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Independent restaurants band together

Marketplace Staff May 10, 2006

KAI RYSSDAL: There are times when a big chain restaurant is just fine. When you’d be happy with a grilled-chicken Ceasar salad. Or a decent hamburger, provided it’s not overcooked. You can find those big chains everywhere. But small restaurants are fighting back. Kim Green reports from Nashville, Tenn.

[Sound: “Wells, party of two!” … dining room noise]

KIM GREEN: All 300 seats in the cavernous dining room in the Nashville Cheesecake Factory are already packed early on a Wednesday evening. This publicly-traded chain opened its first Nashville eatery in a bustling suburban mall last fall. Late last year, chains added 2,000 new restaurant seats in Nashville. Small independent restaurants are feeling the pressure. At Mirror, a sophisticated 50-seat restaurant in a somewhat grittier urban neighborhood nearby, the vibe is a bit more personal.

[Sound: (Waitress) Happy Birthday! (Fanny) Awww! Well, that is so very sweet.]

Mirror chef-owners Colleen and Michael DeGregory treated longtime regular Fanny Baxter to a free birthday dinner tonight. They count on these devoted patrons. But getting the word out to new patrons is slow going. The DeGregorys say it’s all about capital — they can’t afford the high-visibility real estate and the primetime advertising that the big chains can.

COLLEEN DEGREGORY: It’s amazing. Six years, we’ve been on the Food Network, we’ve been in the press, in the New York Times. . .

MICHAEL DEGREGORY: . . . We’ve run an ad.

COLLEEN DEGREGORY: Every day people are like, “What restaurant? Where are you located? I’ve never heard of you.”

That’s one reason the DeGregorys, along with nearly thirty other independent restaurant owners, have joined the Nashville chapter of a national association. The Council of Independent Restaurants of America, or CIRA, promotes America’s independent restaurants by branding them as an alternative to corporate cuisine.

RICH BOLSOM: I really think if we hadn’t found CIRA we’d still be talking.

That’s Rich Bolsom, head of the Nashville chapter of CIRA. That chapter, called the Nashville Originals, adopted CIRA’s model for marketing and fundraising. It works like this: Each member restaurant pays dues by donating hundreds of dollars worth of coupons every few months. CIRA then sells them online at a 40 percent discount. The member restaurants also promote each other through community events, printed materials and interconnected websites.

Still, local restaurant critic Kay West says a huge slice of the pie still goes to the killer chains.

KAY WEST: Maggiano’s Little Italy? Their grease trap alone cost more than most independent restaurants are able to invest to open in the first place. It’s a real David and Goliath kind of battle.

Originals president Rick Bolsom says big chains like Brinkers International, which owns Maggiano’s and Chiles, will always beat out the indies. After all, these chains have big marketing budgets, bulk buying power, and corporate efficiency.

But the indies hope their association will give them a leg up. One way is to help negotiate group rates for things like supplies from paper products to linen and trash hauling services. It’s all the more important to lower costs as chains move out of saturated big cities and into second-tier markets.

BOLSOM: Big chain restaurants have built out Atlanta and Charlotte and D.C. and Chicago. They can’t build anymore. They’re building in our market because our market, by their measurement, is still underserved.

Bolsom says that the Nashville indies will only survive if diners decide that creative local cuisine is worth seeking out. And Bolsom is trying to make that happen.

In Nashville, I’m Kim Green for Marketplace.

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