graphic with the word 'local' on a brick wall.

Anyone who is over twenty years old can attest to a huge change in the stores we see in town. Although slow, if one flicked a switch from twenty or thirty years ago to today, the contrast in local amenities would be stark. In almost every city in the US, big corporate stores have dominated the market, pushing out the moms and pops and bringing a sparse amount of selection to our daily lives. Whether it be retail outlets, electronic stores, restaurants, supermarkets or hotels, it’s difficult for small businesses to compete with the power and money behind big business. But is it for the better?

The first chain restaurant began way back in 1935 by a man named Howard Johnson – yes, that Howard Johnson. Since people started investing a lot of money on hitting up restaurants rather than making it at home, businessmen jumped on the idea and franchises took off – not just in restaurants but in every kind of possible business. 

The idea was that being part of a franchise or corporation meant access to greater support and instant branding. Since then, America really took its franchises to heart, with McDonald’s, Walmart, Starbucks, Best Buy and Target peppering cities and the countryside. It looks, however, like things might be changing.

Shifting trends

Back in 2018, Yelp circulated a five-year mountain of data on local restaurants in the United States. It looked at 50 different metro areas across the country and came up with some surprising statistics. Although independent eateries were always preferred by a mid-sized margin, the gap between people choosing to review chains and local businesses almost doubled between 2012 and 2018. Interest in cookie-cut restaurants has been waning for a long time and in no small way. To boot, the average rating of a chain restaurant stood barely below a one-star review.

The stockpiled data was also used to see what cities have local restaurant options. It broke down different types of eating into the three following categories: fast food, fast casual and casual dining. The finds were interesting. 

While New York City has seen a massive rise in gentrification over the last decade, with many landmark local businesses being pushed off the map, the Big Apple was still in the lead for local restaurant choices in the US. Franchises filled only 13% of available casual dining venues, 20% of fast casual restaurants and shockingly only 34% of fast food joints. Interestingly, independent fast food options were much higher in cities in the northeast, in particular New York, Boston, Providence, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia.

Although Cincinnati was the ultimate loser in terms of having independent food options to choose from, our Louisville was a dead third last. That’s a bit of bad news to those who like options. Chain restaurants in the River City filled 35% of casual dining joints, 45% of fast casual venues and a whopping 75% of fast food options. In defence, it should be said that the cities in the bottom tier of the survey are municipalities that have experienced a recent growth in population. In these situations, it takes time to install prominent local haunts into the new urban sprawl. While it makes sense, the trend in our city isn’t wonderful – and I think we should do something about it.

Why choose local?

A ton of studies have been done on chain businesses versus locally run establishments, and they all point to the same thing. Locally run stores help support local economy in a huge way. While franchises offer that same Big Mac and fries you’ve come to love, the money is funnelled in and shot out to corporate headquarters, wherever that is. In cities like Louisville that are currently struggling to brand ourselves to tourists, it’s more important than ever that we support the local flavor and keep our dollars within our midst.

A study done in 2012 (a bit dated, but the data still rings true) on ten cities looked at the direct flow of money in and out of the local economy based on different types of businesses. The data was quite clear. Shopping at independent retail outlets in Louisville generated four times more local return than shopping at chains. In addition, grabbing a meal at an indie restaurant instead of Burger King put just over two times the amount back into the city. 

Another famous study done in Maine in 2004 saw an average of $68 dollars put back into the community when shopping at indie businesses versus only $43 when shopping at chain outlets on every $100 spent. Obviously, this is something we need to consider as consumers.

Going directly to the biggest and brightest store on the block isn’t always your best bet even when it comes to your own wallet. Remember, prices are set by vendors, not by the stores selling them. Any sales you get at chain outlets, you could also find at your local retailer. Additionally, inventory at corporate stores might offer you less selection due to having affiliations with specific vendors as opposed to others. Your local mom and pop won’t have that disadvantage and you might be surprised at what you find.

And it’s not all about money. Local businesses are way more likely to give you hands-on customer service, flexibility and help with your product. The friendly lady waiting to meet you at customer service at Target, for example, will likely be bogged down with corporate rules and red tape. Local businesses are also way more likely to support local causes and use resident talent and services, whether it be local banks, local professionals or local advertising options. It could benefit you directly.

Benefits of starting a franchise?

At first look, opening a franchise makes sense. Owners can use tried and tested procedures and support systems that seemingly would make your business stay afloat for longer. Additionally, your advertising is just about paid for and you don’t need the hassle of assembling a menu, an aesthetic and the many key decisions business owners need to make. However, it seems the possible advantage is probably not there and probably not worth it. 

A study done at Wayne State University showed that franchises actually failed more often than independent entities. According to the report, a total of 68% of mom and pops survived after four years, as opposed to 62% of franchise businesses. Additionally, franchises generated way less money due to fees and commissions – about .5% average profit margin versus a take home of 18.4% at independent businesses. That’s a lot. Since a new business is a gamble anyway, you might want to put your stakes on the side that actually puts coin in your purse.

