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Plate Magazine: Taking Food Further & Celebrating Creative Culinary Innovation In The Most Delicious Of Ways – The Mr. Magazine™ Interview With Steven Mayer, Publisher, Plate Magazine

February 1, 2017

“The ideas and the photos that we publish really have an evergreen quality to them; they’re timeless. It’s not a matter of getting the news quickly or on a timely basis. It’s not a matter of instant response; it’s really designed to inspire people and get them thinking about their menus. A print magazine that you can actually hold and look at the pictures is inspiring.” Steven Mayer

screen-shot-2017-01-31-at-5-12-44-pmAn evergreen quality. That’s how Plate magazine Publisher, Steven Mayer describes this magazine. Plate is a food publication, B to B even, that takes the timeless quality of print and runs with it. The photographs are rich and the editorial is full and robust. From restaurateurs to chefs, this magazine caters to the sensual and the tangible quality that each of us experience when we taste or create that perfect dish. And it’s a trade publication; a very unique concept in this niche category, one that usually relies on ads and generalized information, which is the norm for a B to B publication.

I spoke with Steven recently and we talked about his 25+ years in this field of magazines and magazine publishing. For 20 of those he was with the highly successful Restaurants & Institutions magazine, serving as publisher for the last five or six years of his tenure. When that magazine folded, he was approached by some of his colleagues about Plate Magazine. And he was intrigued by the focus of the title, one that wasn’t on every aspect of running a restaurant, but more about the food and the menu, the creative culinary side of the business. Needless to say, he was hooked and he’s been there ever since.

The magazine has grown steadily over the past 15 years that it has been in existence, their audience doubling within that time. They have expanded to the web and have a dot com that successfully captures the beauty and passion of the B to B magazine. It’s definitely a unique and wondrous publication for the trade category, but one that has proven its commitment to its audience.

So, sit down, relax, and fill your “Plate,” you’re about to be sated to the brim with inspiration, great information and one man’s passionate dedication to his brand, the Mr. Magazine™ interview with Steven Mayer, publisher, Plate magazine.

But first the sound-bites:

sdm-photoOn the genesis of Plate: I spent 20 years with Restaurants & Institutions, and the last five or six years I was the publisher of that magazine. I left in 2001, and in 2002, some former colleagues of mine were starting this magazine called Plate, and they contacted me around the time of the first issue which was being developed and worked on. And I joined them about the time that first issue came out. I think what they (the audience) really responded to was the fact that Plate was designed from the get-go to focus on, not every aspect of running a restaurant, like Restaurants & Institutions had and other publications, but we really focused on food and the menu, and the culinary side of the business.

On whether he feels people in the magazine industry, especially B to B, gave up on print too soon: I’m not sure people in our field have entirely given up on print, there remains, even though I mentioned that Restaurants & Institutions no longer exists, and there have been a couple of other significant closures of publications, but there are still at least 15, if not 20 or 30 print magazines that serve this industry. You mentioned Food Fanatics before, and it’s relatively a new entry to the field; it’s sponsored by one of the major broad lined distributors, US Foods. So, you have even non-traditional publishers entering the print arena in this field.

screen-shot-2017-01-31-at-5-25-19-pmOn the DNA that differentiates Plate from all of the other magazines that are in the marketplace: That theme issue approach is definitely one of the differentiation factors of Plate. I mentioned how we started out as a hybrid of custom publishing; our first issue was from the National Pork Board and was naturally all about pork. But I think at the time, even when we decided to go quarterly, and then we decided to go six times per year, which remains our basic frequency to this day, we were competing against regular monthly, at the time, even weekly publications. It was almost a tactical, instead of a strategic decision at the time; if we were going to compete with much more frequent publications, we had to make every issue a special issue, or a keeper issue, in some respect.

On his major challenge today, in 2017, and how he plans to overcome it: The challenges remain in still getting people to understand the importance of our niche, and that the whole industry really is looking more at culinary innovations than ever before. That remains one of the keys to success of a restaurant today. Any consumer of restaurants would know this, but you could walk into an Applebee’s or a Chili’s and hardly tell the difference. Those kinds of restaurants are struggling, yet in every city you can find many new restaurants that are often trendy and cool and referred to in the industry as “chef-driven” restaurants. That’s where the industry remains creative and vibrant and exciting. And so we have to convince people that we’re really at the forefront of trends and where they want to be.

