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An Open Letter (Please Eat With Us)

We tend to long for the things we have lost, but never seem to blame ourselves for not supporting them while they're here.

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I have nothing against national chain restaurants. My family and I dine at chain restaurants and I understand their allure, the comfort of knowing what you will get, whether in Richmond, Chicago or Omaha, Neb. 

I'm asking that when you make your dining decisions, please remember the locally owned restaurants. Full disclosure: I own a family-run restaurant. Since the economy bottomed out last fall, business has dropped off — just like every retail sector in our economy. It's hit our industry especially hard, however, particularly during the recent holiday season.

People are still eating out. I make it a regular habit to drive around to see how other places are doing on a given night. It's been very frustrating when I drive by a dozen or so local restaurants and the parking lots are empty, but when I go by the chains, there are people waiting in line to get in. I've lived in a lot of cities up and down the East Coast. I've been in Richmond since the early 1990s, and I've never seen a city so taken by chain restaurants. If you look at the various “Best of” surveys that come out in local publications, chain restaurants are always on the list. 

This is not to say that the national restaurants have no place in our local food chain. There are advantages, however, to eating local that I would like you to think about. The money you spend at local restaurants stays in Richmond. We buy our products from local distributors, support local farmers, local meat producers and other local suppliers. Our profits are not being sent back to some national headquarters. We also employ local staff. Many of the chains bring in staff and management from other locations. 

Chain restaurants also have no ties to the community. Richmond offers a wonderful array of local flavors, regional specialties and the like. When I travel to any city, I always find out where the locals eat. I want to taste what the area has to offer, to see how they do things differently than we do. Culture is most often expressed through the tradition of food. If you want to get to know the people, eat with them. There's a reason why politicians on the campaign trail often head first to the local diner. This is where you connect with a community, with its people and its traditions.

You will often find the basis for local food goes back many generations. 

Take barbecue. Every small area of the country has its own style. This is because the ingredients readily available to the poorer classes were made into their type of barbecue. Pork was affordable in the South, while in Texas and the Midwest, beef was plentiful. Sauces are the same way. In colonial days, the tomato was thought to be poisonous in the eastern half of North Carolina, so their sauces are only made from vinegar and spices. Western Carolinians held no such view, so their sauce has tomato.

Local flavor defines our culture and bridges the gap between generations. I look upon the Richmond restaurant landscape and am fearful that we are not going to keep our local traditions alive. As more people dine at the chains, the local owners are closing up shop. A recent article in Style Weekly read like an obituary of local restaurants during 2008. Some were new places, but there were some old classics that just couldn't make it. 

This reminds me of the story of the downtown Miller & Rhoads department store. When I first moved to Richmond, I worked downtown. Everyone lamented the loss of the downtown shopping during lunch at Miller & Rhoads. By the time I got here, the buildings were long boarded up. When I began asking people how often they bought items there, I found that it wasn't very frequently. We tend to long for the things we have lost, but never seem to blame ourselves for not supporting them while they're here. The 6th Street Marketplace comes to mind. There are countless other examples. 

As economic times have gotten to all of us, it's even more important to support local retail and restaurants. The large chains have the capital to withstand the ups and downs of the market. Local owners do not. All of my friends in the restaurant industry are suffering. For us, a 10 to 20 percent loss of sales is a crushing blow. Many have experienced worse. The big guys are going to survive. Are we?

When deciding to eat out, the question you have to ask yourself is, “What do I want the Richmond restaurant landscape to look like when we come out of this recession?” It may be more convenient to grab a bite at one of the chains at the mall, but your local owners cannot afford the rent. Look at all the new construction in your area. The only ones who can afford to open a restaurant there are chains. 

I'm asking you to go a block or two out of the way. Get off of Broad Street or Midlothian Turnpike and support your local restaurant. You'll be surprised at the diversity of flavors and choices available. Our prices are competitive, our food is outstanding and many of us provide extra value to help ease your pocketbook during this recession. We each have our vision of what we want to provide Richmond. Without your help, our vision, and the local traditions, may soon disappear.  S

Carey M. Friedman is a local restaurant owner. To avoid the appearance of impropriety, Friedman requested that Style withhold the name of his establishment.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.

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