Prior to opening af&co, founder Andrew Freeman paid his dues in the hospitality world, growing his career from waiting tables to helming the marketing efforts of some of the industry's biggest brands. We caught up with him to chat about everything from food to philanthropy, and got an inside look at the top five industry trends of 2019. Pro tip: you'll also want to bookmark his list of the best dishes to eat in San Francisco.
What drew you to the hospitality industry and what do you most enjoy about it?
I grew up in New Jersey (exit 153A!) and graduated from Montclair State University with a Marketing Degree, paying my way through school by working at a travel agency and performing in just about every community theater musical in the area. Name a show and I will sing the score for you. My first love was Broadway and I started out as an actor, but my second is and always will be hospitality. The similarities between the two are uncanny; the performance of waiting tables, the bustling backstage feel of a restaurant kitchen and a big tip is just like a “Bravo!”
How did your career take shape?
Just like many hopeful actors – I supported myself by waiting tables. I even had a gig as a singer waiter. I was doing all of this while I was going to school and I just feel in love with the restaurants and the opportunities opened up for me. I started working at advertising agencies and then got my big break when I landed a job as Director of Marketing for the acclaimed French Culinary Institute. I was able to mesh my love of all thing’s food, restaurants and marketing and it was an awesome experience.
From there – I truly learned the restaurant business by working through the ranks at several legendary New York venues. At Windows on the World, I was Vice President of Public Relations and Marketing and responsible for the re-launch after the Trade Center bombing in 1992. At the Russian Tea Room, I opened the Cabaret which became the toast of the town after only six months. I was also lucky enough to spend six years as the Vice President of Public Relations for the magnificent Rainbow Room working with restaurant legend Joe Baum.
Prior to opening af&co., I was Vice President of Public Relations and Strategic Partnerships for Kimpton Hotels and Restaurants. In total, I spent ten years with Kimpton, launching over 40 hotels and restaurants as well as the global brand.
These experiences along with the almost 15 years at af&co have defined my wonderful career. Though I still have a dream of being discovered and making it to Broadway!
What have been some of your career highlight moments?
During my tenure at Kimpton, I helped spearhead the LGBT travel program, which has garnered numerous awards and positioned Kimpton as one of the Top Companies for LGBT employment in the country. In 2002, Kimpton became the first hospitality company ever to receive a 100% score on the Human Rights Campaign Foundation’s Corporate Equality Index and has continued to do so every year since.
In 2010, I was named one of the Top 25 Most Extraordinary Minds in Sales and Marketing by the Hospitality Sales & Marketing Association International, and af&co. has been recognized by the San Francisco Business Times for the last three years as one of the top 50 LGBT-owned businesses in the Bay Area.
As we set sail into our fifteen year of business, I am most proud of the work we have done at af&co. With our client the Golden Gate Restaurant Association – we created and launched San Francisco’s first citywide Food and Wine Festival and have concepted and launched over 100 restaurant and hotel projects around the country.
What prompted the move to San Francisco from New York? What do you love about your city?
To be completely frank, I had never been to San Francisco but I received a call from one of my mentors Niki Leondakis (the former COO of Kimpton Hotels and Restaurants) with a job opportunity for the marketing director of the maverick boutique hotel and restaurant company. That was in 1996. I moved to San Francisco in March of 1997 since Kimpton was based here.
I love the people of San Francisco and, of course, the food. And the people who make the food! Honestly, the restaurant scene in San Francisco is one of the best in the country if not the world. I feel very lucky to work with such amazing, talented clients and friends.
It is also the mecca for the LGBTQ community of which I am a proud member and I love that San Francisco really does let you be who you are – no judgements.
In terms of being based in San Francisco and working on local and national clients, what do you find to be some of the advantages and challenges?
As I mentioned, I think San Francisco is at the top of its game when it comes to the restaurant and hotel scene, so that can be considered a big advantage, especially when pitching clients nationally. However, when it comes to garnering local press for a client, the stakes are high because it’s so competitive. Another challenge is the shrinking media landscape in San Francisco. Our clients may have the same culinary chops as chefs in NYC but the number of publications willing to cover them here has been – sadly but truly – dwindling.
On the positive side – we are one of the most innovative cities and with our national clients –we get to bring our ideas and inspirations that we get from our city across the country.
You’ve been involved in various philanthropic activities and organizations over the years. Could you elaborate and explain why this has been such a focus?
I have my mom to thank for this – she was one of the most compassionate and generous women I will ever know. She instilled a sense of helping people in need at all times.
I also believe there is a great business case for community involvement. The people you support will support you and this has very much been the case with my business and life.
Currently I am on three boards (a bit much perhaps) and I attend just about every gala (with the purchase of tickets) and event they do to show my support. I am most proud of my work with the Richmond Ermet AID Foundation, bringing relief through entertainment. This year marks my 20th year with the organization. I am equally proud of being one of the founding board members of Dress for Success SF. This year is my 15 year on the board and the work we have done to bringing amazing women that have been challenged by life into the work place is incredible. Lastly – I am a newer board member of CUESA (Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture), which is an organization dedicated to cultivating a sustainable food system through the operation of farmers markets and educational programs.
I do regular fundraising via my business and network, and I am actively involved with MAX (the Men’s Associated Exchange).I believe my team would tell you that if I could make a living raising money for the causes I believe in, I would do it all the time.
