There's a fast food restaurant on nearly every corner. That isn't news. But lately, if you take a spin down South Tamiami Trail, University Parkway or Cortez Road, you'll see a newer breed of chains-upscale restaurants with stylish décor and more progressive menus than you might expect.
Independent local restaurateurs in the past few years have witnessed an influx of these polished chain establishments-Fleming's, Ruth's Chris, Stonewood Grill and Carrabbas, to name a few. And with all the new retail coming on board in the region, rumors abound that Roy's, Cheesecake Factory and P.F. Chang are ready to enter the market. Because corporate chains have multimillion-dollar marketing and purchasing budgets independent restaurants can't compete with, many solo local restaurateurs did the smart thing: They teamed up to form The Sarasota-Manatee Originals, now 60 restaurants strong.
The Originals was conceived in 2003 by Michael Klauber of Michael's On East and Michael's Wine Cellar, and colleagues from Euphemia Haye, the Bijou Café, Harry's Continental Kitchens, Caragiulo's and Pattigeorge's. Both Klauber and Euphemia Haye co-owner D'Arcy Arpke had been members for several years of the Originals' parent organization, the Council of Independent Restaurants of America (CIRA).
"We started to see, as our area was starting to grow, that national chains were starting to look at Sarasota and Manatee counties in a big way," Klauber says. "We're all about educating people to the differences between local restaurants and chains and preserving our cultural heritage."
"It's never been our intent to put down any of the chains," says Arpke. "It's merely to get on a level playing field."
And it's quite a field. As with any tourist destination, the restaurant industry in Sarasota and Manatee is big business. In 2004 more than 1,000 individual restaurants and firms in the two counties employed 20,000 people to serve the 130,000 seats that generated nearly $1 billion in gross sales, according to Labor Market Statistics of the Florida Agency for Workforce Innovation, the Florida Department of Revenue and the Department of Business and Professional Regulation.
Klauber and the other Originals members hired CAP Creative, a local branding and public relations group, to help develop a cohesive image and marketing strategy. "We spent the first year doing research and understanding our brand and coming up with a way to present [it]," says Klauber. "We might not be able to buy like the chains, but we realize we can market like the chains. As a group, we're very strong."
Aside from promoting their businesses, members also use the group as a way to publicize job openings and check employee references. A health insurance plan for group members is also in the works.
"The bottom line is, clout counts," says Don Luria, president of the CIRA and an independent restaurant owner in Tucson, Ariz. "The more people you have, the more restaurants in your group, the more buying power."
While other CIRA chapters have formed buying groups to get better prices from food and wine wholesalers, the diverse menus and strong individualism of the Sarasota-Manatee chapter made marketing dollars a more practical contribution to ask of distributors. Since wholesalers are dependent on the restaurants' business, many have agreed to fund marketing tools such as the Originals' dining guide and their Web site, www.freshoriginals.com, which draws several hundred visitors a day.
"We've been more or less branding ourselves as something that people who travel, who know the difference and have regard for independent businesses will look for," says Arpke.
That's a smart tack, says Virginia Haley, executive director of the Sarasota Convention and Visitors Bureau. Tourists are drawn to areas with a diverse restaurant scene, Haley says. "When we talk to visitors, they want to know that there's fine dining and a variety of dining before they decide on a destination," she says.
Investing an appropriate amount of time and money in marketing is something that many independent restaurateurs overlook, says Judi Gallagher, a local restaurant consultant who works with both independents and chains. "I think that a lot of small, independent restaurants don't understand that it's very important for people to understand who they are, what they are and what they're serving," Gallagher says. "The best investment that any small restaurant can do is for the owner and manager to take a night course in marketing and public relations."
The Originals also frequently participate in local charity events, another extremely effective way to gain exposure, Gallagher says. Catering such events introduces a restaurant's product to a wider audience. By donating gift certificates to charity auctions, for example, auctioneers talk up individual Originals' restaurants as well as the group itself.
When the Originals offered 900 discounted gift certificates last October on its Web site, 780 sold the first day. A second batch went on sale in early December. The discount program was intended to draw diners to the newly updated Web site and, in turn, to member restaurants. "It works," says Rick Willats, operating partner of the Mangrove Grill, which joined the Originals in October. "A couple of days after we joined, three coupons were redeemed."
One of the stated goals of the Sarasota-Manatee Originals is to raise public awareness of local independent restaurants. Judging from the response to the gift certificates, people are aware.
"Customers come in and say, 'Oh, you're a member of the Sarasota-Manatee Originals,'" says Bob Kirscher, owner of The Broken Egg Restaurant, Originals member and president of the Sarasota chapter of the Florida Restaurant Association. "Everybody knows who we are."
