Making Change: Restaurants Unite!

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Once upon a time the term chain restaurant meant fast food - McDonalds, Wendy's - places people go for a quick, cheap meal. For a true dining experience, most people ate at restaurants with table service and tablecloths: a locally owned eatery. But in recent years, that scenario has changed. Just look around Northeast Ohio. Some pretty fancy chains have opened their doors just this past year - places like Brio Tuscan Grille, the Melting Pot, Ruth's Chris Steakhouse - places where it's hard to leave without paying at least $20.

Phillip Cooke: And all of a sudden we have all of these chains that are highly competitive with the independent restaurants.

Phillip Cooke is executive vice-president for the Council of Independent Restaurants of America, or CIRA. He says the upscale chains have been popping up in clusters all over the country... and they're tough rivals.

Phillip Cooke: Because they are white tablecloth, they are good service, they are using good china, good silver, good glassware; they're serving good food. I mean, if the chains were terrible, if they served bad food and had bad service, there would be no problem. They happen to be very good at what they do.

And they have a financial leg up, Cooke says. The food is often less expensive because they can buy in bulk; and the service is more consistent since they can afford to pay employees better wages and offer benefits. Combine that with a tough economy, and you've got some stiff competition. But, says Sergio Abramof, chef/owner of Sergio's in University Circle, it's nothing that Cleveland's restaurants can't handle. After all, it's the local restaurants that have the most invested in the region.

Sergio Abramof: It is the local independents because we live here in the community; our children go to school here. We feel a deep sense of commitment to see that we can help and do whatever we can to improve the quality of life here.

That's why Abramof and about 45 other Northeast Ohio restaurateurs have formed Cleveland Originals with the help of CIRA. Cleveland Originals hopes to level the playing field through several means - collective marketing, encouraging collaborations and group purchasing - which could reduce the cost of everything from rice to soap. Ultimately, Abramof says, that would translate to lower prices on the menu. That's the upside, but it could create problems too, says Holly Harlan, director of Entrepreneurs for Sustainability, an organization that helps businesses balance economic needs with those of the community and environment.

Holly Harlan: Is there a downside to buying in larger groups... and there could be, it depends on how they define the specifications for their products.

Harlan says many local restaurant owners are committed to buying their food from local farmers. That's a huge plus for the economy, she says, because it keeps the food dollars in the region. If Cleveland Originals arranges a purchasing plan that doesn't include locally produced goods, then the group is essentially shutting down a local market. It's a problem, Harlan says, but it's also an opportunity.

Holly Harlan: That'll challenge the local producers to come up with that volume. If they could plan ahead knowing they'll need five tons of mushrooms, then they'll go out and make it happen. So I think it could be a real upside if they specify that they want local or organic.

Sergio Abramof says he sees the irony of promoting the importance of patronizing local, independent restaurants, yet turning away from local producers to supply the goods. And, he says, the region's independents care too much about the area's quality of life for that to happen. Abramof considers Cleveland Originals an opportunity not just for local restaurants, but also for local growers and distributors.

Sergio Abramof: You don't have to go to 50 different restaurant owners to try to get people to participate, you can come to our group and say, "Look, I'm offering this service where we can recycle your oil or provide you with a product from a certain dairy farmer that is providing organic milk," or whatever it may be. And you now have the ears of 50 restaurant owners and you can sell the idea to a group rather than an individual.

After all, it's highly unlikely that the national chains will seek out local products since they usually have prescribed arrangements with national suppliers. Giovanna Daverio, co-owner and co-chef of Battuto in Little Italy, says there are plenty of reasons Cleveland's restaurants need to insure their place in market. Daverio says independents have unique recipes and personalized service and moreover they offer a spirit that chains can't replicate.

Giovanna Daverio: For us it's knowing the people that come through the door. If you think of when you have a dinner party, the joy of having all those people in your home. It's like that. Not everyday, but it's like that.

It's not about stopping all chains from entering the market, she says, there's a place for the chains. It's about maintaining what's unique to Northeast Ohio. In Cleveland, Shula Neuman, 90.3.

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