Independent restaurants cook up recipe for local distinction


“When many of us sit back and recall memorable times in visits to cities around the country or the world, usually many of those occasions took place in a restaurant. Furthermore, I would venture that those restaurants were usually locally-owned independent restaurants with combinations of venue, menu and ambiance that make the occasion or memory special. Independent restaurants are critical to local economies in traditional ways (job creation, etc.), but they also play a vital role in enhancing a city’s stature as a tourism and business travel destination. These businesses bring tangible and intangible benefits to a city.

First of all, there is the energy and entrepreneurial spirit that restauranteurs bring to a city. Sustained success in this business takes a combination of many skills and assets, and those who do succeed provide inspiration, role models and business acumen to other entrepreneurs in any business. They are a valuable part of the fabric of a business community. Additionally, chefs, in their own way, are artists, and the culinary landscape is their palette. They add an element of creativity to a region that is important but hard to define or quantify. However, make no mistake — they are key members of the “creative class” of a region.

Independent restaurants are the venues that are by far the most likely to showcase the tastes and culinary traditions that help make a city or region special and differentiate it from other locales. Kentucky has a rich food and culinary history that deserves to be proudly shared with the world. In fact, during the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games 2010, it will be. Furthermore, it is independent restaurants that are most likely to use locally grown or raised products such as vegetables, fruit, meat and dairy products, etc. By doing so, they contribute to an economic environment that helps the region’s family farms succeed.

Many travelers visiting a destination want to learn about local history and culture and much can be learned about these things through the lens of food, beverage and culinary tradition. Kentucky’s rich tradition in the bourbon industry is a great example. In addition to its many fine brands and varieties, bourbon flavor finds its way into sauces and other food recipes. The region’s burgeoning vineyard and winery industry is the rebirth of an industry that once thrived in the state as far back as 1860. Such products are often showcased in independent restaurants.

I love the Lexington area, but I also spend a fair amount of time in Louisville and have always been intrigued by the “Keep Louisville Weird” slogan, which is a grassroots public awareness campaign by independent Louisville business owners. The campaign (www.keeplouisville weird.com) is borne out of concern that too much of a presence and proliferation by chain stores (retail and restaurant) increasingly homogenizes the city and erodes its local charm. They cite a study conducted in Austin, Texas (available online at www.bizlex.com) that documents the financial impact to the community of such proliferation. The profits of independent businesses generally stay in the community, where the profits of chain stores (unless owned by a local franchisee) generally leave the city.

Another favorite place of mine is Asheville, N.C., and they have the Asheville Independent Restaurant Association (www.airasheville.org), which is organized for a similar mission. On the national level, groups like Council of Independent Restaurants of America (CIRA) and Distinguished Restaurants of North America (DiRoNA) are promoting the cause of independent restaurants. Personally, I keep the book Road Food handy whenever I travel. This book (www.roadfood.com) lists memorable local eateries along the highways and backroads of America. As I travel America, I try to visit these places and mark them off one by one. It’s a labor of love!

Now, having said all this, I want to share that I also love chain restaurants. I used to work in that industry segment, and some of my favorites are part of a chain. Many great restaurant chains started out as independent restaurants or may have been inspired by one. Clearly, there is a demand for and certainly plenty of room for chain restaurants in our large and diverse consumer economy. However, I think its critical to maintain a sense of balance, and one of the objectives of this article is to salute those independents and put a spotlight on their true and substantial contribution to a city and its region.

So, in summary, as you make dining decisions here in the Bluegrass or wherever you travel, keep those independent restaurants in your selection mix and get out there and “eat Kentucky and the Bluegrass.” It’s waiting for you!

Mark Sievers is a former restaurant executive with Yorkshire Global Restaurants and YUM! Brands. Currently he is the owner of The Sievers Company LLC, which is a business brokerage and consulting company. He can be reached at thesieversco@aol.com.

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