The door to the restaurant opens. My husband smiles and greets a man who has come in several times before. We are grateful to have repeat business at our new restaurant.
The man returns the greeting and then blurts out, “I am so disappointed to find out you’re a chain.”
Slightly taken aback, my husband responds: “We’re really more of a family of franchisees. A network of restaurants, where the owners help each other….”
He stops his explanation and asks the guest, “Do you like our food?”
My husband, gesturing across the restaurant: “Do you like the atmosphere?”
My husband: “Do you like me?”
Smiling, the guest nods, “Yes.”
My husband: “Well, this is my restaurant. I own it. I am here all day, every day. I do pay a franchise company to help me with certain aspects, like marketing. And most recipes come from corporate — but many of those recipes originate in franchisees’ kitchens. However, I make the decisions about the operation of my restaurant.”
Do you believe that local businesses are important to support local economies?
Our restaurant supports the local economy.
My husband chooses his own vendors. Our locally-owned food supplier buys many items from local farms. Our many and varied signs are designed and printed by two men who likely founded their company decades before Photoshop was created. A small, local general contractor did our build-out, hiring a lot of local sub-contractors to sand, paint, stain and otherwise transform the space. A local real estate agent — actually one of my husband’s college buddies — profited from the lease agreement. The 40 or so images that decorate our restaurant were framed by a man who operates his framing business from his basement; my father-in-law knows him because they attend the same church.
We’ve also created jobs for 15 local people during a very difficult economy. Our employees include two high school students; several college students; two dads who are paying child support; and my 25-year-old brother-in-law, who earns enough to pay rent and buy groceries while he works as an unpaid youth minister at a brand new church.
Our restaurant — and the four additional restaurants we hope to open — should also support our family and provide a retirement for my in-laws, who have invested significant capital in the business, not to mention the hours they work so my husband can have one day off each week and he can work 12-hour days instead of 16-hour days.
In addition, we’ve participated in several local charity fundraisers. Yes, we hope that our charity dining-out programs help more people find us as we work to establish ourselves in a tough market. But, the fact is that we’re establishing connections with our local community and we’re supporting programs that are important. (We’ve supported programs that help provide food to the homeless as well as chapters of organizations that raise money for medical research. We’re also talking with a local hospital and a local Boys & Girls Club about how we can support them.)
Do you believe that local is more eco-friendly?
As a person seeking to live a little greener, I know we all struggle with all the shades of gray in our green lives.
I understand the sentiment that buying local is important. But it is difficult to see the no-questions-asked anti-franchise sentiment — to wonder if it is hurting my family's livelihood and that of other hard-working business owners who've bought into franchises — and I'm struggling with the arguments surrounding it.
My husband is chasing his dream. He owns his own business — a neighborhood restaurant. He is in his element: serving customers, cooking new dishes, planning events, meeting local business people, and even balancing the books.
I wasn’t particularly driven to own a restaurant. The risks are very scary to me. But how could I say “no” to my husband’s dream?
And so I am part owner in a great little neighborhood restaurant. As someone with a growing dedication to living sustainably, I see areas where we can make our restaurant greener. My husband is filing my suggestions so he can consider them when we get past survival mode.
He also listens to customers concerned about sustainability, and he explains the dilemmas he faces. For example, he recently had a customer ask if he uses free-range chicken. When he told her the increase in the price of one of our chicken dishes if we used free-range chicken, she admitted she wouldn’t pay the difference.
To play devil’s advocate, I could point out that there are some corporately-owned restaurants that are probably greener than your average locally-owned restaurant (whether independent or franchised). Chipotle, for example, has LEED-certified restaurants and serves naturally raised pork. Jason’s Deli has invested in solar energy, at a couple of its corporately-owned stores — something your average locally-owned restaurant can’t afford, whether it is owned by an independent chef or a franchisee. (Sixty percent of Jason’s Deli stores are corporately owned.)
The efficiencies and sales volume at these restaurant chains allow these large companies to reduce their footprints with technology that is currently cost-prohibitive for smaller companies. I hope that these large companies continue to test energy-efficient products and lead the way for the entire industry to become greener. I commend these companies for participating in pilot programs so that all restaurant companies can benefit from the information they are willing to share.
So which restaurants are corporately owned and which are locally owned?
Aside from asking someone who works at a restaurant, there is no easy way to tell which businesses are locally owned and which ones are corporately owned. Many large restaurant companies have both corporately-owned and franchised locations. Starbucks — which does not franchise — is renaming some stores, like 15th Avenue Coffee and Tea in Seattle to give them more of a local identity.
All I ask is that you wrestle with the meaning of “locally-owned” before you eschew any restaurant in your city because it has a national or regional identity.
Our franchise company serves as a mentor and an advocate. We have someone looking out for our interests. Someone who helped us with site selection and build-out, someone who gave us a list of materials we would need to buy and suggestions for vendors with the best prices, someone who provided trainers for our first two weeks, someone who helps us marketing, someone who advises us on landlord situations.
We need this expertise to make a success of our family business. But we operate as an independent and locally owned company.
More than anything, I want this business venture to work out. My husband is giving so much of himself. He enjoys the work, but slow days are so challenging. (Is it the economy? Is it that we aren’t advertising enough? Is it just normal for a young restaurant?)
We live simply. We just want enough to earn enough to support our family and my in-laws. My husband and I would like to save for retirement and to put our kids through college.
As for the restaurant itself, we’ve loved becoming a part of the business community and the neighborhood. We have our “regulars” now. How cool is that? Like any restaurant, we’re looking to serve the best food possible, to be as efficient as possible, to provide the best customer service, to treat our employees fairly. I just hope that the “buy local” supporters give us a chance. And someday, maybe we will be able to afford solar panels and free-range chicken.