• 11.17.09

Independent Restaurant Groups Band Together to Cook Off the Sour Economy

When does free Wi-Fi, a selection of $5 entrées, and hip décor fail to draw a throng of eager diners? When it’s a mom-and-pop eatery owned and operated by locals, for locals (or anyone who wants to feel like a local). The problem faced by many of these earnest endeavors is that despite trying various promotions to attract customers, the way the big chains do, they don’t have the resources to reach them.


But some are beating the odds.


Kokopelli Mexican Cantina, for one. The family-owned restaurant has been serving southwestern fare in Prairie Village, Kansas, for just over five years. At the end of 2009, in the midst of a lingering recession, Kevin Lyman says they will have an 8% increase over last year. “We are up 18% total spent from 2007,” he adds. What’s their secret sauce? “I owe all this to our rewards program through Original Restaurants,” he declares.

Lyman’s restaurant is part of a network of locally owned establishments called KC (Kansas City) Originals. The umbrella organization Original Restaurants was started in 2007 by Kermit Austin, an entrepreneur with years of experience developing rewards programs for restaurants and retailers. By developing a software program called PowerCard, the organization helps grow groups of locally owned restaurants in smaller metro areas through marketing programs, Rewards Card Programs, and customer satisfaction management. Independents can’t (and don’t want to) deliver consistently in terms of standard menus, pricing, and décor like the large chains. But by banding together under the Original Restaurants program, they can take advantage of different ways to attract and retain loyal customers the way the chains do.

The program also helps position some of the restaurants to stay competitive when the chains move in, says Austin. Most see an increase in the bottom line, Austin says: “The bump averages between 2% and 5%. Restaurants that take advantage of the email tools, birthday postcards, etc., get a better return, but even at 2%, it builds business.”

KC originals

Ultimately, Austin says the goal of Original Restaurants is to raise awareness. “These restaurateurs capture each community’s flavor and unique personality. They stimulate the economy, support local charity initiatives, and offer employment opportunities within local communities. Not to mention these groups are passionate about food. Diners get great food, and a great deal. It’s a win-win for everyone.”

About the author

Lydia Dishman is a business journalist writing about the intersection of tech, leadership, commerce, and innovation. She is a regular contributor to Fast Company and has written for CBS Moneywatch, Fortune, The Guardian, Popular Science, and the New York Times, among others.