On his most pleasant moment: It’s been a very pleasant, gratifying and rewarding experience, because first of all, Plate really does stand for something. It really does have a true brand identity. I can be very proud of the product that we produce; the magazine itself is beautiful, strong and growing.

On what someone would find him doing if they showed up unexpectedly one evening at his home: Before I read a magazine, which might come later at night, I’m probably watching the news, having a drink with my wife, and getting dinner ready. I have a wonderful wife of 35 years who is a great cook and we’ve given our kids a love of food too, so Plate plays a big part in even our home life. We always enjoyed meals together as a family, and we still have meals together whenever we’re both home. When I get home, there are usually wonderful smells coming from the kitchen, and we enjoy a drink or a bottle of wine together with our meal.

On what keeps him up at night: Just keeping the magazine successful in the marketplace and to keep it growing stronger every day.

And now the lightly edited transcript of the Mr. Magazine™ interview with Steven Mayer, publisher, Plate magazine.

Samir Husni: You have quite an extensive history in B to B publishing. You mentioned that after 25+ years, you added Plate 15 years ago. Tell me about the genesis of Plate.

screen-shot-2017-01-31-at-5-12-55-pmSteven Mayer: Most of those 25 years I spent with a single publication that was in its time clearly the leader in its field, the restaurant industry, and that was Restaurants & Institutions. It existed throughout the 1980s and much of the 1990s and probably in its heyday was one of the biggest B to B magazines in the country, generating north of $25 million per year in revenue.

Restaurants & Institutions actually has folded now; the company that published it, Reed Business Information, basically pulled up stakes here in the United States. They publish newspapers and other endeavors around the U.K. and elsewhere in the former British Commonwealth.

I spent 20 years with Restaurants & Institutions, and the last five or six years I was the publisher of that magazine. I left in 2001, and in 2002, some former colleagues of mine were starting this magazine called Plate, and they contacted me around the time of the first issue which was being developed and worked on. And I joined them about the time that first issue came out.

The first issue of Plate was half and half custom publishing, as well as a new magazine launch; it was kind of a hybrid between the two. They did publish it with a sponsorship of a single company, which was the National Pork Board, but really didn’t have a plan going forward, other than let’s try this with the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association as well. When that didn’t pan out for a variety of reasons, we really had to look at coming up with what might be a sustainable business model.

The first issue that we put out was all about pork incidentally, and was put out for the National Pork Board. The kind of reaction that it generated in the marketplace was remarkable. The response was amazing. We got emails and phone calls from people saying they had never seen a magazine like Plate before and where had we been all of their lives. (Laughs) I think what they really responded to was the fact that Plate was designed from the get-go to focus on, not every aspect of running a restaurant, like Restaurants & Institutions had and other publications, but we really focused on food and the menu, and the culinary side of the business.

And from the very beginning that’s what has set it apart and continues to set it apart, and really is a niche for this magazine that doesn’t exist elsewhere in the restaurant or food service industry.

Samir Husni: You mentioned also that although you started out as print only, you’ve expanded to online and digital, yet last year 80 percent of your revenue was still coming from print.

Steven Mayer: Yes.

Samir Husni: Do you think that people in the print industry, especially B to B, gave up on print too soon?

Steven Mayer: I’m not sure people in our field have entirely given up on print, there remains, even though I mentioned that Restaurants & Institutions no longer exists, and there have been a couple of other significant closures of publications, but there are still at least 15, if not 20 or 30 print magazines that serve this industry. You mentioned Food Fanatics before, and it’s relatively a new entry to the field; it’s sponsored by one of the major broad lined distributors, US Foods. So, you have even non-traditional publishers entering the print arena in this field.

We might be unusual, in that respect, but our audience consists of restauranteurs, and chefs in our case, who are very, call it sensual for lack of another term, they’re very oriented towards eating and tasting, as well as reading. And all of the magazines in the field, even going back to the ‘80s and ‘90s, one of the things that distinguished Restaurants & Institutions was its gorgeous food photography and its graphic quality.

