Alex Pryor, owner of Zin Restaurant in Kansas City, has been watching in frustration as the city’s independent restaurants give way to national chains. Although the chains are often outmatched by the independents in terms of quality and service, their considerable resources enable them to gobble up prime locations and to buy market share through extensive advertising. Upscale chain restaurants have also grown increasingly clever at hiding their chain identity and appearing to be unique, locally owned businesses.
Earlier this year, Pryor began meeting with other restaurant owners to discuss ways they might cooperate to reduce costs and increase visibility. In June, the Kansas City Independent Restaurant Association (KCIRA) was officially launched with 17 charter members.
KCIRA’s primary goal is to market the advantages of dining at homegrown restaurants. Members now sport business cards and tabletop "tents" that read "local food served with local flavor," encourage diners to patronize locally owned, independent restaurants, and list the names and numbers of the association’s members.
KCIRA also plans to pursue joint purchasing to lower costs on everything from insurance to produce. Already the association is finding that distributors are far more attentive to the group’s needs than they are to individual restaurants. KCIRA expects to launch an advertising campaign later this year and has solicited bids from several agencies. A newsletter and employee discounts of 25 percent at member restaurants are also in the works.
Only recently did KCIRA discover that it has counterparts in other cities. Last fall, we reported on Tucson Originals, a two-year-old restaurant alliance in Tucson, Arizona. The group’s success had inspired the creation of the Council of Independent Restaurants of America (CIRA), which hoped to seed the idea of local restaurant alliances in cities across the country. (See "Preserving Tucson’s Unique Flavor" in the November 2000 issue.)
Less than a year later, CIRA now has six local chapters. The chapters set their own agendas, while CIRA provides a national network of resources and assistance.
Aside from the Tucson Originals, the most established chapter is in Washington, DC. With more than 50 members, the group has conducted a highly successful advertising campaign in the Washington Post Magazine and published a directory of member restaurants.
Meanwhile, the newly formed Milwaukee Originals is focusing on group purchasing and, in Minnesota, the Twin Cities Originals is working on an advertising strategy. Two other chapters have formed in Providence and Atlanta. The independent Kansas City association is now considering affiliation with CIRA.