It's happening in Tucson, in Birmingham, in Kansas City. Columbus, Ohio, Albuquerque and St. Louis have seen it, too, as have over a dozen other cities. And now, Colorado Springs has heard the cry of the Council of Independent Restaurants of America: "It's Time to Unchain America!"
What's it like for an independent restaurant to compete with chain restaurants? Not easy. Here's an interesting statistic from a recent newsletter from Dan Marchand's neighborhood restaurant, Simply Breakfast & Dinner Nook: "... 90 percent of restaurants that open will be gone within the first five years. ... While chain restaurants have a survival rate of 90 percent, the independents have only a 10 percent survival rate ..." One of Dan's marketing tactics is to offer free meals on birthdays; he even sends birthday postcards to those on his mailing list as reminders. You won't get that at Applebee's.
What you will get from Applebee's or Chili's or Olive Garden or (you get the idea) is a blitz of advertising in print, on television and on the radio. Admit it, you could sing the jingle from any of them without much prompting. According to a recent article in the New York Times, the combined national advertising budget for 17 restaurant chains including McDonald's, Wendy's, Burger King and KFC was $2.5 billion.
Add the power of that advertising dollar to the positioning of fast-food chains near schools, and the sit-down chains near shopping areas, and it's no wonder kids eat junk food. Nor is it any wonder, given suburban growth patterns and strategically located shopping centers, that the majority of diners are more likely to be able to locate a chain restaurant than a home-grown original.
But independent restaurants are coming up with strategies to buck the trend. Tucson Original, for example, a collaboration of chef-driven independent restaurants that started in 1998, has devised a program to cultivate future customers. "Kids Dine Out" brings middle-schoolers in groups of four or five to a restaurant to sample unfamiliar food and learn about menus and restaurant etiquette. Don Luria, owner of Caf Terracotta in Tucson, sees this as a way to "counter the dumbing down of the American palate." Most of the youngsters he encounters have only eaten in chain restaurants.
Nine local independent restaurants, many of them chef-owned, have met to discuss how they might "unchain" Colorado Springs. Patty Davidson, owner of The Margarita at Pine Creek, initiated the conversation among the group after she recovered from the shock of a question posed to her by a desk clerk from a nearby hotel: "Are there any other restaurants in town (besides The Margarita) that aren't chain restaurants?"
Davidson figured that if the most likely person to be asked restaurant recommendations from out-of-town visitors didn't know about the independents, maybe lots of residents didn't either.
She rallied the troops and the newly formed group presently includes The Margarita, Sencha, the Warehouse, Briarhurst Manor, La Petite Maison, the Black Bear, Jun, Gertrude's and Marigold's. The group hopes to include other independent restaurants. They're planning some collaborative print ads and future discussions about how to raise awareness of independent restaurants and how to dispel some misconceptions.
Many folks, for example, fear that independent restaurants are fancy, stuffy and expensive. In fact, most have a casual atmosphere where the diners determine the dress code, whether they're decked out to celebrate an anniversary or dressed down to just relax. This is Colorado after all, not the Upper East Side of Manhattan.
Stuffy? Ask any regular at one of these restaurants how stuffy it is when the wait staff remembers not just your name but also your favorite entree, or your favorite table.
Cost is always a factor for diners, and independent restaurants offer a range of dishes at generally reasonable prices. Admittedly, they don't have the gigantic buying power that allows slightly lower prices at chains. What they have instead, they will argue, is fresher food, much of it purchased from local growers, and profits that stay within and benefit the local economy. A significant portion of the profits of chain restaurants ends up at corporate headquarters.
"Anyone in business for himself has a major task," said Brent Beavers, executive chef at Sencha. "You have to love what you do to work as hard and long as the independent guys do. You have to want to make your community a better place, through supporting local charities, schools and churches, through supporting each other, and through offering the best food in dishes you can find no place else."
As an example of how one independent restaurateur can support another, Beavers buys Sencha's beer from the Warehouse, also home to Palmer Lake Brewing Company. Diners who care about keeping local, independent restaurants strong and viable can help out too by trying one of our many fine independent restaurants. And be sure to tell them why you're there.