SURVIVING and THRIVING
Husband and wife Galdino and Patty Gomez have owned the Cabo Café on Beneva Road since the summer of 2004. Although chef Dino was born in Mexico City, Mexico, his family hails from Oaxaca, and he and Patty pride themselves on serving traditional meals from that region. According to Patty, the restaurant has filled a void for local foodies seeking regionally specific Mexican dishes such as fish tacos and molés, the complex sauces of chilies, chocolate and spices for which Oaxacan cuisine is famous.
WHAT SETS YOU APART? Real Oaxacan food. "To actually offer an authentic Mexican meal, as opposed to the Americanized version, was the whole goal when [Dino] opened the restaurant," Patty Gomez says. BEST ADVERTISING: Word of mouth. "Most of the people have looked for us," says Gomez, stressing the role of word-of-mouth advertising in Cabo Café's success. Dino says diners are more likely to eat at his place if they know it's close to home. He's gotten good responses by advertising in the newsletters of surrounding neighborhoods and through fliers sent to nearby apartments and houses. MENU: The restaurant introduces dishes to new customers with all-you-can-eat specials of fish tacos on Tuesdays and chili relleños on Wednesdays. Dino has also been experimenting with drink specials, most recently a margarita made with pineapple and nopales, or cactus pads. "In Mexico they believe nopales are healthy," Dino says of the large flat pieces of cactus commonly used in salads or stews. DO IT YOURSELF: One way to improve your bottom line is to eliminate middlemen wherever possible. For example, Dino often purchases his own vegetables from markets such as the Red Barn Flea Market in Bradenton, shaving up to 30 percent off his produce costs. BEST REASON TO JOIN THE ORIGINALS: Cabo Café joined the Sarasota-Manatee Originals last fall as its first Mexican restaurant. "So far, it's great to be comrades instead of competitors with all these people, and I respect and admire them," Patty says. Aside from a shared interest in the community, Dino says the advertising prospects of joining the Originals interested him. "Small businesses like this need the support of larger groups," he says. "I already have people coming in because of the group. It's been working so far."
Another newcomer to the Sarasota-Manatee Originals is the Mangrove Grill. Nestled into the Riviera Dunes Marina on the Manatee River, this classy-yet-casual Palmetto restaurant is one of many relatively new establishments drawing diners north to mainland Manatee County. The menu is diverse but not fussy, drawing influences from the Gulf Coast cuisines of Florida and Louisiana.
Rick Willats became an operating partner when the restaurant changed owners last September. Previously he worked as a restaurant manager for over a decade in upstate New York, where he was a member of a similar group of independents.
WHAT'S YOUR STRONGEST ASSET AS AN INDEPENDENT? The personalized atmosphere and familiarity that develop between the staff and customers. "Servers and bartenders get to know the regulars," Willats stresses. "The staff knows people on boats [that dock near the restaurant], what they like, when they're here for the weekend." WHY CHOOSE AN ORIGINAL? "If you go to a chain restaurant, you have so many people come in-they're in, they're out-you don't get to see the same server," Willats says. "We follow through. The staff is getting stronger and more positive comments from customers." WHY DID YOU JOIN? Marketing power. Strong marketing efforts-as well as quality food and service-can help a far-flung independent develop a reputation among diners as a destination well worth seeking out. "The group will do that," Willats says. "It's extremely advantageous."
For 25 years, Euphemia Haye has been serving an eclectic menu of classic and contemporary dishes punctuated with local ingredients. D'Arcy Arpke co-owns the cozy Longboat Key restaurant with her husband (and chef), Raymond, and believes that high standards of quality and comfort are what have made their restaurant a repeat destination for visitors and locals. "Our goals have always been to be the best, to produce consistent quality and nice atmosphere," she says.
COMMUNICATION IS KEY: The "consistent quality" produced in the kitchen has to carry through to the dining table, and that bridge depends on strong communication between the front and back of the house. "Oftentimes we have a staff meal," D'Arcy says. "Communication is a little more open before a shift starts." This gives Ray and other members of the kitchen a good opportunity to discuss the nuances of that night's specials with the waiters and waitresses. The wait staff, in turn, needs to give the kitchen strong feedback from the diners. The end product is a more informed and well-cared-for customer likely to return and a kitchen staff more attuned to their diners' tastes. LOCAL EXPERTISE, LOCAL CONTROL: The ability of a chef-owner to create specials and "offer uniqueness every day" is a strong asset many chains can't match. Euphemia Haye features three to five daily specials that often incorporate local ingredients such as Florida seafood. GROUP BENEFITS: Kinship. Novice restaurateurs have the opportunity to share the knowledge and experience of dozens of seasoned professionals. Whether considering taking reservations online or purchasing a new point of sale system, "You can get a sales pitch and be there with other restaurateurs asking questions [that] someone with less experience might not think to ask," Arpke says.