Breaking Loose From The Chains

October 8, 2004
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EAST GRAND RAPIDS — One owner of a local eatery feels strongly that the national chains are smothering his business potential, along with that of other independent restaurant owners in the region.

And he has decided to do something about it.

Chris Perkey, who owns the EGR Firehouse Grill at 2150 Wealthy St. SE with his wife, Karie Koster, is forming an organization only for independent restaurant owners. Called the “West Michigan Originals,” the group will be a local chapter of the Council of Independent Restaurants of America (CIRA).

CIRA was started in 1999 in response to a business move made by the national chains, which went from almost exclusively being fast-food outlets to mid-scale and even upscale restaurants during the 1990s. The goal CIRA has is to “protect and nurture” the independent restaurant and its entrepreneurial owner.

Those goals also happen to be on Perkey’s menu.

“We have to educate the public so they know that when they come to a restaurant like mine, the money is kept in West Michigan and not going somewhere south or wherever the national headquarters are,” he said.

In return, Perkey remarked that chapter members will practice what they preach.

“The group as a whole is committed to supporting local farmers. We’re committed to supporting local businesses. And we all live here,” he said.

“When you walk into my restaurant you’re going to see my wife on the floor, or me in the kitchen, and we’re running the restaurant. That’s the personal touch that is going to be gone and we’re going to lose the whole diversity of dining.”

According to CIRA, national chains use “tremendous cash reserves” to buy advertising and to pick up key pieces of real estate that independents could never afford. With regular ad campaigns constantly running and high-traffic locations locked up, CIRA said independents are falling to the wayside just like the small retailer did when Wal-Mart went national.

“It’s nothing against the chains. I honestly believe that there is probably enough room for all of them. It’s just that the chains smother the independent restaurant,” said Perkey.

“They have the money to buy the best property. They have the money to advertise.”

Perkey got the idea to organize independent owners from another small businessman that has suffered at the hands of big business. A Cleveland farmer told him of a Birmingham chef that had started a CIRA chapter in Alabama.

Perkey contacted Chris Hastings, the Birmingham chef, earlier this year and the idea for the local chapter grew from that conversation. The result has been that representatives from CIRA, including president Don Luria, have been to Grand Rapids twice so far.

“They help set up the individual organizations. They’re incorporated. They’ve done the bylaws. They’ve done all of that work for us,” said Perkey.

The initial reaction to the idea of a local chapter has been pretty good, as owners from as far away as Saugatuck and Kalamazoo have responded. Perkey, however, is looking for more involvement and a minimum of 30 members. And he has a message for independents who might be a bit leery of joining.

“This is the hurdle we have to get over. We’ve got to teach independent owners that we’re not competing against each other. We’re competing against chains,” said Perkey, whose restaurant seats 60.

“It’s the amount of chains that they’re putting in Knapp’s Corner, where a lot of people are going to dine,” he offered as an example the chapter’s target. “There is about 2,500 seats there now in chain restaurants.”

Perkey is putting the final touches on a kickoff event for the West Michigan Originals. He is finalizing the date, time and location, and is looking for all independent owners to attend. The event is being planned as a first deposit for the group’s “war chest” and as a fundraiser for DeVos Children’s Hospital. Details should be coming in a few weeks.

CIRA has 15 chapters nationwide with the closest, the Mid-Michigan Originals, based in Burton with members in Birch Run, Davison, Fenton, Flint, Lapeer and a few other cities. In addition to the West Michigan group, others are being formed in Chicago and Denver.

Perkey said the West Michigan Originals hopes to publish its own dining guide one day and be able to have members pool their funds to buy advertising runs. He also said the chapter would be willing to raise funds as a group for needy local organizations.

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