A taste of the city

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July 20, 2009 // UPDATED 9:43 am - July 20, 2009
By: Michelle Bruch
Michelle Bruch
If you’ve eaten at Chipotle for the third night in a row and think it might be time to branch out, an event this week at The Minneapolis Depot will let you sample food from over 20 local restaurants in one shot.

But no chains are allowed — the fourth annual Taste of the Twin Cities Originals on July 21 is designed to introduce people to locally owned restaurants.

About 1,200 guests typically turn out for the event, which costs $40 in advance and $45 at the door. Each of the participating chefs is whipping up 800 samples apiece, ranging from Rudolphs’ spare ribs to Murray’s beef croute with mushroom mousse.

“It’s always a really good time,” said Beth Ellingson, service manager at Ike’s Food & Cocktails. “It’s always packed and fun.”

Guests should be prepared to juggle lots of plates and drinks.

“It helps to be dexterous,” said Charlie Theros, managing partner of the company that owns Rudolphs.

Staff at Ike’s will sauté New Orleans-style barbeque shrimp. The Dakota will bring out soft shell crab po’ boys with a secret sauce (staff call it the “fancy sauce”). The Great Waters Brewing Co. will provide beer samples, and the Eden Avenue Grill will top off the cuisine with a “sinful” carrot cake. The restaurants are also bringing 60 bottles of wine to raffle.

Twin Cities Originals (TCO) was founded in 2002 as a way for independent restaurants to compete with a growing chain restaurant presence. TCO pools marketing dollars and gives discounts to repeat customers. The group is gearing up for a cooperative ad buy this winter, venturing into television advertising for the first time.

“It’s nice to have that reinforcement there during tough times,” said Tim Murray, general manager of Murray’s. “Now more than ever it’s so much more important to stick together.”

Dakota Chef Jack Riebel said it’s helpful for restaurants to amass their ad buying power to compete with chain restaurants’ deep pockets.

“Particularly in this economy, because I think more so than ever that type of your budget becomes restricted,” he said.

The number of chain restaurants grew to outnumber independent restaurants in 2001, and the trend continues to threaten the local dining environment, according to TCO.

The market research firm NPD Group reported in 2005 that major chain restaurants had started taking market share from independents, capturing an additional 3 percent of the market between 2001 and 2004. To explain the change, NPD cited a growth in new higher-quality food offerings such as chicken products, premium burgers and salads.

As of last spring, chains were weathering the recession just fine, according to Technomic, a food service consultant. The firm reported that sales for the top 100 fast-casual restaurant chains grew 10.8 percent in 2008, with Panera Bread and Chipotle leading the pack.

To further adapt to the recession, sit-down restaurant chains are engaging in fierce price cutting wars, the New York Times reported in June.

Local restaurant staffs were optimistic about their ability to continue competing with chains, however.

Murray said it’s hard to say whether Downtown chains have maintained an economic advantage over independents during the downturn. He noted that both independent and chain restaurants have closed in the course of the last three weeks. Morton’s The Steakhouse, which is based in Chicago, closed on July 3, and the homegrown D’Amico Cucina closed in late June due to several years of slow business. The Oceanaire chain filed for bankruptcy protection and closed four restaurants in early July, although the flagship Minneapolis location will remain open.

Ellingson said she thinks the economy has caused more chains to struggle and close here, but she is seeing more independents open up.

Independent restaurants opening this summer on the East Bank include the Butcher Block, Gas-tro-nome and Blue Skies Wine.

“Independent restaurants are hanging on,” Riebel said.

He said independents might actually have a leg up during slow seasons because they have smaller overhead costs.

“I think chains can suffer just from their sheer size,” he said, noting that 700-seat restaurants in Las Vegas aren’t filling up anymore.

Riebel said another plug for independents is that dollars spent at those businesses tend to stay in the local economy more than dollars spent at national businesses.

“If you’re talking about being more green and being more sustainable, it’s important that you keep your local economy thriving,” he said.

Taste of the Twin Cities Originals
An event featuring food and drinks from more than 20 independent restaurants
Who: Participating restaurants include Spill the Wine, Manhattan’s, Murray’s Restaurant & Cocktail Lounge, the Dakota Jazz Club & Restaurant, Ike’s Food & Cocktails, Luci Ancora and Dixie’s on Grand.
When: Tuesday, July 21 from 6-9 p.m.
Where: The Minneapolis Depot, 225 3rd Ave. S.
Twin Cities Originals is a coalition of independent restaurants that collaborates to compete with national chains
Ticket info: tcoriginals.com