2000s Archive

Breaking the Chains

Originally Published October 2003
The explosive growth of franchised restaurants led a band of forward-thinking citizens and independent restaurant owners in Tucson to put their collective feet down. They’re still standing.

At a cocktail party in Cincinnati, a group of women argue about which restaurant serves the best Asian appetizers in the city. It’s a tough call, but in the end they decide the lettuce wraps at P.F. Chang’s are better than the egg rolls at Chili’s. Meanwhile, in Indianapolis, the upscale chain called Palomino has been voted the city’s best restaurant for two years in a row.

All across America, chain restaurants are driving independent owners out of business and becoming the new vanguard—the arbiters, improbably, of taste. “When cities name P.F. Chang’s as Best Chinese, something is definitely wrong,” says Bob Kinkead, the prominent Washington, D.C., chef and restaurateur.

Tucson, Arizona, decided not to take that fate lying down. In 1998, when an article in Tucson Monthly magazine detailed the arrival of a number of chain restaurants and the concurrent, unexpected failure of two established independent operations, city councilman Steve Leal began to worry. He was afraid that his city—rich in cultural heritage, vibrant with arts, a major tourist destination—would sacrifice its defining character if chains got a big piece of it.

The councilman invited four well-known restaurateurs to help him implement a strategy. The result? The Tucson Originals.

“They don’t call us independent for nothing,” say Don Luria, co-owner of the Café Terra Cotta and a founding chairman of the group. “Prior to the existence of The Tucson Originals, the last thing an independent restaurant owner considered doing was sharing information with a competitor. Now these guys can’t get enough of each other. It’s a question of survival.” Banding together, the Originals, which now numbers 48 members, formed a buying alliance to lower food costs. And then they went out and tackled the public.

Though it should be obvious that locally owned restaurants have a commitment to their cities, the founders were surprised to learn that diners didn’t realize that the revenue generated by chain restaurants heads back to corporate headquarters, not into the community. More importantly, many residents had never learned to think of eating as an adventure or to associate the production of food with creativity and innovation.

It was a perception the Originals were determined to change. First they started Kids Dine Out, which invites children to dinner at participating restaurants. At Café Terra Cotta, a handful of kids come with a chaperone and join the owners for a meal. For many, it is their first time in a proper restaurant, and the owners, Luria and chef Donna Nordin, who is also his wife, make them feel at home. They show the children what to do when confronted with a folded cloth napkin and how to read a menu. Each child then gets to point out a word on the menu that they’ve never seen before, and Luria and Nordin explain its meaning.

The children are not allowed to order pizzas or hamburgers, and they’re encouraged to share their food and write down what they eat. At the end of the meal they visit the kitchen and meet the chefs. The kids leave with an understanding that real people own this restaurant—and that there isn’t another one exactly like it anywhere.

The association makes an effort to educate adults as well. “When people come to Tucson and are in the mood for Mexican food,” says Luria, “we want them to go to one of our restaurants, not to On the Border.” Official city maps even point out the locations of Tucson Originals establishments.

While Tucson may be a hotbed for the “local is beautiful” movement, the trend is being embraced across the country. In Washington, D.C., Bob Kinkead was also examining the problem. Although he was convinced chains could never dominate the top-tier restaurants—the skills and talent of highly trained chefs would preclude it—he did fear that in time the only independent restaurants left standing would be the ultraexpensive ones. “When chains began gobbling up upper-midrange restaurants,” he says, “I got mad.” So in 2000—with seed money from Kinkead’s, his namesake restaurant—he founded the Council of Independent Restaurants of America (CIRA) with Phillip Cooke, of Food Service Associates. Their plan was to help independent restaurants set policy guidelines.

Although Kinkead knew a lot of chefs, the organization got off to a slow start. “When your core audience is a bunch of guys who work eighty hours a week, it’s tough,” said Kinkead. “If I can talk to a chef-owner for a half hour, he’ll join. But he might not have a half hour.”

He kept at it, and CIRA has expanded to 13 cities, with 6 more expected to be inducted this year. Given that success, Kinkead has hatched some ambitious plans. “An independent’s worst enemy isn’t a chain,” he says. “It’s an inept independent operator.”

His hope is that CIRA will help independents by setting up buying cooperatives, job exchange programs, national credit-card processing, and group insurance rates. He even hopes that in the future the group will act as a guarantor of small-business loans.

And there are positive signs that independent restaurants may escape the fate of the bookstores and drugstores that have been swallowed up by chains. Small bookstores may offer better service, but they’re selling the same books as the big guys. An independent restaurant, however, cooks to its own tune.

“Chains,” says Luria, “have their place. But we are trying to prevent them from dumbing down the American palate to such a degree that food no longer possesses regional character, individuality, or sense of place. Chains are about sameness; independent restaurants are about originality and excitement.

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