NEEDHAM, Mass. It’s only 7:30 a.m. at the Route 128 Executive Conference Center, a campus of buildings frequently used for off-site meetings, but Kimberly Banff has skipped the complimentary breakfast buffet and is already in her seat. “I don’t want to miss a ‘single minute’ of my seminar,” she says, making air quotes with her fingers for emphasis.
The room slowly fills up as others join her in a windowless conference room for an intensive one-day seminar on “Enhanced Hospitality Marketing Using Quotation Marks,” a continuing education course for advertising copywriters and other wordsmiths who serve America’s restaurants. “Good morning everybody!” says Claire Petrucci, an instructor who has built a successful branding company by pushing her clients to use quotation marks in excessive and inappropriate ways.
After introductory remarks that explain the somewhat grim failure rates for the type of businesses she serves, Petrucci lays it all on the line for the attendees, who have spent $325 to hear her spiel: “The restaurants that survive in the coming years will be the ones who come up with ‘new and exciting’ ways to get as many quotation marks as possible into their menus,” she says firmly, and heads bob thoughtfully around the room as those in attendance absorb this message.
“Let’s get going with some examples, good and bad,” Petrucci says as she clicks her laptop to display a slide of a menu from Harvest Forage, a farm-to-table restaurant two towns over.
“Look at the swordfish entrée,” Petrucci says as she directs a laser pointer at the screen. “I’ll read it in case you can’t see from the back of the room: ‘Swordfish: jasmine rice, spinach, sautéed mushrooms.’” As she finishes, she turns to face her audience and says “Comments?”
Kimberly Banff gingerly raises her hand and, when she is called on, says “There are no quotation marks.”
“Right,” says Petrucci. “Now lets look at another menu from a much more successful restaurant.” She taps the space bar on her computer to advance to the next slide, which reads “Take a ‘lovely scenic drive’ to our ‘gourmet oasis’ whose ‘rural environment’ and ‘beautiful, cozy’ space sets a ‘down-to-earth’ but ‘upbeat’ scene for ‘magnificent’ steaks and seafood.” “Compare and contrast,” she says as she turns around.
Mike LoPresti, a budding copywriter who has driven to the seminar from his condo in Boston’s South End, decides to give it a shot. “Much more effective,” he says. “My only criticism would be that the writer missed a chance to put quotation marks around ‘seafood.’”
“Good, good,” Petrucci says, then picks up a small paperbook, the Menu-Writer’s Style Guide. “Let’s see what the leading source on menu punctuation says.” She flips through the pages until she reaches the section titled “Standard and Non-Standard Language.” “Here it is,” she announces, then begins to read aloud from Rule 5.11, “When quotation marks may be omitted.” “It says ‘Quotation marks are not required or advisable for words that have no non-standard counterpart, such as ‘a,’ ‘an’ and ‘the.’ In all other cases, quotation marks are ‘awesome.’”