The War Between Chains
& Independents Heats Up
I was recently copied on a letter written by Rick Federico, the chairman and ceo of P.F. Chang’s China Bistro, to Bob Kinkead. He took issue with comments reported in the November issue of RH by Kinkead, the president of the Council of Independent Restaurants of America (CIRA).
Kinkead, who also happens to run two outstanding Washington, D.C.-area restaurants, said during a September meeting of CIRA that he was frustrated by the growing infiltration of chain restaurants in the casual dining arena.
What caught Federico’s attention was Kinkead’s comments about P.F. Chang’s.
"Any local Thai restaurant is better than a P.F. Chang’s," said Kinkead, referring to "misinformed" consumers who perceive P.F. Chang’s and other chains as having better food and hipper atmospheres than independents.
"I stand by what I said," Kinkead commented when asked about Federico’s letter. "I was not singling out P.F. Chang’s, however. A lot of the upper midscale chain restaurants are copying the good work of independents, and they don’t do it as well."
Kinkead points to Olive Garden as another example. He says its advertising campaign is based on the authenticity of its "Italian food," and even goes so far as to point out how their chefs are sent to Italy to learn authenticity from the source.
"I’ve been to Italy many times. I have relatives there," he says. "I can assure you that Olive Garden is not serving anything you would find in Italy
anywhere, any time."
One of the reasons CIRA was created, says Kinkead, is to educate the public. Too many people believe chains are as good as it gets, and independents are suffering because of the misconception.
In his letter to Kinkead, Federico says it does not matter to the customer if a restaurant is a chain or an independent. "What does matter is whether or not you provide a quality experience that motivates your guests to return on a regular basis," he wrote.
" . . . You will never convince a guest you are superior until you provide a superior experience. We all live with the fact that the guest votes every time they choose where to dine."
Kinkead says he does not disagree with Federico’s point that many chains are better than independents. The worst enemy of independent restaurants is not the chains, he says, it’s bad independents. "On the other hand, there are hundreds of independent Asian restaurants in the country that P.F. Chang’s can’t hold a candle to," Kinkead says. "And many of the chains, including P.F. Chang’s, are putting independents out of business."
At the September CIRA meeting, Kinkead also expressed concern that the chains would eventually be moving up to the fine dining arena. On the heels of his comments comes word from Darden Restaurants that it will soon launch a new restaurant concept called Seasons 52, which has all the earmarks of an upscale experience.
The question is:Can independents as a whole survive the onslaught of well-run chain restaurants?The verdict is still out. What do you think?