Tell us about some of your current work projects you’re excited about.
Well that is like asking me to pick my favorite child! I truly find inspiration from all of our projects.
Our recent projects have been fascinating including the opening of the Virgin Hotels SF and to AC Hotels in the South Bay, re-launches of several Marriott hotels in the Bay Area and numerous exciting restaurants, brewery and hotel openings. We launched a food-making robot and expanded across the U.S. with national clients. Finally, we were part of Team USA at the biggest Hospitality Conference in Spain and head to Norway in May to present our trend report. We have been blessed with many wonderful opportunities.
What are the best dishes to eat in San Francisco now? High and low.
What a tough question – I find something I love at every restaurant. Here are some recent highlights:
Prime Rib Dinners at Cockscomb and One Market
Any pasta at Perbacco
The Impossible Burger at Gott’s
Corn Fritters at E&O Kitchen and Bar
The fabulous desserts at Bluestem Brasserie (my favorite is the Strawberry Tall Cake!)
Hummus bowls and Shakshuka at Oren’s Hummus
Gambas al Pimenton at Canela
Morning Fog Wine at Wente Vineyards
Gnudi Spinach Ricotta Pillows with Beef Ragu at Poggio Trattoria
Octopus & Shrimp Tostado at Copita
Masala Jackfruit Taco at ROOH
Sonoma Duck and ‘Fish and Chips’ (Hamachi!) at Commons Club at the newly opened Virgin Hotels San Francisco
Sunnyvale, Then and Now cocktail at AC Hotel by Marriott Sunnyvale Cupertino
Pork al Pastor (16 OZ), escabeche, crispy chicken skin, charred jalapeno, slaw, tortillas, taco fixings at Tank 18
Fideua with toasted fideua pasta, liberty duck, chestnuts, roasted peppers, harissa allioli at Duende
Sea Salt with Caramel Ribbons at Salt & Straw
Racer 5 tempura fish tacos at Marriott Union Square’s bin480
What is the annual trend report your agency publishes? Can you share the top 5 trends for the coming year?
Now in its eleventh edition, af&co.’s trends report has become an industry standard in anticipating market demand and consumer feedback. Compiled from extensive year-long research, the report is intended to serve as a guide to help operators prepare for the coming year by identifying key influences in restaurants, hotels, hospitality marketing, food, and beverage.
The theme of the 2019 trends report is Do the Right Thing: Stand for What You Believe In because restaurants and hotels have been heavily affected by the tumultuous state of the world, and it’s driving the hospitality industry, like many industries, to reflect on its actions, step up, and do the right thing. From focusing on health and sustainability to embracing global cultures and supporting meaningful causes and partners, there's a renewed energy and deeper sense of caring to do the right thing for yourself, others, and the world at large.
Here are our top five trends but you can take a peek at the full report on our website here.
1. Do the Right Thing!
Whether it’s fighting for gender equality in the kitchen, representing immigrants, or embracing sustainability, restaurants are helping to create the accepting world we want to live in and are raising money for deserving groups through creative marketing initiatives.
“Bake the World a Better Place” bake sale at Bluestem Brasserie (SF) benefitting CUESA & The Ferry Plaza Farmers Market's Foodwise Kids, a free program for elementary school classes that uses the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market as a classroom for empowering the next generation of healthy eaters
Jose Andre’s nonprofit World Central Kitchen
2.Dish of the Year: Khachapuri
Georgian cuisine is having a moment, and leading the way is the photogenic, Instagram favorite dish Khachapuri. Featuring a cheese-filled bread boat topped with a runny egg, the egg and cheese are mixed together tableside. To enjoy, guests tear off pieces of the crust to dip in the cheesy middle. Bread… runny eggs… cheese… what’s not to like?
Cheese boat (Brooklyn)
3. Robotic Restaurant Revolution
Stay on the lookout for food-making robots! Silicon Valley-based food robotics company Chowbotics is rolling out Sally the Robot at airports, convenience stores, offices and more – serving up vibrant, forward-thinking meals via touchscreen interface 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Popular robotic restaurants including Creator and Spyce are further proof that robots are here to stay.
Sally the Robot from Chowbotics
4. Meat the Future: Cell-based Meat & Vegan “Meat”
Plant-based “meat,” including the Impossible Burger, is showing up on menus throughout the country. And this trend isn’t slowing down – we’re expecting to see vegan seafood on menus in the near future.
Restaurants are using the Impossible meat in creative ways, such as the meatballs at barbacco eno trattoria (SF)
Vegan seafood from Good Catch (National)
Impossible Burger at Gott’s Roadside (Multiple Locations)
5. Digital Detox: Going off the [Hotel] Grid
Hotels are offering digital detox packages, allowing guests to lock up their phones (literally) in exchange for discounts. Everyone wins - hotels benefit (guests often use more amenities when they aren’t on their phones) and guests revel in the relaxing experience.
The Mandarin Oriental Hotel (NYC) offers a digital wellness package that includes spa therapies to target back and neck strain from device use
The James Hotel (NYC) offers a portable safe to lock up your digital devices, with the combination and timer set by the front desk team. Guests that participate receive 10% off their room rate
Hotel chains including the Wyndham Grand have begun offering promotions to guests willing to give up their devices during their stay
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