Jon and Lucie Fath, who own Toscano restaurant in Richmond, budget a sizeable portion of their revenue every year to advertising. So do John and Elizabeth Hughes, co-owners of The Storm Café in Middlebury.
But neither couple is so eager for business that they'll buy advertising from just anyone. So, when a man called from out of state, offering top-shelf display space on a new Burlington city map, they were skeptical.
"My first instinct was, get off the phone," Elizabeth Hughes recalls. "He was a real fast talker."
Toscano and The Storm Café are among a handful of Seven Days advertisers who have received sales calls from an outfit called Premier Map Company. The callers offered to duplicate display ads the restaurants have purchased in "7Nights," Seven Days' annual guide to Vermont restaurants and bars, on a map that the City of Burlington and the Lake Champlain Regional Chamber of Commerce allegedly would distribute. Quoted prices ranged from $300 to nearly $500, with significant savings for those who agree to pay on the spot with a credit card.
Problem is, the LCRCC has never heard of the Premier Map Company. "We do business with other people in the map business," says the chamber's vice president, Tim Shea. "This organization is not one we have a relationship with."
As it happens, Premier Map and various affiliates have been the source of more than 130 complaints to Better Business Bureaus around the country in the last 36 months. Nearly half have been registered in the last year, and have largely involved the company's sales practices.
Cindy Sulsar, of the BBB in Tarrant County, Texas, says Premier Map and its related companies have established a pattern. "They lead the consumer to believe that they are representing some entity that, in fact, has not given them permission to represent," Sulsar says.
Premier Map is one of a web of companies formed by the Gildenblatt family of Arlington, Texas. Tom and Phyllis Gildenblatt started it all in 1977, when they incorporated Multi-Marketing Corp. Since then, the couple or their sons, Jim and Brad Gildenblatt, have spawned a dozen other companies whose operations have spread nationwide.
Premier Map also does business as Premier Impressions and D&L Maps. Both are affiliated with Universal AdCom, which bills itself as "a leader in the specialty advertising industry since 1974." According to Universal AdCom's website, the company has 75,000 customers, including "hundreds of Chambers all across the country."
Apparently, it has also claimed business relationships with chambers and schools that are not among its customers. Chambers and BBBs from Spokane, Washington, to Rutland, Vermont, from the Chicago suburbs to Port Charlotte, Florida, have warned local merchants of the company's sales techniques.
In 1999, the Georgia Office of Consumer Affairs issued a cease-and-desist order against Gildenblatt, saying his company had "falsely represented" that the purchase of an ad would directly benefit a school's athletic programs. A call to Jim Gildenblatt at Universal AdCom was not returned.
Tim Gravenstreter, who owns Countywide Guides & Maps, in Indianapolis, says he's "butted heads" with both Premier Map and Universal AdCom, as well as a host of other companies that "work on the nether edges of legitimacy."
"I didn't used to run into this problem as much as we are now," says Gravenstreter, whose company does maps for about 40 chambers around the country. "All of a sudden, in the last 15 to 18 months, it's reared its ugly head.
For John and Elizabeth Hughes, no time is a good time to shell out hundreds of dollars on suspect advertising. But, Elizabeth said one of the things that made her skeptical of Premier Map was the caller's suggestion that she could save a considerable sum by paying for the ad immediately.
"I just laughed at him, because we're dead-broke," Hughes said. "It's March. I said, 'Send me an invoice.'"