Spreading the Word for 25 Years

WordHampton started in a basement; look at it now
Awards are proof that their hard work pays off. From left are Steve Haweeli, the founder and president; Ashley Fresa, a marketing associate; Nicole Castillo, the executive vice president; Marissa Jacobs, an account executive, and Ned Haweeli, an account coordinator. Durell Godfrey

It’s no easy feat to encapsulate a 25-year history in a single conversation, but during a busy Thursday Steve Haweeli, the president of WordHampton Public Relations, gave it a go.

Seated in his humble office in Springs, with the chatter and laughter of three employees coming from the next room, Mr. Haweeli began at the beginning.

He had been bartending in New York City and freelance writing on the side when one day he happened upon another calling. “Someone asked me if I had ever written a press release, and I said, ‘What’s that?’ ” Mr. Haweeli said. “It was for a $5 lunch at a place called the Red Caddy on Houston, and I got a hit from New York Newsday.”

That was April 1991. The next month, he and his wife at the time left their apartment in Williamsburg, which was not the hip neighborhood it is now, for the South Fork.

“There comes a time in a man’s life when he needs to decide if he is going to be a bartender for the rest of his life,” Mr. Haweeli said. “And there is nothing wrong with that; it’s exciting, but it can wear you down.”

His restaurant days did not end in Manhattan. He had a bartending stint at Nick and Toni’s in East Hampton, where he worked when he started WordHampton. In 1992, Nick and Toni’s became his first client.

“I saw there was a market for this service, and I loved it,” Mr. Haweeli said. “And I still do. So we started with restaurants.”

Working out of his basement with just one other employee, within the first year WordHampton landed a number of other local restaurants as clients, including Estia and Bostwick’s. Although client lists thickened and people began to recognize the WordHampton name, five years later a curious college student flipping through a Yellow Pages phone book was surprised to learn there was a PR firm in her hometown.

“I thought there was no way there would be a PR firm in East Hampton, two miles from my house,” said Nicole Castillo, who is now the company’s executive vice president. “I was prepared to drive at least to Riverhead, but lo and behold there was WordHampton.”

Ms. Castillo, who had been home for winter break, was hoping to begin her senior project — to interview and write a paper about a public relations professional. After completing the assignment and graduating a few weeks later, in February 1997, she was hired by Mr. Haweeli as his second full-time employee. Six years later he asked her to become a partner.

“I thought it was a good opportunity to grow with the company, because at the time Steve was hoping it would get bigger,” Ms. Castillo said. “To expand the reach and get into a real office, those were the kind of aspirations that he had at the time.”

Not only did the firm eventually outgrow the basement and move to its current office on Three Mile Harbor Road, but because of the unique nature of the seasonal market here and the media attention it attracts, once the team proved itself successful with restaurants, it expanded its reach to also represent businesses in the construction, architecture, real estate, retail, and service industries. Its specialties now are the hospitality, medical, real estate, and lifestyle businesses.

“We had a knack for restaurants and we spoke the restaurant language, which helped us with the media,” Mr. Haweeli said. “It was a hot industry then because restaurants were beginning to grow out here, but just from being out here other clients began to approach me.”

Because of the breadth of their clients, Mr. Haweeli said WordHampton wears two hats in the PR industry. “If you do things across different sectors, you are called a generalist firm; if you just do restaurants, you are called a boutique hospitality firm,” he said. “We’re a little bit of both.”

Despite WordHampton’s small-town roots, the local firm, which briefly had offices in Riverhead and Manhattan, has made a name for itself on a regional level. Not only has it won countless awards and developed clients across Long Island and in Manhattan and Connecticut, it also started the popular Hamptons Restaurant Week and Long Island Restaurant Week, which are now award-winning campaigns. Participating res­taurants offer prix fixe specials during each week, providing an incentive for customers to try a new spot or visit an old favorite while also bringing new business to the restaurants at less busy times of the year.

While awards are proof that hard work pays off, Mr. Haweeli and Ms. Castillo claim to “laugh hard too.” After 20 years, they continue to learn from each other and tweak their systems as they build the company.

“It’s been a blessing that I could find something I enjoy doing and that I don’t feel like I had to settle,” Ms. Castillo said. “It’s a learned industry and the more mileage you have, the more you realize how to make it work and how to make every moving part work.”

“I’m happy to keep growing, but I’m happy with where we are right now,” Mr. Haweeli said. “We have good people and great clients. I’m happy to just run a good company, day in and day out.”