I think that we do have publications in our field, media brands in our field that have moved more toward digital than we have. For example, there is one, call it the newspaper of the industry, Nation’s Restaurant News, it’s like The Wall Street Journal or the Ad Age of the field, and it was naturally more vulnerable, I think, to the Internet, or more suitable to the Internet, than a publication like ours was. The ideas and the photos that we publish really have an evergreen quality to them; they’re timeless. It’s not a matter of getting the news quickly or on a timely basis. It’s not a matter of instant response; it’s really designed to inspire people and get them thinking about their menus. A print magazine that you can actually hold and look at the pictures is inspiring.

We’ve frankly struggled to come up with a website, and only recently have we redesigned our website so that it would capture the same ethos and aesthetic of the magazine. It’s hard to do in a digital format.

Samir Husni: I’ve noticed that with the magazine you’ve held to that original concept, the first issue being dedicated to pork; you still have every issue with one theme, such as casual eats, Vegan, chefs to watch, the French issue. Can you define that DNA that differentiates Plate from the host of other magazines that are in the marketplace?

Steven Mayer: That theme issue approach is definitely one of the differentiation factors of Plate. I mentioned how we started out as a hybrid of custom publishing; our first issue was from the National Pork Board and was naturally all about pork. But I think at the time, even when we decided to go quarterly, and then we decided to go six times per year, which remains our basic frequency to this day, we were competing against regular monthly, at the time, even weekly publications. It was almost a tactical, instead of a strategic decision at the time; if we were going to compete with much more frequent publications, we had to make every issue a special issue, or a keeper issue, in some respect.

So, from a tactical point, we wanted to give each issue the keeper value, the timelessness of the shelf life, if you will, and show that it was not just a regular issue of a magazine. There were a lot of implications of that, which were frankly costly and difficult to overcome. And imagine if you will a regular monthly magazine if advertising falls short and they have to cut some articles from the January issue or they could run them in the February issue.

In our case, if the January issue was about French and the next issue was about Vegan, you can’t necessarily hold it over until the next issue. We were kind of obligated to maintain a certain level of coverage from the very beginning, with at least 50 or 60 pages of editorial per issue to cover a subject completely, from appetizers to desserts. And that meant that there was little regard for ad/edit ratio; we’ve kind of grown into our shoes, but originally we were publishing 60 or 70 pages of editorial, when we might only have 20 pages of advertisement. And we’ve never exceeded a 50/50 ratio, which for trade publications is very generous and rich with editorial content.

The other implication of what we do is that with doing these theme issues literally there were advertisers who would look at our issues and ask, for example, if it’s all about pork, why should I be there if I sell fish or potatoes or cheese? And it’s taken a long time; it’s still an issue in some respects that we have to address today, to get people to not just buy into the editorial hook, if you will, of a particular issue, but to really understand the concept of whatever the subject matter is, it’s really designed to engage the reader and to get them to think about their menu beyond the obvious limitations of pork or fish or French or Italian.

And some of those issues, obviously, have to be French and still have pork and fish and cheese and everything in it. But there are people out there who still to this day resist the concept or they ask when are you going to do a soup issue because I sell soup, even though soups might be part of every issue.

So, we’ve kind of created a little bit of a monster; we’re a very unique publication. These theme issues; when you look back in time, we’ve certainly managed to diversify far beyond the product focus. For example, to do issues on burnt foods or fermentations; at the time we did those issues people really thought we were a little bit crazy, a whole issue about burning foods? And then last week in The New York Times in the food section identified that as a hot new trend.

In many respects, we’ve been ahead of the curve, in terms of identifying subjects that are kind of at the cusp of becoming trends. Our editors have been tremendous at doing that, and I think that their anticipation of market trends is borne out. For example, the National Restaurant Association identified the Top 20 Trends and probably 15 of those have been not only identified and named, but actually covered in depth by Plate magazine in the past five or six years, so we’re ahead of the curve. I think from a chef’s or restaurateur’s point of view we’re much more meaningful and in depth because we don’t just say French is coming back, we actually identify 50 or 60 chefs in restaurants around the country that are best-practice examples of chefs really doing whatever we’ve reported, and doing new and interesting things with French cooking to appeal to today’s consumers. And that’s something of real usefulness and value, and even an inspiration to chefs.

