Defining Local

As I write this, picture me, whatever you think I look like, in a kevlar vest, metal helmet, ducking under a desk in the basement at an undisclosed location. This blog is about local restaurants and will continue to be. My definition of local is this, if you're in another state and you see a restaurant that is the same as one in Salem, that's not local. But what happens when a local restaurant has success and grows beyond it's small town charm? Do we put that restaurant into the chain category, even though it's essentially the same restaurant that we'd bragged about for years? Dutch Bros Coffee fits into this quasi local category that blurs the line between the locals and chains. They are almost as familiar to us here in Salem as Starbucks. Do you not drink Dutch Bros coffee because they are so big? Should we penalize with personal protests because a business has become so popular?
I've recently met the owner of a chain in town, I won't mention the name but it's not fast food, and had an interesting discussion about this. She told me how the people in Salem had a preference for local restaurants. That was somewhat surprising to hear because of the amount of chains in this city. She owns two stores in town and is charitable in the community. She's not rich and works extremely hard at making her business work and employs dozens of young people here in town. I feel less guilty eating at her restaurant. This restaurant offers a product and experience not currently offered by any local establishment but is in competion for your Salem dining dollars. In this economy, or even in a good one, my hope is that businesses of all sorts thrive and keep people employed. The push on this blog for supporting local businesses is to help level the playing field by introducing Salem audiences to unique finds around town.
The chains have a tremendous advantage by having name recognition but often lack in having a personal connection with customers. In just about any good local restaurant in Salem you might find the owner/chef actually in the kitchen making food for customers. Years ago, Salem seemed like it was awash in chains who's bright signs and national ad campaigns drowned out the voices of  local restaurants that have always been making good food here in town. Now, excitement is building, as new places, like French Press, which is expected to open today, are starting to pop up all over town. Newly opened restaurants, La Capitale and Word Of Mouth are both having success in this down economy and the First Wednesday night is helping to establish our downtown as the center of Salem's cuisine scene.

The owner of the chain restaurant that I mentioned above does not know that I write this blog or at least hasn't let on that she knows. That's the reason I haven't mentioned the name of her place. Her business is doing well and I would expect that her success will continue. If it seems like I've changed my views about chains, after seeing a human aspect to them, that may be so. That doesn't mean you're going to see me review Taco Bell. I will continue to do everything possible to expand the conversation about local eateries and will continue to support them with my patronage. Salem's public image throughout the state is often defined by a dismal dining scene, but that is changing quickly, as more quality local options open and the best of the existing restaurants continue to do well.
I tried to write this as cautiously as possible because I know that many of the readers here have much stronger views about chains. So I'm going to duck for cover now as commenters rip me apart for suddenly growing a heart.


Anonymous said...

There are chains, and then there are chains.

In my opinion, McGrath's is a chain that doesn't seem like one. OK, so it helps that we have the original in town. Maybe that's part of it. It's not Applebee's or Denny's.

And no, I'm not going to rip you apart. We need this blog too much!

Doug Gabbard said...

I read this blog religiously not because I care about LOCAL food, but because I care about GOOD food (and service). Between my wonderful experiences at Word of Mouth and my daily caffeine fix at the Governor's Cup, I find that "good" and "local" are somewhat correlated. But as far as I'm concerned, that's just a happy coincidence.

Am I alone on this?

Deb said...

I think some chains just lead to blandness. We can travel across the country and feel like we've never left home.

We recently spent 10 days in Florida. I challenged hubby (who loves the consistancy of burger chains) to only eat in places we couldn't find in Salem/Albany.

We had a wonderful time and tried lots of different foods - Puerto Rican, Cuban, Columbian to name a few. We did see the owners in the kitchens, and most often the grandbabes on the floor. The only chain we ate at was Waffle House, and that one isn't here and they do have consistantly good coffee and grits.

Now that we're back home, he's been more willing to try different and 'new' places here too.

Dutch Bros are definitely local. ;>

Salem Man said...

Doug, you're not alone. Locals tend to be more erratic in food quality but when you find a good one they blow away chains. Deb's comment about blandness is also accurate. The service in chains seem to have less pride in the food because they don't really care if you like the food. It's not their recipe.

KandN said...

I agree with you about McGrath's. I wonder how many chains have their roots in the NW?

Lise M said...

Doug, I'm with you, mostly. I've been on a local kick lately with the economy and not wanting our local places to disappear in neglect. But normally I just want good food and I don't care if its La Capitale, PF Changs or even an international chain like Bucca di Bepo. I have been noticing, in my local eating, that local places have a certain history, personal anecdotes and personality that chains just can't copy. Even with pop-culture paraphernalia hung all over the wall, you can't beat stories from the Salem restaurants that have been here since the 70s or 50s. I'm also loving the new places. Its exciting to see these interesting coffee houses, bistros, and eateries opening in Salem.

Anonymous said...

I think there's a difference between a locally owned and operated franchise of a chain and a company owned store as well... I don't KNOW but I'm guessing that is the situation with the owner you referenced in your post. When the owner is here and involved in the daily operations I would consider that a local business, yes? Sure they have national ad campaigns and carefully monitored recipes and requirements, but the service and quality should be top notch since there is someone on hand to ensure it.