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Robert St. John

Restaurateur, author, enthusiastic traveler, & world-class eater.

EAT LOCAL

April 3, 2024

BARBERINO-TAVARNELLE, ITALY— As a kid almost every restaurant in my hometown was independently owned and local. Granted, there weren’t too many full-service restaurants in my hometown back then, but it’s all we knew. It wasn’t until the 1990s that we began to see the influx of chain restaurants as the city expanded westward. We are inundated with chains these days.

The beauty of locally owned independent restaurants and bars is that all the money stays in the community. Chain restaurants are run by large multinational corporations headquartered in places like Dallas, Orlando, and New York. The profits garnered in those businesses is all sent back to big cities where it lines the pockets of corporate suits in high rise office buildings.

Economists estimate that each dollar spent in a locally owned business turns over seven times in that community, and much of it goes to support the local schools, civic organizations, and local charitable causes. Money spent with corporate chain restaurants gets deposited into large banks in cities far away. It seems obvious when trying to explain why someone should choose an independent over a chain, yet— on any given day— drive by any town’s restaurant row and it will typically be filled with national chain restaurants whose parking lots are packed.

Independent, locally owned restaurants tell more about a town than any local Chamber of Commerce brochure can. When I’m traveling in a new city I always go to the front desk or concierge at the hotel and ask, “Where is the closest independently owned breakfast joint? I want to go to the place where the old men sit at the same table every morning reading the newspaper and arguing over politics and sports.” That’s where I will truly learn about that city or town.

Independent, locally owned restaurants have local character.

Chain restaurants might throw up a couple of photographs of local points of interest or iconic structures in that town, but don’t be fooled. Most have no soul. The chain restaurant you walk in just off the Interstate in my hometown looks exactly like the chain restaurant at the next interstate intersection two hours up the road. And it looks like the same cookie cutter restaurant two hours from there. It doesn’t matter if I’m in Peoria IL, Louisville KY, or Dubuque IA, the chain restaurant is the same. It tells me nothing about that town. It’s just a corporate chain that appeals to the lowest common denominator.

This column didn’t start out to be a rant on chain restaurants, but I feel strongly about them. The thought occurred to me yesterday while working over here in Italy. My wife and I were dining in our favorite little restaurant in Tavarnelle, and our friend Paolo— who runs the place— was scurrying around his dining room taking orders. His mother, Giuliana, who does all the cooking, passed by with a pan of tiramisu from the kitchen. It struck me in that moment that all the restaurants over here are local. That’s all they know.

Whether I am in Spain, Italy, or any other place I work overseas, almost all the restaurants are locally owned.

I’m not one of those people who thinks everything is better in Italy. It’s not. I love America. I love Mississippi. And I especially love my hometown of Hattiesburg. I wouldn’t trade any of them for any city in Europe. Although there are things that the Italians get right. The olive oil in Italy is better than any produced in the states. They nailed the culture piece from the 15th century through the 19th century. Though when it comes to music, literature, theater, movies, television, creative inventions, and technology I believe we have owned the 20th century and beyond.

Unfortunately, they have us beat on restaurant philosophy. They would never support as many chain restaurants as we do. It just wouldn’t make sense over here. Sure, there are some American fast food places that dot European cities. But that’s nothing we should wear like a badge of honor. The best restaurant in any European city is never going to be the American fast food concept.

Italians would never think of sitting in their car and driving through restaurant parking lot, ordering into a small speaker, and driving up to a window to get a bag full of food. It just doesn’t happen. They live much slower over here. The bakery I frequent every morning to sit, eat, prepare for the day, and check our restaurant’s previous days sales reports and manager logs from back home, is a very typical European breakfast spot. Customers come in and order a pastry and a cappuccino— or more likely espresso— and stand and visit with one another while they eat the pastry and drink the coffee. The entire process lasts about 10 minutes, and they are on their way. There are a few tables in there. I typically sit at one of the tables and enjoy watching the morning action in the bakery. I’ve had similar experiences in a few dozen other countries across Europe. The names, faces, and language changes but the practice is basically the same.

I believe in the concept of keeping everything local so much that I had the words, “EAT LOCAL” painted in 20-foot letters on the back of our flagship restaurant Crescent City Grill. I mounted an 12-year campaign in my hometown of Hattiesburg MS to encourage people to eat at independent, locally owned restaurants.

For several years I wore a button on the chest of my clothing that stated, in black and white, “Eat Local.” Then one day I was in New Orleans eating at my favorite breakfast joint. I had on the Eat Local button, as always, and it struck me— this probably makes no sense down here. New Orleans is all about eating local, why wouldn’t they?

New Orleans is a city filled with independent restaurants. There are a few chains there, but not many. America’s big cities are mostly filled with independent, locally owned restaurants. Whether you’re taking about New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, or Atlanta, in the heart of the city, the best restaurants are local. When one ventures into the suburbs, that’s when the chains start popping up.

This isn’t some type of veiled plea to try and garner customers for my restaurants. It’s just how I feel. You can support mine, or not. If not, support other locally owned independent restaurants and bars. They are on the frontlines of a brutal business every day trying to make their community a more vibrant and authentic place to live.

Onward.

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