Independent Vs. Chain: Triangle Area Chefs Explain What Makes Them Different

Over 11 years ago, Kelly and Bill Cotter added Toast to the growing assortment of restaurants sprouting around downtown Durham. And 20 years, the number of independent restaurants in downtown Durham has increased from 10 to north of 50.

Since its opening, the Cotters’ paninoteca has become a staple in the city’s burgeoning restaurant scene. In 2015, they opened Dashi – an authentic Japanese ramen shop – in downtown Durham with the Cast Iron Group.

Access to diversity and culture

Billy studied Japanese cuisine prior to Dashi’s launch to replicate the concept as authentically as possible. He credits the receptiveness to independent restaurant chains in Durham for the success he and his wife have enjoyed.

“In this area of Durham, people tend to be very proud of Durham and its artists and chefs,” explained Billy. “There are people who live in areas where they may not have as much diversity and they’re stuck with that, but in Downtown Durham, people are educated and well traveled, and they expect more. They don’t want to think that you’re faking it. They’ll call you out in a second if you’re not authentic and real.”

Kelly Cotter pointed to physical and environmental concerns that many of her customers share as the difference between people who frequent Durham’s independent restaurants and those who seek out chain establishments.

“Fans of independent restaurants tend to put a lot more thought into what they’re going to put in their bodies,” said Kelly. “They also think about how they’re affecting the communities, like the independent bakeries and the local farmers. When you choose local, you know the impact you’re having on the community as a whole.” 

Connection to culture and community

A few doors down figuratively sandwiched between several of Durham’s most popular eateries, sits Vert & Vogue clothing store. Co-founder Ryan Hurley believes the aficionados of independent restaurants who visit his neighbors yearn for connectedness.

“I think those of us that support independents tend to seek authenticity, flavor and real food,” offered Hurley. “We yearn for an experience that connects us to a place and its culture and community, as opposed to an everywhere-USA, industrial food, fill-her-up one. The latter experience denies us a relationship to food that honors its true value in our lives and for the land.”

Unique flavors over convenience

In Raleigh, Lucettegrace owner Daniel Benjamin suggested that independent restaurant aficionados refuse to settle for status quo flavors.

“I think the people who eat at independent restaurants are just looking for something a little more unique,” said Benjamin. “Maybe we’re describing someone who’s willing to go a little more out of their way to find something special as opposed to settling for the most convenient thing.”

Benjamin further explained how most independent restaurant owners are unable to afford prime real estate that attracts eyeballs. They must therefore rely on positive word of mouth to bring people to the counter.

“Independent restaurant fans are willing to seek out something special,” continued Benjamin. “I think a lot of people are okay with mediocrity [in their food]  if it’s convenient. Independent restaurant customers are the people who are willing to go to the place without a parking lot.”

Chana Lynn, voice behind RaleighWhatsUp, had a similar opinion to that of Benjamin.

“I find a lot of people aren’t really aware of a lot of the places that can be within a couple miles of them,” said Lynn. “A lot of people aren’t aware of what’s going on downtown within their own city. It’s often easier to pop into a local franchise or chain restaurant. If people invested more time in going downtown and choosing to have an experience while knowing that you’re supporting local and knowing that you’re adding to the vibrancy of the city, it would make a huge difference. I think a lot comes down to a lack of knowing, and sheer convenience.”

Knowledge is everything

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Fish being sliced at M Sushi in Durham (photo courtesy of M Sushi)

Chef Michael Lee, whose rapidly-growing empire of M-themed restaurants in the Downtown Durham area already includes M Sushi, M Tempura, M Kokko and M Pocha, boiled down the difference in taste between the fans of independent restaurants and chain restaurants to a simple matter of culinary knowledge. 

“We’re talking about food, and food has a very wide spectrum of flavors and information you need to understand in order to choose the right restaurants,” explained Lee. “For people in the industry, that knowledge is second nature to us. There’s nothing wrong with chain restaurants, but people are missing out if they’re not giving local restaurants a try. We are far more hands-on with our businesses.” 

Lee also described how the quality of food is sacrificed with the proliferation of a restaurant chain.

“Even very talented chefs, if they create a massive chain, it’s not going to be as good as a single restaurant no matter how good the chefs are,” Lee said.

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