PROVINCETOWN – If you have ever walked by Bayside Betsy’s, a restaurant on the west end of Commercial Street, around lunch or dinner time on a summer day, you are familiar with the oeuvre of Philip Desmarais.
Desmarais has been “barking” at Bayside Betsy’s for eight years.
A barker attempts to attract passers-by into a restaurant or other attraction by extolling the virtues of the place.
For Desmarais, that can mean telling people his favorite dish on the menu or even singing a song.
“This is my empire,” Desmarais said.
An opera singer by training, Desmarais is not shy.
“I like the sound of my own voice. I’m loud and obnoxious,” he said, unapologetically.
The plight of a barker is wrought with rejection and Desmarais takes it in stride.
He itemizes the elements of the job in rapid succession: “I like to talk to people. I have a personality that kills. You have to take rejection constantly.”
Observing Desmarais at work could be a thesis for a study in sociology. As a couple approaches the restaurant, he engages them in conversation. If they stop to look at the menu, he asks whether they are thinking of lunch or dinner. He talks about the view from the dining room. He points out his favorite menu items.
“You try to connect with people. Usually I’m pretty successful,” he said.
He said his success stems from the fact that he preaches the truth. “I believe in the restaurant. The food is really good here,” he said.
But if the couple is not ready to settle in at Bayside Betsy’s, he makes recommendations for other places in town.
“It’s for the good of the town. We’re a tourist economy,’ he said with a shrug.
When a man indicates he may be interested in returning “tomorrow,” Desmarais launches into the theme song from “Annie.”
It’s a lot of effort for what in restaurant lingo is known as a “two-top.”
Does it work? “Absolutely it does,” Desmarais said.
It works so well that Desmarais claims restaurant owners at competing establishments send their barkers to watch him and learn the art of barking. But, he said, the essence of what he does cannot be taught.
“You’re not going to watch me and use my lines. You can’t teach this. The lines are nothing without the character behind it,” he said.
He doesn’t mind the competitors’ tactics so much, but he would like to get paid by those other restaurants. Or perhaps he will teach courses in barking. But for now, he continues on.
A man leaving the restaurant accuses him of “haggling.”
“It’s not haggling. It’s barking!” Desmarais calls after him.
Closer to the center of town, in front of the restaurant Way Downtown, Elaine Slote, stood at the door, trying to lure people in by calling out menu items.
Slote, who has worked at the restaurant for four years, said she is a server who decided to try her hand at barking to bring some additional customers in during a lull in service.
She maintained that when it comes to barking, it is not so much how you say it as what you say.
On this day, “cinammon French toast” was working but “lemon ricotta pancakes,” not so much.
“I’m trying to figure out what catches their ear. You can tell because they move their head a bit,” she said, picking up on the nuance of the barker’s influence.
A head movement might lead to a step in the direction of the restaurant and then the barker needs only to lure the potential patron through the entryway.
She said her technique was working.
“The patio has been full ever since I walked out here,” she said.
A couple blocks west, a woman who gave her name only as “Judy,” barks for I Dream of Gelato in the Aquarium shops.
Judy said she likes to mix it up, ad libbing to suit the occasion.
For instance, when a policeman walks by, she might say, “Gelato so fresh, it should be a crime.”
She likes to have fun with words: “Grab a Sundae on Saturday.”
Judy said she is a volunteer barker at I Dream of Gelato and this is her ninth season at it.
“It’s almost like being a pied piper,” she said.
Making it a little tricky, the shop she is barking for is off the main street, so customers have to be lured into the Aquarium shops building in order to get to the restaurant.
That’s where skill comes in.
Judy keeps up a steady patter: “Frosty beverages by the bay. It’s like heaven on a spoon.”
People pass by, some with barely a glance.
“You get a lot of rejection. You have to brush it off,” she said.
– Laura M. Reckford