Tucson Orignals: An Alliance That Works

In 1998 in Tucson, AZ, chain restaurants were moving in and local restaurants were closing at an alarming rate. Prompted by a local magazine article addressing the problem, city councilor Steven Leal arranged a meeting with a group of local business owners, including the magazine's publisher, John Hudak, and Don Luria, of Cafe Terra Cotta.

The group recognized that there was a problem, but after four to five lunch meetings couldn't come up with a solution, Luria says. Then, Hudak offered $50,000 of free advertising to extol the virtues of independent restaurants. The group contacted 12 restaurants and asked if they were interested in forming an alliance that would get local advertising and PR on a pro-bono basis. They set up a press conference announcing the magazine grant. Within three weeks, 35 restaurants signed up.

According to Luria, the first chairman of Tucson Originals, the organization's goal at start-up was to increase community awareness about the value of independent versus chain restaurants, and encourage community support for them. Locally owned restaurants are chef driven, says Luria, and as a result reflect the culture and the cuisine of the community. They are much more tied to their communities, while chains have an obligation to their corporate headquarters in other cities, he adds.

Another goal of the alliance was to set up a buying group. In the first full year that Tucson Originals was in operation, Cafe Terra Cotta saved $100,000 on food and other supplies. According to Luria, these savings are a big help to many independent operations.

Historically, Tucson Originals members have been required to make an annual donation to a specified non-profit in lieu of dues. The first year they contributed $4,000 to a local food bank. This year, the organization is considering incorporating as a non-profit under CIRA -- the Council of Independent Restaurants of America. CIRA's founder, Washington, D.C., chef and restaurant owner Bob Kinkead, modeled the organization after Tucson Originals.

Joining the organization, which currently meets three to four times a year, has had a great outcome -- professionally and personally -- for Luria. Until the organization was formed, other restaurants were viewed strictly as competitors. The owners didn't talk and didn't frequent each other's restaurants. Now there's camaraderie and support, benefiting the group and the community. Luria ran down a list of at least five events Tucson Originals is participating in this October -- from fundraisers for the local zoo and the Heart Association to a guest-chef dinner.

Luria believes the environment for independents in Tucson is pretty stable these days. The buying and marketing power Tucson Originals has given its members seems to have made a difference.

--Jennifer A. Redmond

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