Two years ago, a group of independent restaurant owners in Tucson, Arizona stopped thinking of themselves as competitors and launched a collective effort to counter the rapid expansion of chain restaurants. They formed an organization, Tucson Originals, and pooled resources for group promotion and purchasing. Their success inspired the creation of a national independent restaurant network that hopes to seed similar local alliances in cities across the country.
It all began with an article in a Tucson monthly in 1998. Writer Michael Munday was disturbed at the number of local restaurants that had recently closed and the parallel growth of chains. The article touched a nerve with City Councilor Steven Leal, who convened a meeting with the magazine’s publisher, John Hudak, and several local restaurant owners.
The group met for several months and launched Tucson Originals, which now has more than 40 members. To join, restaurants must commit at least $50 in annual donations to a food bank and agree to actively participate in one standing committee and one fund-raiser for a local nonprofit.
Tucson Originals has four goals. The first is to lower costs for its members through group purchasing. This has been accomplished through the creation of a separate entity, the Arizona Independent Restaurant Alliance (AIRA), which negotiates with food suppliers and has trimmed its members food costs by 10 to 20 percent. AIRA is open to all of the state’s independent restaurants and now includes 75 members in Tucson, Phoenix, and Scottsdale.
The second goal is to encourage consumers to support Tucson’s independent restaurants. Publisher John Hudak donated $50,000 in free advertising for this purpose. His magazine no longer reviews or accepts ads from chain restaurants. Member restaurants also include a card with each diner’s check that lists the city’s local restaurants and describes their important role in maintaining Tucson’s culinary sense of place.
The third goal is to raise awareness of the community contributions of independent restaurants, which the group accomplishes through high profile fund-raisers for local nonprofits. The final goal is to expose kids to the experience of independent dining through various school programs.
Tucson Originals has become a model for a new national organization, the Council of Independent Restaurants of America (CIRA). “Chains are about money. Independent restaurants are about food,” says CIRA’s founder, Washington, DC restaurant owner Robert Kinkead. “It’s time to fight back and unchain America.”
The top 100 restaurant chains now account for more than half of the market. Chains have gained a 75 percent market share in the quick-service segment, and are moving aggressively into casual and full-service dining, where they have about 40 and 30 percent of the market respectively.
It is this last segment that is of particular concern to independents. In recent years, several restaurants chains have successfully entered the fine dining market by opening restaurants that appear to be independent, often with different names, décor, and menus at each outlet. Ample resources have enabled the chains to secure the best locations, recruit top chefs, and flood local markets with advertising.
To counter this trend, CIRA plans to seed local alliances throughout the country and then serve as a national network to provide local chapters with support and resources. Its first initiative is a series of workshops to introduce the Tucson Originals concept to restaurant owners in Atlanta, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Providence, Seattle, and Washington, DC. CIRA will also advocate on behalf of independent restaurants in government policy decisions and within the National Restaurant Association, a trade group that includes both independent and chain members.