Friday, July 31, 2009

Local Is As Local Does

The Green Phone Booth is excited to present the following guest post. This post is a little different from previous guest posts as today's poster has asked to remain anonymous. She does not want anything discussed here to affect the corporate office of her husband's franchise or other franchisees.

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?”

Guest: “Yes.”

My husband, gesturing across the restaurant: “Do you like the atmosphere?”

Guest: “Yes.”

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.


daharja said...

I'd like to say Yes, But...

A McDonalds franchisee could say all that, and yet it would still be a McDonalds.

There are no easy answers to what is good and what is bad.

The Transition Towns movement has done some interesting analyses of what happens to money spent in franchises versus independently owned businesses.

Money spent in independently-owned businesses tends to stay and circulate in the local area far longer, and at a higher percentage, than money spent in franchises.

I will also point out that, here in New Zealand, most franchises are owned by foreign interests.

I do not want to send my money overseas or support foreign business any more than I can help.

I mean, would you want to support Indian businesses by choice, when US-owned businesses are doing it hard? Or Chinese? Most people would support their own first.

Given a choice, I will continue to buy local and independent products and services.

Thanks for an interesting guest post.

Carmen said...

I wonder if "supporting your own" is always the right choice? Wouldn't this just keep $$ in the wealthy communities? "Buy Local" is just not a simple concept. There are aspects of it I get, but also aspects of it that don't make any sense to me. If something is fair trade and sustainable, might it not be better to benefit small farmers or artisans from developing communities?

Anonymous said...

thanks for posting this - lots to think about. it is good to see the 'other' point of view.

Lynn from said...

That was a fabulous guest post. As a business owner myself, I understand how much work goes into the business and how hard it is when things are slow...

I'm also doing a lot of work on the "buy local" movement due to one of my client's and due to my volunteer work with our local sustainability initiative.

Here are some suggestions that might help your husband:
- do you promote the fact that you work with local vendors? I recently ate at a chain restaurant and noticed that they displayed small cards touting the local sourcing of their vegetables. I was so impressed I took a picture to post on my blog (not done yet!)

- can you hang local artwork? Depending on the type of restaurant, anything from high-end art to art by local school kids would give a neighborhood vibe

Since people are asking for LOCAL, and your restaurant has LOCAL elements, I would encourage you to promote those local elements.

Good luck in this tough economy.

Erin aka Conscious Shopper said...

Thanks for lots to think about. Just like when you support local agriculture you need to get to know your farmers and their farm practices, you should get to know your restauranteurs and their business practices - whether the restaurant is a franchise, large chain, or indepentently owned.

I also agree with Carmen about fair trade. Buying local is just one good option among many, and as long as you're trying to do good for people and the planet, I don't think you have to decide that one choice is the "right" choice at the exclusion of all other choices.

I would eat at your franchise on occasion if I lived near you,but I also like to try out independently owned restaurants with local flavor and we even enjoy chipotle now and then. Mostly though, we try not to eat out much at all.

Green Bean said...

I think this is an important post in the sense that it illustrates how grey being green really is. For some people, your restaurant's affiliation with a chain is likely the death nell. For others, it might not even factor into their minds.

As a card carrying member of the BUY LOCAL movement (or something like that), I definitely tend to stay away from chains. We usually only eat in one if it's a road trip and we're desparate. However, a big EAT LOCAL friend actively supports a local Roundtable Pizza because it is a franchise owned by a local family.

Lynn's ideas are great. Franchises that are locally owned should put a sign up indicating that, to the extent they are permitted by HQ. Same for any environmental or local food efforts that are made.

Finally, this post reminded me that many stores we think of as chains may actually be locally owned and fairly independent. ACE Hardware, for one, is a cooperative of locally owned hardware stores that have collaborated in an effort to remain competitive. However, until I read that in Big Box Swindle (the anti-chain bible), I had no idea.

Thanks for reminding us that being green is really grey and that it is important to think twice about our assumptions and to ask questions.

Beany said...

