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    Photos by Chris Witzke

    I was sitting at Holy Grale with a few friends recently and one of them brought up HopCat. The two-story craft beer bar opened this summer a few businesses down from Holy Grale at the corner of Grinstead Drive and Bardstown Road, boasting 132 craft beers — what it claims is the state’s largest selection — on tap. The menu prominently lists “Local 20” beers from Kentucky. The owners renovated the architectural gem that is the old Spindletop Draperies building. HopCat says it recycles or composts at least 90 percent of the bar’s waste. “But it’s a chain,” I said. It’s the 10th location of the Grand Rapids, Michigan-based bar, with two more on the way. “It’s not a chain chain. There aren’t that many locations,” my friend reasoned. “And a chain is nothing more than a very successful mom-and-pop.” 

    That conversation at Holy Grale got me thinking — what is a chain? Depends on whom you ask. Independent restaurant organization Louisville Originals caps its membership allowances at six locations, all within 25 miles of downtown. The FDA says a chain has 20 or more locations. The Louisville Independent Business Alliance has its own particulars. Restaurants qualify for LIBA membership if: the primary place of business is in or near Louisville, with no corporate or national headquarters outside this area (“primary” meaning more than 50 percent of all business is generated here; “area” meaning Jefferson, Bullitt, Henry, Meade, Nelson, Oldham, Spencer, Shelby and Trimble counties in Kentucky, and Clark, Floyd, Harrison and Washington counties in Indiana); the majority of a business’s ownership is Louisville-area residents; the business is not publicly traded; the business is not a franchise. Businesses that don’t quality are “supporters.” Director Jennifer Rubenstein says that the group has recently added an “alumni” category for places like Comfy Cow and BoomBozz, which now operate in other cities. “I’m sure Joella’s will be there soon,” she says.


    Grilled artisan bread topped with fresh avocado, marinated tomato, watercress, radish and red onion.
    Drizzled with extra virgin olive oil and lemon. And, oh yeah, it's from The Cheesecake Factory.

    But it’s more than a few categories. Can you put Wild Eggs on the same level as Bob Evans now that the Louisville breakfast spot is approaching 15 locations, including one as far away as Denver? Does crossing state borders automatically qualify a business as a chain? Is the rate of growth a factor? For example, the original Jeff Ruby’s opened in Cincinnati in 1999. Ruby first duplicated the concept in Louisville in 2006, sitting with two Jeff Ruby’s until this year, when he opened a Nashville location. Is Jeff Ruby’s a chain? (Is the word “concept” the basis of a chain?) Look at Joella’s Hot Chicken, which opened its first location last year on Frankfort Avenue. It now has four in Kentucky and two on the way (one in Indianapolis, the other in Cincinnati). Is Joella’s more of a chain than Jeff Ruby’s? Does the answer lie in a restaurant’s city of origin? Do we not claim Comfy Cow and BoomBozz (and Texas Roadhouse, Tumbleweed and KFC) as our own? KFC has close to 20,000 locations throughout the world but, hey, at least Colonel Sanders is buried in Cave Hill Cemetery. Since the Bristol has four locations — all in the Louisville area — is it a chain? The chain restaurant world calls locations “units.” When do you go from having a few locations to having units?

    But for real: Is HopCat a chain? HopCat’s owner Mark Sellers has referred to the brand as the “anti-chain chain.” Chris Knape, HopCat’s VP of marketing, says HopCat tries to find interesting spaces that a lot of other companies wouldn’t touch and wants to be as much of a local bar as the HopCat in Grand Rapids is. “We accept the fact that we are more than one location, but we don’t accept that every place has to be the same. That’s a boring way of growing a business,” he says.

    I was beginning to view this as a hierarchy, with single-location restaurants at the top and McDonald’s and all its units at the bottom. Then I talked to LouisvilleHotBytes founder and food writer Robin Garr, who referred to it as a spectrum. “Things got complicated in recent years, though,” he says. “Since the 1990s, maybe, when lots of local operations grew into what I call ‘local mini-chains’ — BoomBozz, Bearno’s, even Heine Brothers’ Coffee — stretching the definition of ‘restaurant’ a bit.”

    Garr takes it a step further: “Is Fernando Martinez’s Olé group a chain?” (Olé includes Red Barn Kitchen, Mussel & Burger Bar, Artesano and more.) “He’s opening an amazing number of restaurants,” Garr says, “but every one is different and every one, so far, a marked success. It’s really hard to tell and has to be judged individually.” Deep in Yelp and LouisvilleHotBytes forums, there seem to be more questions than answers. A common answer: You know a chain when you see it. 


    Marsala pork chop from Macaroni Grill

    One afternoon for lunch, my mom and I go to a sit-down chain restaurant — O’Charley’s on Breckenridge Lane in the Home Depot/Hobby Lobby shopping center. Across the street is a recently opened breakfast spot called First Watch. I’d never heard of it, but judging by the perfectly asphalted parking lot, there has to be some chain dollars behind the place. As we walk into O’Charley’s, my mom says, “I think this is a chain, isn’t it?” 

    “Yes, Mom, of course O’Charley’s is a chain. What makes you think it’s a chain, though?”

    “Uh, laminated menus and food you can get anywhere.”

    We sit at a booth and I notice the menu has taken on a kind of rustic, homey feel since the last time I was here probably six or seven years ago. “Classic American Southern Roots” spelled across the front with “Est. Nashville 1971” written on a guitar pick-like icon. O’Charley’s is trying to identify with its place of origin, a single location. Menu items support my mom’s idea of a chain: loaded potato skins, chicken tenders, artichoke dip. I get cedar-plank salmon with mashed potatoes and broccoli. I leave full, but the experience isn’t one I want again anytime soon.

