indie spirit: one group's effort to encourage folks to eat local

As an independent restaurant owner, John McDonnell is a little fish in a big pond. The owner of Tartine, an intimate French bistro in Rocky River that opened in 2008, McDonnell fully comprehends how challenging it can be to compete with the big national chains.

But he takes comfort in the fact that he's not alone.

McDonnell is a member of Cleveland Independents (CI), a local marketing group whose stated purpose is to "protect, nurture and promote independent restaurants in Northeast Ohio." As members, the roughly 90 independently owned and operated restaurants are included in numerous professional marketing campaigns per year.

McDonnell joined the organization because the philosophy appealed to him.

"I believe CI members want everyone in the group to succeed because it benefits us all," he says. "We need that feeling of professional camaraderie. Many of us would have survived by ourselves, but it's easier with an organization like Cleveland Independents."

The seeds of the organization were planted back in 2003, when some local restaurateurs began tallying the soaring numbers of dining seats generated by an influx of splashy new chains. Within a few short years, brands such as Bravo!, Brio, California Pizza Kitchen, Cheesecake Factory, Mitchell's Fish Market and Fleming's Prime Steakhouse descended upon the new Legacy Village and the recently revamped Eton Chagrin Boulevard.

It wasn't so much the existence of new competitors -- it was that for the first time, the big chains were targeting the exact same clientele as the indies.

"It seemed that something shifted in the development targeting of chains," recalls Sergio Abramof, owner of Sergio's in University Circle and Sarava. Whereas early chain restaurants tended towards middling fast-casual joints like Applebee's and TGI Friday's, the new breed -- which gave rise to the designation upscale-casual -- was targeting finer diners.

Moreover, says Abramof, the organization's founder, these chains had the financial resources to open in the most desirable of locations, prime real estate where independents typically could not afford to open.

"If customers have to choose on a February night," explains Abramof, "they're not going to drive 30 minutes to their favorite independent restaurant if they can travel 10 minutes and eat at an 'okay' chain."

So, a group of indie chefs and owners banded together, not in an effort to stem the influx of new chains, but to help indies become more competitive. The group formed a Cleveland chapter of the Tucson-based Dine Originals, a national independent restaurant group. Locally, they initiated a public relations campaign to generate awareness of the benefits of going local. They launched a website, built a membership list, and created a logo for display at member restaurants.

By 2005, the Cleveland group was the largest chapter within Dine Originals. In an attempt to better focus on uniquely local efforts, the group separated from the national organization and formed the wholly autonomous Cleveland Independents.

In addition to seating a board of directors, which included individuals both within and without the restaurant business, CI enlisted an executive director to market the organization. It also established a buying group (now-defunct) to maximize members' purchasing power.

The greatest initial challenge, explains Marlin Kaplan, chef-partner of Dragonfly and current CI president, was defining the organization's mission. "When you have a diverse group this size, you want to do what's best for everybody," he says. "Today, our mission is to really cement the fact that we are marketers of independent restaurants."

Much of that job, says Kaplan, is to inform the general public about the importance of choosing to dine local. "By supporting local restaurants, we're supporting farmers, local operators and the local work force," he explains. "Economies are driven off of small businesses. We don't want local restaurants to meet the fate of other mom-and-pop businesses, such as hardware stores, bookstores, etc."

Throughout the years, CI has greatly expanded its marketing efforts, says Myra Orenstein, presently acting as the group's executive director. Diners can now buy gift cards on CI's website that are redeemable at any member restaurant. Sales of discount certificates and a deck of 52 playing card-sized special offers continue to climb. And a splashy new website provides diners with a one-stop spot for news and info on Cleveland's finest restaurants.

The organization also conducts quarterly and annual promotional campaigns, the largest being Cleveland Restaurant Week, where member restaurants offer specially priced prix-fixe menus. Held the first two weeks in November, the promotion kicks off the holiday season while giving indies a fourth-quarter boost. To be more inclusive, CI recently created a new associate membership level for smaller food-based operations.

Today, CI is the largest organization of its kind in the country, says Orenstein, and while difficult to quantify, its efforts to bolster the indie dining scene by generating public awareness has been nothing short of impressive.

"Until the founders created this organization in Cleveland, chains were taking over," Orenstein explains. "Now, it's almost been a reverse trend. There are more independent restaurants being opened here than before."

Thanks to the tireless efforts of chef-members like Karen Small of Flying Fig, Doug Katz of Fire, Zack Bruell of L'Albatros and Chinato, and Matt Fish of Melt, the independent dining scene in Cleveland has no only survived, it has thrived. A city long known for little more than burning rivers and losing sports teams is now widely accepted as a bona fide dining mecca.

And the effects can now be felt across a wider swath of town. While the East Side traditionally has been the epicenter of fine dining, the trend is pushing westward -- into Detroit Shoreway, Lakewood, and Rocky River.

McDonnell sees the trend as encouraging, but he remains cautiously optimistic. The West Side, not being historically indie-driven, he says, faces challenges that an East Side operator might not.

"We have to educate West Siders that these are cool, fun places, and we're starting to see this to some extent," he adds.

Photos by Bob Perkoski
Photos 2 & 3: Sergio Abramof, owner of Sergio's in University Circleand Sarava
Photos 4 & 5: Marlin Kaplan, chef-partner of Dragonfly and current CI president

(Disclosure: Fresh Water managing editor Douglas Trattner is a current board member of Cleveland Independents.)
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