daniel Boulud studied under him, David Bouley studied under him. You imagine Vergé behind a table? In hindsight it makes no sense.

Only a few years later [talent manager] Shep [Gordon] and I were doing an event in Colorado. Roger Vergé was cooking and Kenny Rogers was the entertainment. Shep and I went to pick Vergé from the airport. You know the hotel wouldn’t let him go through the front door of the hotel? He had to use the service entrance.

You sit back and say, ‘What would be cool?’ And if you think it’s cool, chances are, your clients are going to think it’s cool.

We had created a CD  with recipes from Vergé and music from Kenny. It was one of the first times of matching food and music and a tie-in promotion. At the end of night, interestingly as many people wanted Verge’s autograph that wanted Kenny’s—including Kenny, who is a foodie. …

There was a benefit for [chef Kerry Simon in Las Vegas] and all these rock stars came. Alice Cooper, Sammy Haggar, Slash, Todd Rundgren. They’re on the bus from the hotel to where the gig was going to be—and they’re talking about Food Network and who saw what episode or what recipe. Todd Rundgren and Alice Cooper talking about who makes better chicken wings and this great recipe on Food Network. Think about that.

… Sammy Davis Jr. loved food. He’d say, “Where are we going? I know Herb’s got the placed spec’d out for a quick bite” or “What’s coming on the plane with us?”

I was the intermediary—between telling entertainers where they could have a good meal and a restaurant that was only too happy to have a celebrity come into their restaurant. I was a good matchmaker.

On the Creative Process

I can’t fix anything. I actually had trouble screwing on a lightbulb—that old joke. I screwed it wrong and ended up breaking both the bulb and the socket because part of it got stuck up there. But I can cook anything. I like it, and I like entertaining. I’m in a sweet spot, and everybody who works for Karlitz just lives and breathes food, and [the question is] “What would be the ultimate experience for this group of corporate clients or customers?” “You sit back and say, “What would be cool?” And if you think it’s cool, chances are, your clients are going to think it’s cool.

Conversely, when you have to sit in a room and you’re trying to rationalize it and you gotta convince yourself—it’s a bad thing. Move on. Abandon ship. You’re working too hard. Because if you can’t get it like that [snaps his fingers], how is anybody else going to get it?

[Inspiration comes while] driving in the car, on planes, working out on the treadmill. I read some story that said creative juices really flow when you’re running, which I hate running. I hate it. But I do find that on my run (13:32) my mind thinks up a lot of stuff, and unfortunately when I get off the treadmill I retain maybe half of it.

Creating Experiences

You ever had a party at your house? What do you think about? What will entertain people?

Why is it on a Monday night at 11:15 p.m. you walk into Red Rooster, and it’s four deep at the bar, like it’s a party? Because Marcus Samuelsson has made it this inviting drop-in [spot].

It’s not so much that formal dining has gone away. It’s that there’s an entertainment element that all restaurateurs are recognizing they have to have.

The only kind of restaurant I’m totally against are the ones where the chef says “No, sorry, no substitutions, this is the way it is. I’m an artist.” I get it. I call you an artist too. You’re an artist on the plate.

But you’re here to entertain. The best example I can give you of someone who espouses that is Thomas Keller, of all people, who’s got more Michelin stars than anyone. He embraces six people coming to a table. One only eats gluten-free, one’s a vegetarian, one doesn’t drink, but they’re going to have a nine-course meal and have a beverage for each course. His job is to make them happy and he gets that.

Bragging Rights

In the wine world there was no one more famous than Robert Parker. … I called up Parker and I said, “Bob, it’s a different time. People don’t need you and me to tell them to go buy Lafite Rothschild, this vintage, perfect 100. They don’t even feel comfortable buying it. They want to know what are your go-to half dozen whites and reds that are under $25. Do you get that the story is, what are you drinking? It’s about you, not the wine. These customers they’re going to take that tasting with you.”

I call it bragging rights. They’re going back to their neighbors and say, “Oh, Bob Parker over dinner turned me on to this wine, and they’re going to buy 10 cases of it, and it’ll be their house red for the summer or their house white. They’re not buying a bottle. They’re buying 10 cases. That’s a story. They can now tell a story. If you can say, “Bob Parker turned me onto this wine’s, that’s sexy. That becomes an experience that only a person can do.”

It is about exclusivity because it is telling a story that resonates, that’s something someone else can’t do.

‘The Devil Is in the Details’

Part of our job is to plan for every eventuality and every detail. We were planning something for a corporate client in New York. It was after dinner and seeing a show. [The client] says, “We’re going back to the Plaza Hotel. Do we have the Oak Bar?”

It’s Saturday night—Do you have the Oak Bar? 

There’s 50 of them on the bus. I now ask prospective employees this question: “What do you do? They’re now all on the bus heading back to the Plaza Hotel. Do you divert them? Do you talk them out of it?”

You do anything basically you need to, to get it done. What I did was, I put two of my people in a cab. So I took the two who I thought were my most presentable attractive presence personalities, put them in a cab, which would get them there faster than the bus. I told the bus driver to take the longest route he could find.

I gave my two girls $1,000 and I said, “Do what you have to do to get 50 seats at the Oak Bar.”

Now, when you think about it, the guy working the podium, he can’t wait to get off, he’s there for the money. For every chair he’s giving you you’re going to give him 50 bucks. Let him see the money.

When the bus showed up, half the seats were already cleared out. They found a way to move some people. As people started filing in there was maybe a five-minute wait. It cost me $1,000. You gotta do what you gotta do.

You can never have enough preparation and most important, with any event, any experience, any festival, what would you do if you were the guest?

I don’t want to wait more than one minute on the line. I will not wait in line for food or drink—I just won’t. So why should I expect anyone else to do that?

So you figure that out. You put a bar at the other side of the room, you pass hors d’oeuvres at first to relieve stations. There’s stuff you learn. It’s not just, we’re all so brilliant. The brilliance comes in knowing what you don’t know, and applying that axiom: put yourself in the customer’s position.