Madison and your Kitchen: Original Ideas
Post by Amanda Ciesielczyk on 7/24/2007 4:05pm
"We have everything we own put into our businesses, it's touch and go, if two food chains open up down the street, you are done. It's not a fair fight. The Madison Originals organization helps us make it fair," said Barbara Wright, president of Madison Originals and owner of Mediterranean restaurant, The Dardanelles. During my lunch interviewing Wright along with Madison Originals Magazine editor, Amy Johnson, many values and goals of Madison Originals were passionately divulged.
With more than three dozen restaurant members, Madison Originals takes an extremely influential lead in Madison's food community. As described on their web-site,"Our mission is to call attention to the concept of eating locally through collective marketing efforts, special events and sponsorship of charitable causes." While speaking with Wright and Johnson, the ideas and values of Madison Originals seemed to perfectly compliment the many diversities of the food community.
Functioning as a non-profit association for many years, Madison Originals is a collaboration of many local, original, and independently owned restaurants "dedicated to preserving the area's unique local flavor." With the structure of the organization, food influences across the city are teaming up to promote everything local: farming, restaurant ownership, dining, and community involvement.
Community awareness is a very important part of the Madison Originals concept. "Independent businesses are always greeting customers," said Madison Originals Magazine editor Amy Johnson, "People assume that Barbara is the host of The Dardanelles, not the chef, or owner!"
"Madison Originals was brought on by the onset of chains." said Wright. In Madison, a city where there are more restaurants per capita than any other in the nation, and chains constantly emerging, local owners must struggle to stay on top. As part of a chain of "originals", Madison is one of many cities trying to preserve community. "The national branch was first called 'The Council for Independent Restaurant Association', now it's known as Dine Originals," Wright added.
With constant growth across Madison comes expansion of more and more restaurants. Many of these restaurants include the rising of a new food chain on every corner. In the city's downtown alone there are several Qudoba's, a Chipotle, UNO's, Taco Bell, Chin's, Quizno's, a few Subways, Cousin's Subs and and a Potbelly Sandwich Works. Not to mention the many dinner chains lining busy streets on both the east and west sides of the city.
With a growing population, a liberal campus, and a very diverse community, there is no question why chains are making their way to Madison. "The restaurant business does well here. There is a good workforce to draw from," said Barbara Wright. "Opening a restaurant in Madison is easy because people are always eating out. At 1.5 times a week being the national dining average, people eat out 2.7 times a week in Madison. People here are just always on the go. But emerging chains hurt the opportunity of local restaurants. Madison Originals helps narrow the growing gap."
Wright became involved with Madison Originals through a discussion with the owners of the Nitty Gritty. "While eating lunch at the Dardanelles one day, they told me about a Madison Originals meeting," Wright said. "It sounded like a a great idea and lot of fun!"
Employed by a hotel chain while working on a Madison directory, Johnson wanted to target locally owned businesses, so she got in contact with Madison Originals. "Madison Originals is a marketing organization for local restaurants and their ideas, just like the directory is a marketing tool for the local hotels," said Johnson. "Though when making the directory I realized there was nothing out there that was locally focused, so Madison Originals decided to start their own publication, Madison Originals Magazine." Together, the restaurants and the magazine truly represent the community ideas Madison Originals represents and practices.
Written well and presented with vibrant colors that attract rumbles in the stomach, the magazine seems to be serving its purpose. "When we were deciding on this issue's cover I suggested a decadent chocolate picture. Everyone loved it!" Johnson said. "Then I suggested the bloody margarita close-up and I got, 'Oh yes I like that one even more!' It won. Just goes to show what Madisonites are really thinking."
"People come into [The Dardanelles] clutching the Magazine," said Wright. "It's a classy magazine, nice tone and articles."
In hopes of securing and expanding the organization, Wright said one prompt goal is "to get Madison Originals to become a strong vital organization, and have all members' businesses consistently flourishing." There are so many stresses on restaurant entrepreneurship, "sometimes running your own business gets lonely." The main way of achieving this is maintaining the roots for a deep sense of community. "With having all the members of Madison Originals, there are other vibrant, funny, wonderful people to count on. People who give good advice," Wright said.
Another way the Madison Originals association is trying to maintain their footing is by selling gift certificates that are redeemable at any Madison Originals restaurant. These gift certificates are available in many denominations and are becoming exceedingly popular, especially during the holidays. "This past Christmas I had one man come into the restaurant at lunch to buy 500, one hundred dollar gift certificates," Wright said.
