Nicole Kanner didn’t create All Heart PR because she wanted to quickly amass the most clients in Boston or work across as many industries as possible. All Heart’s raison d’etre, true to its name, is rooted in palpable enthusiasm for Boston’s most beloved restaurants (think: Alden & Harlow, Row 34, and many more). It’s a tiny but mighty operation whose far-from-secret ingredient is passion, which is easy enough to trace throughout Nicole’s Five-Year Plan.
When I was 20 it was the year 2000, which always makes me think of Conan O’Brien. I was a junior at Florida State University. I was very much figuring out what the right move forward was for me like a lot of people in undergrad do at that point. I bounced around between a couple different majors––I thought that I wanted to be a teacher, so I took a few education classes and realized that wasn't for me. I also took some communications classes and kept kind of going in that direction. Music and indie rock specifically was a big passion of mine, so I started getting involved with the college radio station.
Given how much I liked the college radio experience, I thought I’d maybe go into radio promotions. I started interning at the local Clear Channel station. I knew who the promotions director was, but they weren’t quite sure about me for whatever reason, so I just kind of started showing up and kept going back until they offered me an internship that turned into a part-time job. I was basically doing weekend remotes where we would go to advertisers of various radio stations, which were, by and large, car dealerships. I’d drive the radio station van to the car dealership, set up a giant portable tent, and hand out Cokes and pizza to random people. And swag. It was awesome.
My boyfriend at the time wanted to go to law school and was moving up to Boston. I hadn’t taken enough PR classes to know if it was the right thing for me, so I decided to go to graduate school at Emerson. I didn’t take time off in between undergrad and my masters––no one told me that’s what I was supposed to do! That’s one of my few regrets in life, that I didn’t take time to go travel or do something else in between. But, you know, it worked out.
The year after I graduated from Emerson, I was very much cutting my teeth in PR. Throughout my masters program, I’d had a job at the Sports Club LA. One of my best friends from undergrad had also moved to Boston and was managing the pro shop there. So, she (of course) hired all of her friends to work part-time retail at this boutique inside the club. I’d done a bunch of internships when I was at Emerson, and I basically had five copies of my resume on me at all times––this was pre-LinkedIn. The Sports Club LA was full of movers and shakers, people who knew other people, or knew more people than I did, at least. One day I was sitting at the restaurant there and struck up a conversation with someone who told me to talk with a woman who would put me in touch with her PR network. The woman ended up being Jan Saragoni who was the consummate PR professional in Boston for many, many years. She shared an office space on Newbury Street with Chris Haynes, who was doing a lot of work in the South End when that area was just starting to blow up. Chris turned out to be my first job in PR and my first job out of grad school. It was a great experience because I had the opportunity to get my hands really dirty. I wasn’t even a full year out of grad school and I was having face time with clients and pitching national media.
At the time, I was also working two other jobs. One was at a wine store on Charles Street, and I was also running speed dating events for a company that was called Hurry Date. I was doing these Thursday night speed dating events (think pre-Tinder!), coordinating people, showing up to the restaurant, and blowing the whistle when it was time to move. It was...a lot. Also, a lot of weird older guys would show up to the events and ask me if I was single and I’d be like “I’m...23.”
At 30, I was two and a half years into All Heart. But before there was All Heart, there was a lot of other work and a lot of other people.
After working with Chris, I decided I wanted to experience agency life with a little more structure so I went to the Castle Group, which at the time was working a little bit in the food space with clients like Stacy’s Pita Chips and Dancing Deer. They had a couple of restaurants on their client list which I worked with, and a few of them were Radius, Great Bay and Via Matta, owned by Michael Schlow and Christopher Myers (you know, married to Joanne Chang). I think I wanted something that I could infuse a little more of my personality into. So I left Castle and went to go work at Regan Communications when Nicole Russo was working there. I was on the hospitality team and she was my boss. We had a really wide breadth of clients from Todd English to Mohegan Sun to other restaurant clients, and when I was rounding out my time there, I was director of restaurant strategy, which I know sounds very fancy. I was trying to figure out my growth pattern. I was 26-27, and I thought I’d leave to freelance. You make lots of idiotic decisions when you’re young, but it worked out! I was slowly building All Heart in my free time.
