Chain restaurants may have fat advertising budgets and corporate clout, but neighborhood independents have the power to win the hearts and loyalty of local diners, says a recent report from Chicago-based market researcher Mintel.

Over half of respondents who choose independents over chains say that indies do a better job of supporting their community/economy. The majority also say they are willing to pay more—up to 10 percent—for the independent restaurant experience.

David Hirsch, co-owner of Moosewood Restaurant, an Ithaca, New York, landmark for close to 40 years, believes one major advantage independents have over chains is the flexibility to support local farms and other ingredient suppliers, which resonates well with consumers.

That might not seem like a revolutionary idea today. But decades before the term ‘locavore’ was even coined, Moosewood gained national acclaim and a still faithful following for offering customers the fresh food they want while providing community businesses with an economic boost.

Even the restaurant’s décor, which showcases the works of area artists, reflects that commitment.

“Ithaca has a lot of restaurants per capita so diners have a lot of choices,” Hirsch says. “We know that our commitment to our community is reciprocal or we would never have been able to remain in business for so many years.”

Van Eure, owner of Angus Barn restaurant in Raleigh, North Carolina, agrees that the good neighbor policy works both ways. In addition to supporting community activities year-round through contributions of cash, gift certificates and products, Eure’s family created a non-profit foundation for mental illness research and treatment 27 years ago.

“Four years later, our employees started an annual ‘Walk for Hope’ to raise funds for the foundation and this year more than 3,000 of our neighbors and customers came out to participate,” Eure says.

Although the population of California’s Catalina Island is relatively small (around 3,500), tourism is big business. Everyone from the locals to the captains of the boats that bring visitors over from the mainland recommend Steve’s Steakhouse as the place to go for an upscale meal.

“We’re not the cheapest restaurant in town so we’re usually a weekend and special occasion destination for the locals, but word of mouth has been invaluable to the success of our business,” says owner Steve Bray.

For goodwill, and to help promote his restaurant, he involves it in a wide range of activities including sponsoring recreational and educational programs and facilities for local youth.

Like the other operators, Riccardo Dardha considers supporting his neighborhood’s activities and events a priority. But the proximity of his New York City-based Bread & Tulips restaurant to a number of small businesses made him want to also forge relationships with their employees.

A few months ago, Bread & Tulips introduced a loyalty program for employees of businesses located within a four-block radius of his restaurant. So far, the program consists of a special VIP card that entitles them to a 15 percent discount on lunches. They’re also offered complementary crostini and other small plate samplings when they purchase drinks at the bar during a weekday ‘aperitivo hour.’

“We are already seeing a number of the same faces coming in on a regular basis,” Dardha says. “And we are planning to expand the program with a frequent dining card that we will issue to both our business and residential neighbors.”

By Marilyn Odesser-Torpey

Industry News, Marketing & Promotions, Philanthropy