Samir Husni: What do you consider today, in 2017, your major challenge and how do you plan to overcome it?

Steven Mayer: That’s a very good question. We’re still a niche publication, and that means we’re not all things to all people in our industry. I’m not sure that any of the publications really, given some of the business challenges, can afford to be all things to all people. Restaurants & Institutions, for example, once claimed to be. And it used to be true that you could read Time magazine and consider yourself an informed citizen, but that’s not true today either.

So, we’re still a niche publication and we compete sometimes for business with publications that have much larger circulations than ours, or have a broader range of content. Yet we still want to grow. We’ve grown steadily over the last 15 years, and we want to continue to grow. In fact, our audience has doubled over the past 15 years.

The challenges remain in still getting people to understand the importance of our niche, and that the whole industry really is looking more at culinary innovations than ever before. That remains one of the keys to success of a restaurant today. Any consumer of restaurants would know this, but you could walk into an Applebee’s or a Chili’s and hardly tell the difference. Those kinds of restaurants are struggling, yet in every city you can find many new restaurants that are often trendy and cool and referred to in the industry as “chef-driven” restaurants. That’s where the industry remains creative and vibrant and exciting. And so we have to convince people that we’re really at the forefront of trends and where they want to be.

Aside from that, there are the challenges of developing other sources of revenue above and beyond the magazine. Digital is one; the events we do are another. We do a big event during the National Restaurant Association show that we call “Plate Night.” We continue to look at new opportunities to extend or expand the brand, and still remain true to our essence, if you will, and what you said before, our DNA. Our motto is “We Take Food Further” and if it doesn’t take food further, it’s probably not right for Plate magazine. It might be right for somebody else, but we have to stay true to our brand essence as well. And yet continue to grow.

Samir Husni: What has been the most pleasant moment throughout your 15 years with Plate?

Steven Mayer: It’s been a very pleasant, gratifying and rewarding experience, because first of all, Plate really does stand for something. It really does have a true brand identity. I can be very proud of the product that we produce; the magazine itself is beautiful, strong and growing.

It’s kind of remarkable too that the team that we’ve assembled over the years, and it’s a small team of us really, there are literally little more than half a dozen who work full-time on the magazine. We’re part of a small publishing company or media company called MTG Media Group and we have three different brands here, but all total the company has barely 30 people and yet Plate, has had the same core group together for 15 years.

Our editor wrote in the very first issue of the magazine; our editorial director was my partner and brought me to the company 15 years ago. Another one of my colleagues from another magazine, I’ve known him three-plus years in the field and he’s been with me now seven or eight years on the magazine. The team we’ve assembled is very rewarding and the success we’ve enjoyed; we really do have a true mission and a purpose. We’re not just another magazine that has a little more circulation or a little more rate; we really do have an identity and that’s something I take great pride in.

It’s really taught me; even after all of the years that I’ve spent in publishing, a new language or a new vocabulary, talking about what makes a magazine successful with its audience; its readers, and then trying to convince advertisers that that’s important to them as well, the readers are important to them. And that level of engagement with readers is important to them too. The uniqueness of the platform that they can share with Plate magazine and our readers is also important to them; it’s truly given me a new language and vocabulary when talking about a media brand.

Samir Husni: If I showed up unexpectedly to your home one evening, what would I find you doing; reading a magazine; having a glass of wine; watching TV; cooking; or something else?

Steven Mayer: (Laughs) Probably a combination of all of the above. Before I read a magazine, which might come later at night, I’m probably watching the news, having a drink with my wife, and getting dinner ready. I have a wonderful wife of 35 years who is a great cook and we’ve given our kids a love of food too, so Plate plays a big part in even our home life. We always enjoyed meals together as a family, and we still have meals together whenever we’re both home. When I get home, there are usually wonderful smells coming from the kitchen, and we enjoy a drink or a bottle of wine together with our meal.

Samir Husni: My typical last question; what keeps you up at night?

Steven Mayer: Just keeping the magazine successful in the marketplace and to keep it growing stronger every day.

Samir Husni: Thank you.

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One comment

  1. […] Husni interviewed Steven Mayer, editor of Plate, about his editorial strategy for a magazine dedicated to the culinary side of the food business. […]



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