A more recent study done in 2019 using consensus data was more on the side of choosing a franchise – although not by much. On average, the report said that franchises did actually have a slight surviving advantage, but it remained extremely slight and basically disappeared after only two years. With such a small difference between the two, it seems that spending all your dollars to be controlled by a corporate board might not make sense anymore.

Times are changing, and perhaps the days of old will return, with unique establishments offering their own distinctive stance on sales, dinner and consumer culture. However, it will take effort. We each need to use our consumer dollars to promote our resident-run establishments just down the lane. Not only will we see our community’s economy thrive, we can create a consumer culture that reflects our own temperament and taste. We stand out, and our cities should too – we just need to try a little harder.

Building a Menu for an Event

It’s a lot of fun to brainstorm what to serve your guests at an event. However, it’s quite another thing to pull it off. Putting together the right meal for the right occasion takes a lot more than fancy side dishes and a signature cocktail. Menu engineers spend a lot of time working out what is necessary and what is doable. It’s a serious business. Below are some great tips in order to make your event’s meal both appropriate and memorable.

Who is coming?

Different people expect different things. Business people, for example, may go to many such events in a year. You don’t want yours to fall into the “rubber chicken circuit,” a common put down in fundraising, political and business circuits. You need to attend to the professional level of the guests. How often do they go to similar events? Where do they hail from? What are their ethnic backgrounds?

When considering menu options, you need to cater directly to the guest demographic. For example, older crowds generally prefer a more tempered selection, while younger attendees are more impressed with spicy splashes or adventurous choices. Additionally, you want to pay attention to how health conscious visitors are. You don’t want to be serving butter-rich Eggs Benedict or Kobe beef to a group of yoga enthusiasts.

Modern menu making is all about anticipating special needs. These include nut or shellfish allergies, lactose intolerance and sensitivity to gluten. People these days are becoming more decisive with their diets. According to GlobalData, there was a 600% rise in people identifying as vegans in the US just three years after 2014. Be aware of trends. Many people may also have religious requirements. Prepare your options accordingly and always have risk-free dishes available. Nothing ruins an upbeat gala like a dressed-to-the-nines delegate being rushed off to the hospital.

charcuterie board

A charcuterie board on Walker’s Exchange buffet.

What is the event?

Choosing what to eat should always be in tandem with the goal of the event. Will it be elegant or comfortable? Is there a theme? How much money is being poured into the night? You can get a good idea of the expectations of the guests by the price they are willing to pay for it. Additionally, certain types of food are necessary for certain types of occasions. A wedding, for example, involves cake and champagne. A working breakfast or lunch, on the other hand, is more practical.

Knowing your schedule is key in delivering the perfect meal. How long will meals be served? Is dinner part of a presentation or a break from the festivities? Given the estimated length of the event, a completely different style of serving will be expected. Short meals under thirty minutes can only realistically be done with a boxed lunch, while plated meals usually require an hour and a half. If you have a large crowd and only an hour to pull off dinner, a buffet-style setup may be your best bet, like the new buffet room set up in Walker’s Exchange. Additionally, any cocktail reception usually requires an hour or so before dinner commences. Planning is key.

Additionally, food is not all about calories and ingredients. Presentation of the food at any event is almost as important as the food itself. Larger plates and well-placed conservative portions can make a meal seem more precious and tastier. Napkins and cutlery also play a huge part in creating ambiance for the meal. 

The actual menu

While more options may seem like a good plan, event goers generally do not want to spend time pouring over a list. It’s best to be conservative with three entrée dishes – usually one meat, one poultry and one vegetarian. Sides dishes can be various, but they should always include healthy options along with comfort foods. Two types of desserts are enough, with a healthy option available. Of course, these figures are only for those playing it safe. Different events require different setups. 

However, finger food should always be balanced with contrasts in temperature, tastes and textures. For example, cheese fingers should sit next to vegetables and dip, and spicy quesadillas next to a calm crab salad. In this arena, options are exactly what people are looking for – and it’s perhaps the best place to try on those off-beat dishes you’ve been dreaming about.

Geography is important when planning your dishes. Seasonal items may or may not be available at certain times. The ability to get your hands on, for example, locally sourced pumpkins in springtime, might not be in the cards. Different areas may also have limited access to certain foods all year round. Investigate your supply chain. Additionally, consider local tastes. Some dishes are very celebrated in some areas and frowned upon in others. A gourmet Italian pizza may come across as elegant to New Yorkers, but cheap to Texans. 

Pay attention to current trends in food. A serious caterer should always be aware of the next big thing and plan accordingly. According to a recent comprehensive study by Upserve, the restaurant world saw a 149% increase in fermented foods on menus last year, followed shortly behind by cannabis-infused food and drink in states where it is legal, and the use of jackfruit. These types of additions to your menu can make you seem ahead of the curve and edgy. King oyster mushrooms, on the other hand, were down a shocking 92%. You might want to give them a hard pass.

All in all, a good menu will give everyone what they want. Whether it’s a packaged meal or a three-course marvel, guests should feel as though you’ve put in the effort and given them something to talk about at home and a reason to come back for their next event. For more information about booking your event at Walker’s Exchange visit this link.