     

    Feast BBQ owner Ryan Rogers spent two years with the first location in New Albany before opening a second one on East Market Street in Louisville. Early this year he opened Royals Hot Chicken, also on East Market. For Rogers, it’s not so much the number of locations that makes a chain, but more the food quality. “It’s a lot of bagged sauces or potato salad made in one location and all they’re doing is cutting that thing open. Ultimately, for that model to be most profitable, you’re gonna have to take some shortcuts in doing things,” he says. “That’s why we’ve been hesitant to grow quickly.”

    “I watch the locals closely,” Garr says. “Is there a quality change as BoomBozz or Comfy Cow or Bearno’s grow? I hope not. J. Gumbo’s pulled way back when they tried to grow too fast and had to close a lot of properties.”

    The thing that chains do really well, Rogers says, is consistency. “There are times when I’m on the road or in some small town and I need something quick,” he says. “I go to Subway. I get a turkey sandwich — I know the vegetables are semi-fresh and I know it’s gonna be exactly the same every time. I eat at Jimmy John’s at 10 o’clock at night because I’m kind of hungry and they deliver. They fill a void in my life and I’m sure a lot of other people’s lives too.”

    One thing chains lack, at least to consumers, is authenticity. “I got some messages from people when we expanded Feast into a second location,” Rogers says. “People said, ‘You were so great going into New Albany because it was kind of this revitalization you were part of. Now you’re going to NuLu and you’re selling out.’ Well, at the time there wasn’t really another fast-casual thing in the area, so I didn’t feel like I was selling out. There’s some sort of authenticity that you lose when you go into a strip mall or build a freestanding Feast BBQ in a Walmart parking lot. You’re not this hip barbecue place anymore. Now you’re a chain restaurant in a chain parking lot.

    “Ten percent of the population cares about authenticity,” Rogers says. “They care about where you’re sourcing your food from, but the other 90 percent of the population doesn’t give a shit. They just want food and they want it to be delicious and they want it to be cheap and they want a lot of it. I’m sure we could dumb down some of our food and make some extra dollars and 90 percent of the population wouldn’t notice or care, but I still care about that 10 percent.”

    But he may be off on his percentages. Not long after the second fiscal quarter this year, news stories highlighted poor restaurant performance, a possible signal of a full-on recession. But that information only accounted for publicly traded companies. A recent Business Insider story reported that Bank of America studied data from millions of credit cards and found that Americans seem to prefer local restaurants to chains. Convention and Visitors Bureau visitor information manager Susan Pass says that employees there try to recommend what guests ask for. “Some want traditional, all over the country,” she says. “Some want the feel of Louisville — Benedictine, Hot Brown. Some want farm-to-table. Something local and unique is the number-one pick.” 

    The big reason “local” became so popular in the first place? The economy. According to LIBA, for every $100 spent at a locally owned restaurant, $67 is reinvested locally, whereas $30 is reinvested in Louisville when that same money is spent at a national chain restaurant. LIBA also says a 10 percent market shift from chains to independent businesses would retain an additional $416 million in the regional economy every year. This is largely why Maggie de la Torre helped start Louisville Originals in 2004. For more than 25 years, she and her husband Miguel owned De la Torre’s and La Bodega on Bardstown Road, where Louvino and Stout Burgers and Beers are now. When they opened in the late ’80s, there were only a handful of local restaurants. That had changed by the early 2000s, so Louisville Originals was a way to get people to understand the importance of buying local, to give local restaurants some strength against chains’ buying power. “I don’t even go to the mall. I guess I’m hardcore,” de la Torre says. “With chains, you lose diversity, what gives the community an identity. You lose the feeling of humanity. I read somewhere that local restaurants are in the hospitality business, whereas chain restaurants are in the business of hospitality. It’s a very different thing.” I mention that Stout is where her restaurant used to be. “Now, Stout is not a giant chain,” she says. “I think they have three in California.”


    Lettuce wraps from P.F. Chang's

    While Feast may not yet classify as a chain, Rogers says that he’s actively looking at properties for further expansion. Feast and Royals are under the company name HiCotton Hospitality, which recently announced it’s opening an Italian restaurant in the newly renovated 800 Building downtown. HiCotton’s director of operations, Margaret Lawrence, knows one of the Texas Roadhouse owners and is setting up a day for her and Rogers to stage, or apprentice, at the chain to learn how they operate. “Here’s a local-based chain that’s grown into hundreds of units and done it well,” Rogers says. “You go into a Texas Roadhouse, and I want to say it’s a higher-quality product than a lot of other chain restaurants. The food is seasoned better. The flavors are better.”

     Rogers and other restaurant owners I talk to mention how they believe it’s their duty to their employees to expand if the business is successful. “The reason that Margaret is now director of operations is she was our first employee and she was always the person who said, ‘I can do more,’” Rogers says. “If we have employees willing to take that extra step, we will grow this company and find them better jobs because, ultimately, I don’t want people wasting away here when they’re 55 years old working on the line at a barbecue restaurant.”

    Between Tony Palombino’s three concepts — BoomBozz, Joella’s and Manny & Merle — he has 300 employees. I talk with him on the phone while he’s in Indianapolis for business. “We’re always going to be Louisville,” he says. “If you have the entrepreneurial spirit in you, you can’t pull the reins back. If you have room to grow, grow.”

     

    This originally appeared in the October 2016 issue of Louisville Magazine. To subscribe to Louisville Magazine, click here. To find your very own copy of Louisville Magazine, click here. 

    Mary Chellis Nelson's picture

    About Mary Chellis Nelson

    Mary Chellis Nelson is the managing editor of Louisville Magazine.

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