Ego System

If someone said he could help you save up to a quarter of your business costs each year, you'd listen, wouldn't you? Especially if it was a professional peer giving you advice.

If you're a famous chef in a fancy Phoenix restaurant, the answer, apparently, is no.

While high-end restaurateurs in Tucson are forming associations to compete financially with large chains, Phoenix chefs refuse to sacrifice celebrity for a better bottom line. Top Valley chefs like Christopher Gross claim that a sophisticated public supports their culinary genius. But respected Tucson chefs are saying, "Wake up and smell the instant coffee."

Christopher Gross
Christopher Gross

Although accustomed to the creeping bloat of midlevel grub like Chili's, Olive Garden and Old El Paso Barbecue, Arizona restaurateurs are now faced with upscale competition from McCormick & Schmick's, Morton's and Roy's. These places purport to offer unique dining experiences, they charge big bucks, and they're packed every night. It's enough to make a gourmet cry.

Tucson's better restaurants are braced for a fight. Award-winning eateries like Café Terra Cotta, the Tack Room and Janos have banded together, introducing two organizations to promote their independent restaurants and level the financial playing field.

Phoenix, meanwhile, only has Independent Chefs Along Camelback (ICAC), a months-old elite club founded by Gross that includes his Christopher's Fermier Brasserie, Tarbell's, RoxSand and Roaring Fork.

No offense to Gross' charm, but is the draw of a popular chef enough to keep the doors open?

Independent restaurants "have got to take radical action, or we'll go extinct, like private bookstores and family businesses," insists Alan Zeman, chef-owner of Fuego Restaurant and a board member of Tucson Originals, an organization formed two years ago to boost the buying power of small eateries.

Independents get squeezed on food pricing, marketing, staff support and real estate, he says, with costs as much as 25 percent higher than large chains. Under its catch phrase, "Think Globally, Dine Locally," the group co-ops on ads for its 40-plus-member restaurants, participates in community events and negotiates bulk pricing discounts. Some 65 Tucson eateries also are members of the Arizona Independent Restaurant Alliance (AIRA), a discount distributorship that claims to deliver savings of 10 to 20 percent a year in food, operations, commodities and wine.

Phoenix, meanwhile, has so few AIRA members that executive director Darrell Karp says it's "premature" to reveal a single name. Rather than uniting in a formal association that engages in co-op buying, ICAC has simply produced a card listing the names, locations and cumulative awards of its members. The cards are handed out in guest checks at the four eateries to promote their chef-run restaurants. Criteria for membership are strict, with participating chefs required to be James Beard Award winners or nominees, Top 10 Food & Wine Chefs, or have a feature spread in a major national culinary magazine.

Karp says reception has been cool as he approaches the Valley's white-cloth restaurants, with chefs so convinced of their individual magic they're overlooking financial reality.

Don Luria, owner of Café Terra Cotta and founder of Tucson Originals, has found no takers for a Phoenix version, speculating that increased competition and suspicion among Valley chefs thwart networking. "They need to realize we're all in the same boat against the chains," he sighs. "Even if we're not being hurt financially yet, the threat of chains is that they're dumbing down the American palate. If American palates weren't so dumb, chains wouldn't be doing the business they are. [The dining public] looks to us to be creative, for the freshest ingredients, to be cutting edge, but we need to work together to let them know who we are. Tucson is so far ahead of the curve on this."

Arizona Gourmet publisher Lee Oser attributes the Valley's lack of organization to chefs who won't play nice together. "Phoenix's restaurant scene is dominated by people with massive egos. To visit a restaurant and talk to a chef is an exercise in the 'Great I Am.' It's like a small village filled with vicious, sniping housewives."

Gross laughs at the accusation. "Ego? I'm talking to you while I sit in my office, which is also a storeroom." Yes, he's met with a guy selling a co-op plan, and after looking at the numbers, Gross figured the distributor was making $70,000 a year just on membership fees. That's money Gross feels belongs in his own pocket.

"With a great restaurant, the chef deals directly with vendors and cultivates great relationships," he explains. "We're always participating in charity and marketing events with boutique purveyors to bring new things back to the restaurant. We can buy right from the farm or boat, not the distributor. The criteria for membership in ICAC are that chefs be completely product-minded, with food, wine and service of the highest caliber. You're not going to find that in co-op."

Mark Tarbell, however, chef-owner of Tarbell's and Barmouche, acknowledges that pride may be a stumbling block for unifying the Valley's upscale restaurants. "The chef makes the restaurant; it's our personality that sets the distinction," he says. "And we don't want to be competitive among ourselves. We feel we're all pretty good buyers, we already share suppliers and talk well with each other. But getting into each other's business can challenge good friendships. Sure, we would like to do co-op marketing, but even that's hard. I mean, whose picture goes at the top of the ad; whose at the bottom?"

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