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taste

Tucked away in the back corner of an Encino mini-mall, between a nail salon and a hair stylist, Epicure Expressions needs all the exposure it can get.

That’s why the shop, a high-end retailer of smoked fish products, is participating in the Taste of Encino, one of those ubiquitous food fairs that seem to happen somewhere in L.A. almost every weekend.

“For our particular product, getting people to taste it is all it takes,” said Harvey Beesen, one of the shop’s co-owners. “And I don’t mind spending money to do that.”

Epicure Expressions is one of about 30 local restaurants paying some $600 each to get a booth at the event, which organizers expect to draw 15,000 people to the Marine Corps Reserve Center in Encino from Sept. 12 through 14.

For a young, struggling outfit such as Beesen’s which opened its doors last November the ability to connect with that many customers at one time is a potential marketing windfall.

“I don’t see it as a moneymaker; we’re just trying to let people know we’re here,” Beesen said. “We’ve tried advertising in newspapers; it was expensive with no results.”

Whether such “taste” events are more effective than newspaper ads is hard to know, restaurateurs admit. Unlike with a coupon or direct mail promotion, they provide no way of quantifying customer response.

Veterans of such events say a temporary boost in business is about the best one can hope for.

“You get a little attention in the first 30 days, but then people tend to forget,” said Wassim Boustani, director of operations for Jacopo’s, an Italian restaurant that has taken part in the Taste of Encino for the past three years. “It’s definitely a temporary promotion.”

And it’s not necessarily a bargain especially for new restaurants, most of which tend to operate at a loss during their first year of existence.

Aside from the $600 participation fee, restaurants must rent ovens and refrigerators, which can cost an additional $150 to $300. Then, there’s the food and labor costs. While participating restaurants do take in some money from ticket sales, Boustani says it’s seldom anywhere near enough to make up for the losses.

At the end of the day, participating in a “taste” event can cost between $2,200 and $2,800, says Boustani.

But restaurateurs say that’s just part of the business.

“It’s so competitive out there,” Boustani said. “If you don’t get involved in the community, people forget about you.”

Steve Steinhauser, a restaurant expert at Deloitte & Touche LLP, tends to agree.

“If you participate in these things, it demonstrates your support for the community,” he said. “It’s difficult to quantify. It’s intangible, but it is an important part of being in business.”

Food fairs like the Taste of Encino which, at 10 years old, happens to be the longest running of L.A.’s “taste” events seem to pop up everywhere, and it’s no surprise why. The events have proven useful not only for restaurants to promote their wares, but for non-profit organizations to raise much-needed funds.

The Taste of Encino, which also features live music, is the biggest fund-raiser of the year for the Encino Chamber of Commerce.

A portion of the funds raised also go to local schools, whose students are helping to staff the event. The Taste of Encino has contributed some $65,000 to area schools since 1992, according to Pam Campeau, the chamber’s chief executive.

How much such events contribute to L.A.’s culinary culture is another matter, says local food critic Merrill Schindler.

“In theory, it’s a wonderful idea, a showcase for the best restaurants in the neighborhood,” Schindler said. “But in practice, a lot of the best restaurants don’t participate. You can’t much blame them. It’s a tough way to cook.”

According to Schindler, another problem is the way the “taste” events are set up. After paying an admission fee, customers purchase food tickets and then wander around, sampling the delicacies of participating restaurants which cost several dollars each, depending on the item.

By the end of the day, many customers discover they have spent as much as $50 apiece to consume tiny portions off of tiny paper plates, standing all the while.

“You could’ve just gone to real restaurant and eaten like a human being,” Schindler said.

Nonetheless, business people insist that in the cutthroat world of restaurants, any exposure is good exposure.

“It’s not a place where you can expect to make any money,” said Carlos Salazar, owner of the Gypsy Grill, a “French California” restaurant in Encino which has seen seven nearby restaurants close their doors in the last eight months. “But it’s a good tool to get your name out there.”

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