It is the scale that bothers me more than the chain aspect of many chains. I don't consider myself to be anti-corporate. I am more anti-marketing than anti-corporate or anti-chain. I would support an Olive Garden or a Burger King if they offered veggies options and meat options that were sourced from local farms where the workers were paid a fair wage. I would pay the extra cost. However so much of the money at chains tend to go to marketing instead of paying workers/farmers a higher wage.

As an example...initially, I wasn't very upset when Walmart began offering organic cotton products. However, Walmart does have a history of using their size to bully their suppliers. So I would not support Walmart because of that reason. I consider my purchases based on the entire supply chain, not just the end.

The other thing about smaller businesses is that they tend to be more transparent. I haven't found that to be true with franchisees partly due to the relationship with the mothership.

daharja said...


Beany makes some valid comments that I agree with, about pressuring issues.

I'm also concerned about large franchises and corporations reducing the value of labels such as "organic" and "free-range". We're already seeing pressure, in the US in particular of late, by large companies to reduce what these labels mean.

So, for example, "organic" isn't quite what you think it is any more, and can include a whole stack of practices that most purchases of organic products would not equate with the term, and which have not been considered or approved of as organic in the past.

The guest poster says that the owner of the franchiser uses corporate recipes. My question is: what happens if they don't? It's not exactly a free and independent business if you have to toe the party line. And that's something that goes against the whole concept of the free market and open and fair competition.

Even in China, franchises are taking over and killing off independent family businesses that have, in some cases, been running for generations. I don't see this as positive.

Then there's the issue of large franchises and corporations pricing independents out of business. In Australia and New Zealand (where I live), every time a McDonalds or any other franchise opens up in a small town, small independent fooderies go out of business. They can't compete.

And primary producers are forced to sell certain types of bread and vegetables and meats for lower prices to one huge corporation. The balance of business power is all in favour of the franchise, and the equality of business interaction is upset. Not to mention the franchises pushing for GM food, which is a whole other, nasty issue.

I'm sure the franchise owners may be lovely people, but what you end up with is the whole world looking like one giant strip mall.

Labelling Starbucks coffee houses to look more local is just playing pretend. There's still no independence. You've still got strip mall McCoffeehouses. They just have prettier window dressing.

I know I probably come across as a rabid Greenie Hippie Conservative. I'm not, and I do think that balance is key to a healthy community.

But at the moment, the pendulum has swung too much one way - towards corporatism and sameness and the death of independence and community life.

If we event try to pretend that franchises are anything but huge corporations, (even though some small guys, like the guest poster, may make a living off them), we're just hastening the day when everything will be owned by the Nikes and McDonaldses and WalMarts and the Starbucks of the world.

And if we're lucky, they might throw a few pennies our way.

And we'll think ourselves fortunate for the beggaring.

Betty Black said...


I think everyone knows what you are saying. The strip mining of resorses and money from small comunities is a concern of everyone of us. We don't want a strip mall.

But I'm convinced that by voteing for the lesser of two evils we can push our world slowly towards health. Beacsue if we don't vote or we vote for things that can't sucseed, we are actually letting corprate intrests win.

In the US we have mostly big corptarte stores and resturants, even in small towns. So franchices are one of the only ways that a person can start a buisness here without going down a bumpy road to fanantial ruin. I do think that this family sounds like the type of people who, if supported, are going to move farther away from the corprate strip mall way of doing things. They are going to change the world one meal at a time. Within a flawed system yes but dose that make what they are doing wrong?

I know local buisness people who make use of corprate tactics and distroy comumitys. Are these bussnesses better beacuse thay are local?

I don't think the poster is asking us to accept all franchizes nor am I, but perhaps we can look at each buisness that we partonize the same way we look at potential friends. With open eyes and make our judgments without bias.


Robj98168 said...

I hear you all. I really sont think about the franchise thing much- I know I would rather buy From Ace Hardware in Burien than Lowes or Home Depot in Neighboring Tukwila WA. Ace is a franchise, but I know Ace is a locally owned and managed part of the chain, that hires People from the community. I feel the same about restaurants- Locally owned franchises VS> Locally owned independant restaurants- I would personally pick the latter but do frequent the franchise on occasion- easy here- most franchises don't open in my fair city.


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