At 3 p.m. on a Saturday afternoon, Tin Angel restaurant was empty, two hours away from opening for dinner. Sitting around the fireplace in the bar were Rick Bolsom, Anita Hartel, Tom Loventhal and Gep Nelson, four of the five board members of Nashville’s newly formed chapter of the Council of Independent Restaurants of America, CIRA. Asked what finally inspired them to band together in formal, organized fashion, four heads turned to look out the window at the recently opened Maggiano’s Little Italy looming over West End Avenue.
Along with fifth board member Jeremy Barlow, this group of dining industry veterans represent 11 of the area’s most popular and successful locally owned eateries. Yet that number pales in comparison to the seemingly unbreakable chain of restaurants represented by the corporately owned behemoth across the street. Nashville’s Maggiano’s is the 36th in the country, a small piece of Brinker International’s pie, which operates, franchises or has ownership in nearly 1,500 restaurants in 23 countries. Among its other holdings are Chili’s Grill, Romano’s Macaroni Grill, Big Bowl Asian Kitchen, Corner Bakery Café and Rockfish Seafood Grill. Maggiano’s parent company isn’t the only big thing about this so-called Little Italy, which is 17,000 square feet, with seating for 260 in the main dining room and an additional 200 in private rooms (not to mention plans on the drawing board for a vast rooftop patio to open in the spring).
Those 460 restaurant seats are among the more than 2,000 that have opened in Nashville in the past several months, most of them located in corporate-owned chain restaurants. And it’s not over yet. Just two blocks from Maggiano’s, a Stony River Steakhouse will soon be sizzling. At the corner of Fourth and Broadway downtown—home already to The Palm and Morton’s—a Sullivan’s Steakhouse is planned, proving that Nashvillians have an insatiable appetite for red meat.
“The corporate restaurant industry is barreling through America,” notes Bolsom, who serves as president of the group. “They used to focus on fast food and quick-service fast-casual. But the only way they can succeed is to expand, and the fast-food market was becoming pretty saturated, so they set their sights on the mid- and upscale market. They come up with a concept, clone it and roll it out. For every five concepts, four fail, but to those big corporations, a failure isn’t the same as it is for an independent who fails. A corporation just tries another concept.”
While the number of chain restaurants staking a claim in Nashville’s dining territory has grown considerably in the last two decades, so has the number of chef-owned or chef-driven independent restaurants. But where a Cheesecake Factory slaps down millions of dollars for a prime location, contracts dozens of construction crews to get its mammoth stores built in the blink of an eye, and enjoys the benefits of multimillion-dollar marketing budgets, the independents are, as mAmbu’s Anita Hartel likes to remind people, “essentially blue-collar workers.” Put two or more together in a room, and inevitably the conversation will turn to how tough it is for the little guy.
A few months ago, spurred by the relentless encroachment of dining industry Goliaths, the Davids decided to band together, acknowledging that there is indeed strength in numbers. “Our greatest strength—that we are independent—is also our greatest weakness,” Bolsom laughs. “We can be a little prickly that way.”
“But it’s more than battling the chains,” adds Loventhal. “There’s always going to be people who would rather eat in Cheesecake Factory than Noshville or Tin Angel. We just want to level the playing field.”
“Having a national group made the difference,” Nelson says of CIRA. “We didn’t have to start from scratch. We looked at what they have done, what branch cities have done, and think it can work for Nashville.”
CIRA was founded in 1999 by a group of independent restaurateurs, spearheaded by Bob Kinkead, chef/owner of the marvelous Kinkead’s Restaurant in Washington, D.C. He was joined by some colleagues around the country, and the first CIRA national conference was held in Tucson, Ariz., in 2000, which resulted in national media coverage and increased membership. At a board meeting in early 2002, the decision was made to concentrate on the formation of local chapters around the country. Each chapter takes the name Originals along with its city name: Louisville Originals, Twin Cities Originals and St. Louis Originals are some of the 18 that preceded Nashville Originals.
Currently, there are nearly 30 local members signed up as part of the Nashville charter group, which will be fully operational in 2006. Initial efforts will be centered on CIRA’s www.dineoriginals.com website, which links to each chapter city. Here local diners will be able to see a complete list of participating Nashville restaurants and take advantage of CIRA’s gift certificate program: each member restaurant donates $650 worth of gift certificates every quarter, and on designated days, diners can purchase those gift certificates online at a 40 percent discount.
“The national chapter told us to log on to a particular city the day their certificates go online,” Bolsom says. “They sold out almost immediately.” While the service benefits both diners and restaurants in each home city, fans of dining locally wherever they may be also check the Dine Originals site before traveling.
Each chapter markets itself and its members, and participates in and plans events that work best in its hometown. After all, uniqueness is an integral component of what makes independent restaurants so worth seeking out.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, until I am blue in the face: what does the presence of a Cheesecake Factory, a P.F. Chang’s, a Panera Bread, a Sullivan’s Steakhouse or two dozen Starbucks say about Nashville, other than the fact that our city has grown big enough to attract some portion of the corporate parent’s expansion dollar? Except for possibly some negligible design differences, the Nashville Maggiano’s is no different than the 35 others in that chain.
It is the independent restaurant—owned by the couple who live down the street from you, or the man you went to high school with—that speaks to the heart, the soul, the spirit of who we are and where we make our home. Only here can you expect to be greeted by a friendly, familiar face at the door who knows your favorite table; only here can you find a menu created by the chef who’s actually cooking your food, using heirloom tomatoes grown by local farmers, cheese made 30 miles away or country ham cured in the next county over. In 2006, let’s resolve to celebrate Independents’ Day all year long.