Indie Inspirations

Tucson's independent restaurants show the country that there's strength in numbers

You could almost hear them coming.

Like a horde of marauding warriors, large chain restaurants such as Romano's Macaroni Grill, T.G.I. Friday's and P.F. Chang's were marching toward Tucson. The year was 1998, and the Old Pueblo had reached the enviable distinction of being a market where chains felt they could make money.

After reading an article in the Tucson Monthly, City Councilman Steve Leal was concerned. He'd seen how the big-box chains had squeezed out local hardware stores, bookstores and pharmacies, and he felt that something had to be done to prevent the same thing from happening to Tucson's local independent restaurants.

He called for a meeting of the minds: Don Luria (Café Terra Cotta), Deb Gellman (Presidio Grill), Alan Zeman (Fuego) and John Jacobs (El Parador). Also invited: Rob LeMaster (then-executive director of the Arizona Restaurant Association's southern chapter), John Hudak (Madden Publishing) and Michael Munday, the article's writer.

They were looking at the idea of "preserving the flavors of Tucson." How they were going to get there was anyone's guess, but the group knew something had to be done--and who better to do it than the independents themselves?

"I honestly did not know if this kind of organization had legs," says Luria, "I didn't know what the staying power would be."

A few lunches later, Hudak made an offer they couldn't refuse.

"John offered to run two full-page, four-color ads for independent restaurants," says Jonathan Landeen, executive chef/owner of Jonathan's Cork and current president of the Originals.

The ads would run for one year--and it cost the group nothing. By getting that $50,000 in free advertising, the group was already ahead.

"So in September of 1998, they called a press conference to announce the formation of the Tucson Originals," says Landeen. "I believe it was a live remote with radio interviews. Within a month, Don had gone around and secured approximately 35 members."

Luria's strong background in business and talent for bringing people together made him a natural as the group's first president.

"I always tell the story," says Luria, "at the organizational meeting, I left the room to use the restroom and when I came back I was president."

Membership meant serving on a committee, participation in a group event and a $50 check made out to the Community Food Bank. (Membership these days requires using the discount gift certificate program--$2,500 per year--and participation in at least two of the charitable events.)

"The basic philosophy, which we've adhered to for six or seven years, is as restaurateurs, we have an obligation to put food on the tables for those who don't have the opportunity to come to our restaurant. The Food Bank was the obvious outlet," says Luria. Some folks wrote checks for more, and Luria estimates the donation was between $3,000 and $4,000.

At first, it was a pretty loose group--they don't call them independents for nothing--but they did identify four common goals.

One was buying power. One of the biggest advantages chains have over independents is, due to sheer corporate numbers, the ability to buy large quantities of food at a lower cost.

"The difference is clout," Luria says. "When you band together, you've got clout."

The second goal was to create awareness that Tucson was unique in its dining choices--that local chefs had much to offer. The third was to "increase public awareness of the significant social and economic contributions that Tucson's independent restaurants make to the Tucson community." The fourth involved educating and exposing the next generation--kids--to the experience of eating in local places.

Goal one was somewhat daunting, but kismet played a role in making the goal achievable.

"Don was on a plane coming home to Tucson and ended up having a conversation with a gentleman named Darryl Karp," says Landeen. "Karp had been in the food-service business for years, and Darryl saw the opportunity of having a buying group, of developing the buying power of independent restaurants under the umbrella of a buying group. And then he got together with us and formed the Arizona Independent Restaurant Association (AIRA)." This action gave the group the cohesiveness it needed to succeed both as a group and as individual restaurants.

"It was immensely successful," says Luria, "Our first year of operation, I would say Café Terra Cotta easily saved between $100,000 and $125,000. It went right to the bottom line. Our food costs dropped from 31 1/2 percent to 27 percent, buying essentially the exact same things we were buying before."

Pat Connors, also a previous president and owner of Pastiche Modern Eatery, echoes Luria and credits the money he saved with enabling Pastiche to stay open.

About the same time the Council of Independent Restaurants of America (CIRA) was forming back east. They caught wind of the Originals and contacted the group. They were so impressed that they decided to use the group as a model, adopt the name Originals for all their chapters and hold the first annual conference here.

It was under CIRA's guidance that the Tucson Originals incorporated. Today, there are 18 chapters in cities from Albuquerque to Washington, D.C., with more on the way. Luria is the current president of CIRA.

With its network running strong, CIRA has plans for an expansion of buying power nationwide. Another idea in the works is finding a nationwide group health-insurance plan for folks working the front of the house.

Another networking benefit comes in the employee-sharing arena.

"If I have a dishwasher who called in sick, and I can't get a replacement, I can call one of the other restaurants and see if they have extra staff," says Connors. The same concept applies when looking for staff. "Let's say Cuvée is looking for a line cook. He'll let us all know, and if we have employees who are ready to move, and they can only go so high here, why not? That employee knows we have a relationship. The employee thing has been a nice surprise."

Today, the Originals' public face is largely seen in annual community nonprofit events, most recently the Humane Society of Southern Arizona's Puttin' on the Dog and the Joe Cristiani Gala Weekend. But the pice de résistance is the Tucson Culinary Festival, the Originals' own fundraiser.

At last year's festival, a month of celebrations culminated in a four-day extravaganza. The event includes wine dinners, wine lunches, food demonstrations, book signings, a reserve tasting, a grand tasting and more.

"What's different about this event," says Connors, "(is) we have wineries that don't always come to these events. You get the eclectic wineries, the independent wineries, as well as the big boys. What's neat is you discover things."

Last year's guests included Zarela Martinez of Zarela's in New York City (as well as her son and mother) and RW Apple Jr. of The New York Times. It's a bit pricey for the average budget, but with a portion of the proceeds going to the Community Food Bank, the price is worth it.

As for youth events--the aforementioned fourth goal--the group has hosted Kids Dine Out, with the Boys and Girls Club, where kids in the club are rewarded with dining in some of the Originals restaurants.

Luria, as do all the other members of the Tucson Originals, champion their cause because they are passionate about what they are doing.

"Independents are going to be the ones that preserve a community's culinary sense of place," he notes.