The area's independent restaurateurs have begun organizing for greater visibility and buying power. A small group of them, including Brad Friedlander of Moxie and Sergio Abramof of Sergio's in University Circle, spent two months investigating strategies for putting locals on equal footing with well-capitalized national chains. Two weeks ago, their efforts paid off with the formation of Cleveland Originals, the region's first chapter of the nationwide Council of Independent Restaurants of America (CIRA).
Abramof, chapter president and member of CIRA's national board of directors, says the little guys aren't out to bash their chain competitors; they just want a fighting chance. "Independent restaurants compete against the chains on all kinds of levels," he says. "We compete to fill the seats, to obtain quality food products, and on things like negotiating leases, purchasing goods, and hiring the best employees."
Economies of scale being what they are, the across-the-board cost of doing business for an independent may be 15 to 20 percent higher than the price paid by large chains. "We lose a lot of negotiating power [with vendors] when all of us purchase goods and services as individuals, rather than as a group, the way the chains can do," he says.
Group buying power, then, is one big advantage the restaurateurs hope to secure by banding together beneath the CIRA umbrella. Assistance in developing joint marketing, education, and customer-incentive programs are others.
But really, does it matter if a region has an independent dining scene? If sameness and predictability are what diners value, probably it doesn't. On the other hand, for food fans who appreciate a taste of a region's authentic character, it's hard to beat a local, independently owned restaurant. "If you have out-of-town guests and you want to show off your city," Abramof says, "you don't take them to Olive Garden, do you?"
Plus, indie restaurants contribute to the regional economy. Chef-owners, for instance, support regional farms by purchasing locally grown products. Their business profits are spent inside the community. And their roots often go deep into their neighborhoods. Supporting their enterprises is like choosing family over strangers, Abramof suggests.
Of course, no one expects diners to patronize a place simply because it's locally owned. Chain or indie, Abramof says, a restaurant needs to be excellent in order to succeed. Fortunately for Cleveland diners, we are knee-deep in outstanding independent restaurants in all price ranges; support them by dropping a few discretionary dollars on one of them today.