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A Business Plan with a Ponytail

By Hayley Kaufman, Globe Staff, 7/29/2001

Eight floors up in a Back Bay office building, high above the rubble of the dot-com implosion, Jill Epstein answers the phone at her desk, flashes a smile, and sets about building a business the old-fashioned way: one relationship at a time.

''Oh yeah, people are raving about it,'' the 29-year-old says emphatically to the caller. Rhinestones sparkle on her T-shirt. ''I haven't been yet myself, but I've heard great things.''

She hangs up and turns back to a visitor, who imagines that Epstein, the stylish publisher of the increasingly popular local restaurant guide ''Where to Eat,'' is chatting about a hot downtown boite or chic South End bar.

''No,'' she says, swinging a mule-clad foot. ''That was about a restaurant in Walpole.''

As scores of so-called whiz kids in this town have burned through millions of dollars in pursuit of half-baked online schemes,Epstein has seen her simple, low-tech business plan grow slowly but surely for the past two years. ''Where to Eat,'' her lavish guide to area restaurants, has more than doubled in size since its 1999 launch. Published twice a year, the book is currently distributed in about 700 locations, from Topsfield to Chatham to, yes, Walpole.

Now, Epstein is hoping to replicate the success of ''Where to Eat'' with a second edition on the West Coast, while continuing to expand the flagship operation.
''So many companies that started at the same time we did aren't here anymore,'' Epstein says sagely, her 150-watt smile dimmed for a moment. ''We're trying to make smart, stable decisions.''

If Epstein's cautious business philosophy doesn't sound glamorous, her perch at the center of the city's roiling restaurant and bar scene certainly looks to be. One evening a few weeks ago, the 1994 Boston University grad (her degree is in graphic design) threw a chic roof-deck party at the Colonnade Hotel to celebrate the second anniversary of ''Where to Eat.'' Nearly 300 of Boston's hottest chefs, restaurateurs, media types, and assorted beautiful people made a point of being there.

Ever the fashionable hostess, Epstein wore one of her signature hip ensembles - lime green beaded top from Barneys, Banana Republic red bootleg pants, Charles David black mules with white stitching. She worked the crowd effortlessly, greeting guests by first name and cooing over the food, the weather, the turnout. Her chestnut ponytail bobbed like a cheerleader's.

It was a warm reception for any publisher, but especially one who focuses on the restaurant circuit, known for its souffle-like egos and competitive juices. But then, such goodwill reflects the genius of Epstein's publication: It's all good news, all the time.

Unlike guides that rate restaurants on food and ambiance, Epstein's book dispenses with reviews entirely. Instead, chefs or owners buy a page and fill it as they see fit: with new seasonal menus, photos of themselves or their restaurant, even favorite recipes. Meanwhile, introductory blurbs quote favorable reviews from the Zagat guide, as well as every local newspaper and magazine Epstein can find. And if, for some reason, there aren't any glowing words to be culled from other publications? Epstein lets the restaurant owners and chefs pen their own, highlighting the food, wine list, lunch scene - whatever they think the selling points are.

''When we first started it, everyone was saying, `So when are you going to start doing reviews?''' Epstein said. ''But I don't think anyone really cares what I think about a restaurant. What we do is listen to our [restaurants] to find out what they think people should know.''
That formula may not sit well with Boston's foodie population, most of whom know the basics and hunger for more critical evaluations. But it works for tourists and casual restaurant-goers who seem more than willing to fork over $6.95 for a reference guide. For the first time, ''Where to Eat'' has just sold out of its 40,000 retail copies, so Epstein's four employees are hurriedly affixing bar codes to the free issues usually reserved for would-be clients and press.

Meanwhile, big companies - law firm Edwards & Angell, consultants Ernst & Young, and Hammond Real Estate among them - are also ordering up stacks of ''Where to Eat'' guides, having their corporate name printed on them, and passing them on to their clients.
It's quite a splash for the young Worcester native who says she knew nothing about the publishing industry when she and her then-boss, graphic designer Tracy Roberts, came up with the idea for ''Where to Eat.'' (Boston marketing and communications firm Spire, now Epstein's partner, bought out Roberts's share of the publication early on, though she remains a consultant.)

Still, Epstein says her stints as a hostess at Lydia Shire's restaurant Pignoli, at retailer Louis, Boston, and as an intern at Boston Magazine have served her well, acting as a primer to the local scene and honing her customer-relations skills. Watching her father's Worcester-based paint-supply business prosper over the years also helped.

''We want to be part of the community in every market we go into, whether we decide to grow vertically or laterally,'' Epstein says. ''I think that's how we set ourselves apart now. It's really about bringing people together. Creating a community. It's so easy to do that in Boston.''
Easy? In Boston? If that's so, what market could Epstein not conquer?

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