Local eateries team up to tackle the big guys

Hoping to stand out against national chains, a group of locally owned and operated restaurants is banding together to form a marketing partnership.

Called the Lexington Originals, the organization is modeled after similar groups throughout the nation that promote themselves and their unique cuisines.

"To get people to think about coming to a local restaurant takes advertising," said Charles Verrette, owner of Furlongs at Ashland Avenue and Main Street. "And to compete with the chains is very, very difficult."

Beginning in June, the group, which so far numbers nine restaurants, plans to begin running advertisements and a direct mail guide promoting their menus and offering discounts.

The group is the brainchild of Fred Mullins, who produces tourism-oriented books about Central Kentucky that adorn hotel rooms around the Bluegrass.

He came upon the idea in Asheville, N.C., where he produces a similar book and found a group called Asheville's Independent Restaurants.

"You just don't see many chain restaurants down there," he said, lamenting the number of locally owned places in Lexington that have closed over the years.

"I've been here since '68, and there have just been tons of them close over the years," he said. "They just get lost in the shuffle somehow."

Under the Lexington Originals concept, restaurant owners will pay an upfront fee of $250 and then contribute several hundred dollars in gift certificates every quarter. Those certificates will be sold online at 25 percent off with the proceeds funding marketing efforts.

By donating gift certificates, restaurateurs have just their food costs rather than paying cash out-of-pocket.

It has worked in Louisville, where nearly 50 restaurants are members of the Louisville Originals and run a similar gift certificate promotion.

The funny thing, too, is that 20 percent of the certificates aren't even redeemed, said Andrew Hutto, owner of Baxter Station Bar & Grill and a founding member.

With that and just his actual food costs, the restaurant only ends up spending about $700 a year "to get customers in the door," Hutto said.

"We run ads for our group: TV spots and radio ads," said Hutto, who recently spoke to the Lexington group. "Most of the little guys out there can't afford that."

The Louisville group has also begun selling a gift card that is good at all member restaurants and has a frequent customer card.

Mullins said he's approaching other Lexington-area restaurants about joining, but not all are keen on the plan.

Rob Ramsey, owner of the four Ramsey's restaurants in Lexington, said the idea "just doesn't fit my marketing plan."

He said the discounted gift certificates give the perception that he can take 25 percent off his prices, and "my value is at full price."

"I've taken off all I can take," he said, chuckling.

As similar groups have evolved nationally, one thing has become clear: They don't let their marketing vilify chain restaurants.

"You don't gain anything by giving a negative message," Hutto said.

But it's nice to emphasize, Furlongs' Verrette said, that local restaurants "do more for the community."

At his locations in Lexington and Louisville, Verrette tells patrons that if they bring in their church bulletins, he'll donate 10 percent of their bills back to their places of worship.

"At the end of the quarter, I just write a check," he said.