When people go on vacation, it's the unique restaurants, not the large chains, that they remember, said Chris Mackay, Chandler's economic development director.
"When I come back, I don't say, 'I ate at the greatest chain,'" Mackay said. "I say, 'I ate at the greatest local restaurant.'"
Under the city's aegis, about 50 independently owned restaurants have banded together to form a group called "Local Bites," meant to promote locally owned Chandler restaurants and small Valley chains with a presence in the city, like the four Dilly's Delis owned by City Councilman Jeff Weninger.
The concept is based on a similar group formed in Tucson called "Tucson Originals," said Weninger, who also owns Floridino's Pizza & Pasta at 590 N. Alma School Road. By creating a coalition, local restaurants can engage in collective advertising, take advantage of group health insurance rates, get group discounts with food suppliers and market to tourists, he said.
Local restaurants can be a meeting place, and are more memorable than large chains, he said.
"Unique restaurants can be the soul of the community," Weninger said.
While large chains often have the resources to weather a downturn in the economy, the ongoing recession has been hard on local restaurants, he said. Many are slashing prices and offering deals.
"Anybody who just keeps their head above water through this recession is doing well. Business is picking up, but everybody's having to fight for it," Weninger said. "I think it's a lot about people looking for value right now. We're doing everything we can to be competitive."
What's good for local restaurants also can be good for city revenue, he said. In the past, restaurants have chosen to locate near large retailers to take advantage of the spillover. But these days, it often works in reverse, with smaller restaurants like Dilly's Deli, which gets up to 400 patrons a day, driving traffic toward nearby retailers, meaning more sales tax revenue for Chandler, he said.
Mackay said city government is picking up the roughly $1,800 tab for a brochure to be released next week featuring restaurant coalition members. The brochure, featuring pictures and information about local restaurants, will be distributed to hotels and marketing groups, at city facilities and participating restaurants, and online.
Weninger said the private restaurant owners will take over direction of the coalition from the city at the end of this year.
"This isn't going to be a government program," he said. "No offense to the city, but small businesses are going to know better how to run this."
The group's second meeting is slated for 7:30 a.m. Nov. 20 at Floridino's.