I met my (now husband) Josh between 25 and 30. I met him when I was working at the Castle Group. One of our clients was Plymouth Gin, and we were helping to launch the redesign of their bottle in Boston. I was told to go find Josh Childs who had Plymouth Gin on the bar at Silvertone (which he co-owned at the time) in Downtown Crossing. I had to go in and introduce myself and see if he would come up with seasonal cocktails that I could then pitch to press. So I went in on a Thursday night at 6:15 and it was already three people deep behind the bar. He was bartending. I kind of made my way up and tried to set up a time to get coffee with him with my boss from the agency. And he was like “I’m...kind of busy here.” I emailed him and forced him to have coffee with me and my boss at like 9:30 on a Wednesday morning, which was pretty cruel to do to a bartender. I think he was really annoyed with me, but he did ask me out (I was dating someone else at the time, but was very on the way out. I politely declined). Instead, I suggested we kind of hang out in a big group with industry friends. Josh wasn’t so into that. I ended up eventually breaking up with my boyfriend, and Josh asked me out again, and I was like, “Yeah! We should go out. I am available to go out.”
All Heart’s origins were very gradual. I left Regan knowing that I had one client: A good friend who worked in events and marketing at the greater Boston food bank who needed freelance help to publicize the various events that the food bank was putting together. I also knew I had some chefs in my life who would feed me if things got really dire. My office was my really shitty Craigslist desk and Josh lent me money to buy a laptop, for which I have now paid him back in full. He believed in me! He really coached me through the whole process and saw something in me that I didn’t quite see in myself. But honestly, there was a good stretch where I was a very frugal grocery shopper. There was a lot of bologna in my life.
After the food bank, I took on a few other clients. I’d done this great Boston Magazine photoshoot while I was at Regan for Mohegan Sun and we had this great team of people and that really connected. One of them was hairstylist Michael Albor and the other was Lauren Genatossio, the makeup artist on the shoot. I started working with them. Oh, and another big one: right about then, I started working with the Island Creek Oysters farm, which was so cool. I helped them launch their eCommerce site.
At that stage in my life, I was primarily driven by my passions and passion projects, so I was kind of thinking less about what All Heart could be and what I wanted to grow it into and more about what I was super excited about. Like, I started a charity right around then. The husband of a good friend of mine worked in the music industry and she was very familiar with the food community as a food writer, so the three of us started this project, Eat Your Heart Out, which was a merging of up and coming chefs with up and coming bands. It happened once a year, and we gave a portion of the proceeds to a food charity and the other half to a music education charity. It was such a labor of love.
Also! My husband Josh opened Trina’s Starlite Lounge around this time. That’s a very important moment in our lives.
About three years ago, Mary, my account manager, came to me. A year and a half after Mary came on, Susanna started as an intern. In the year or two before I turned 35, I’d started to put more thought into All Heart as a real business and what I wanted it to be. Leading up to that point, it was just me, so I wasn’t really accountable for anyone else. After I hired Mary and Susanna, I knew I never wanted there to be a limit to what they could achieve here or what they could do. I wanted to make sure we were growing for them. The future of the company is a little bit for me, sure, but it’s really for them.
Mary coming on board really shifted the perspective a lot for me because she was really passionate about the same kind of work and clients as I was. I can’t emphasize this enough––I’m at a point in All Heart where I couldn’t do this without her or without Susanna. They both just have this incredible drive and enthusiasm and that’s all I could have asked for. We just got our new office, but until then it was just the three of us in a tiny space on top of each other, and we just made it work.
Aside from All Heart, my home life became much more enriched at 35 because my step-daughters started living with us full-time. Two girls, almost 15 and 16 years old. They push me to be my best self.
––As told to and written by Oset Babur for The Thirty-One Percent