What’s Local: Eat local, experience more than the dish

By Jim Hagerty 

[dropcap]Supporting[/dropcap] independent companies because it keeps our money in the community and local merchants in business is a straightforward concept.

When it comes to restaurants, the rule still applies, but it is a bit more complex. That’s because unlike the dry goods business, where a button-down oxford dress shirt is a button-down oxford, in the restaurant business, a taco is not a taco no matter where you buy it.

But what does Rockford know about tacos? It once voted Taco Bell the best Mexican restaurant in the city. That’s no shock. Taco Bell is cheap, convenient at 2 a.m., and quite frankly, people tend to sway toward chains in silly eatery-ranking polls. It’s retail.

Chains versus independent restaurants is an interesting matchup. Corporate boilerplates are managerial bibles, keeping chain menus the same across the board. Frozen fares are trucked around and garnished here and there with sprinkled bits of fresh produce.

Then there’s the guest experience. It’s a tossup in this category at times. Chains, however, are capable of same top-notch ambiance and dining experiences. Some can’t be matched by locals so they don’t even try. That is why there will always be a market for Applebee’s – corporate marketing is a real thing and it works.

But if we think of the local guys on a smaller scale and break it down to what goes into each operation, there’s evidence of ownership everywhere. That’s right. Local restaurant owners have a stake in wooden spoons, pepper that goes on the blackened salmon and everything in between. This puts them at a level chains simply cannot reach. With most chains, almost everything is the same and remains that way whether it’s a pork tenderloin in Rockford or one served in Detroit. Among locals, everyone has their own identity that far reaches food and drinks.

But, the farther removed an owner gets from his restaurant, the flair of ownership can get lost in layers of management. A centralized, yet duplicated system has its merits and can yield big profits. And it’s not only the chains who realize this. Successful independents stay small long enough to create distinct brands built on the success of a single flagship. Expanding too soon can be a death knell in disguise. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

“We were at City Market for five years before we ever opened a restaurant,” Woodfire Brick Oven Pizza General Manager Phyllis Gallisath said. “Our business has been cultivated organically. And it is an extension of everything that’s on our menu.”

Everything on the Woodfire menu is local, too. Ingredients are locally sourced and everything is made in house. It all adds to the brand and experience that, at the end of the day, is about more than pizza.

“We want people to feel like they are part of our family when they are dining here,” she said. “It’s upscale but it’s also laid back and casual like you are going to dinner at a family member’s house. A lot of our dishes are meant to be shared that way as well. We want people to feel comfortable.”

And it is not that the chains aim to make customers uneasy. But the adage that local independent businesses owners have a lot more expertise also rings true in the restaurant industry.

“The service side is very important to our staff,” Gallisath said. “We are not just taking orders. In a lot of places, you’ll see order takers. We really inform our guests about our menu items. We will walk them through the experience instead of just saying, ‘Hi, what can I get for you?'”

Woodfire Brick Oven Pizza is at 408 E.  State St., across from Chase Bank, downtown. R.

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