Madison Originals also offers a limited number of gift certificates for their individual restaurants, at a 40 percent discount. Once the gift certificates are sold out for a particular restaurant, new certificates cannot be purchased until the process refreshes. This system is a great way of inviting new customers to the restaurants and an even better way of keeping continuing customers. Wright comments that both gift certificates are great for business because people can choose between any of the restaurants to dine at, "There is a lot of good diversity between the Madison Originals restaurants."
With the help of these gift certificates and strong community connections, Madison Originals hopes to maintain family connections with customers and "hold their own" against chain uprising. "In Madison's local restaurants people come together, to talk together. There is a huge sense of community," Wright explained. "We do small weddings, graduation parties and we make it intimate and fun. People come in and are part of our family, and the restaurants are a second home. To us, that is more important than money."
With the food industry constantly progressing, both Johnson and Wright sense a new change in dining patterns occurring throughout the city. "Independent restaurants have so much potential, the food industry is changing rapidly, people's love affair with chains is ending," said Wright. "People want food grown close, not traveled or processed."
"We have real chefs, what we're making is actually good for you," said Johnson. "The funny thing is if more independent restaurants are offering healthy foods, then why should they have to worry about competing with chains? Shouldn't the chains be worrying? Shouldn't it be the other way around? I think one day it will be."
"There is definitely a polarization happening in United States," chimes in Wright, "between preserving the hometown and heritage, the 'good for everyone feel' and shift to all things becoming more corporate. This polarization is in all aspects of the world, including the food industry." Madison Originals will continue to pull toward the "hometown" inclination.
One advantageous quality Madison Originals hopes to utilize is their pride for community. "People running chains have no community making decisions or power over their business," Wright said. "They have no input on whether or not they can help with fundraising for a public school or city club, something local restaurants can do."
Johnson agrees, "Chains are always cookie cutter and you always have to have a list of exactly how things must be done."
"With independently owned companies," Wright said, "you aren't second guessing at every moment. I love the independence, even though there is financial risk attached."
A connecting value of all restaurants of Madison Originals is utilizing locally grown crops as much as possible. Wright spoke of the advances Madison restaurants have over numerous cities, "The Madison Originals are so far ahead of even many other 'originals' restaurants in other cities. We gave a tour of our farmers market to a group of Dine Originals members last summer and they were shocked by the abundance of sustainable foods the city offered."
All of the Madison Originals buy a portion of their food directly from the market. In doing this many restaurants in Madison Originals have seasonal or flexible menus. When restaurants buy locally "everyone is benefiting," said Wright. "The farmers are getting business and building relationships with the restaurants; the restaurants are getting the best, most fresh product available; and the consumers are getting a healthy, all natural meal."
Johnson agrees, "It is not the most cost effective, but it is worth it."
"Well there is cost, and then there is cost. What is the cost of a few cents more a pound when you know you are getting the most beautifully ripe, red, delicious tomato ever. And at least I know where it came from," Wright smiled. "Plus, many big distributors demand that you must buy all of their products or nothing at all. Some of my distributors hold me to a certain percentage of sales for them. Though I do not always choose to follow it."
Devotion towards Madison and excitement for Madison Originals is quite evident in both women's voices. "The world comes here!" Wright said, "There are always different people. Anyone from around the world feels at home in this city because of the vast diversity of food. Madison Originals has everyone's comfort food. Example: The Dardanelles is the only restaurant in the area to serve raki (a milky Turkish drink), but for a quite opposite taste, I love going to Ian's pizza!"
"I am always traveling a lot for work and meeting people that have been to Madison. They always comment on how much they love the city's restaurants," said Johnson.
Commenting on her own restaurant, "The same people are always here each week," Wright said. "It's like in the movies: there is always the little Italian swanky place for dinner; or the diner where everyone knows everyone's name, 'The usual Flow'. We've become that place."
The Madison Originals definitely contributes to the uniqueness of the Madison community, and continues to bring people together. In any of the Madison Original restaurants, "fun comes to you, three or four nights a week. There are always parties going on here and everyone is talking to everyone," Wright laughed.
Yet again, Madison's culinary scene is described as "eclectic". "Madisonites are people who enjoy an evening walk on state street, a good wine, or a drive out in the country to discover The Old Feedmill," said Wright. "Madison Originals offers this to the community."