Dining Local – 30 Day Challenge Recap

Posted: January 23rd, 2013 | Author: | Filed under: Uncategorized | Comments Off on Dining Local – 30 Day Challenge Recap

In early December I set a challenge before myself to only eat at locally-owned businesses for 30 days.  As I described at the time, this challenge was predicated after observing the disparity in service I was receiving at chain restaurants compared to their locally-owned competitors. At that onset, I established a few guidelines for this enterprise:

  1. Do not eat at any chain restaurants, including fast food, or any place that is not owned locally.
  2. Yes, breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
  3. Local chains are okay (I probably shouldn’t hold it against NYPD that they have been successful over the years and opened multiple locations).
  4. Keep an open mind about the level of service being received, just to stay honest and see if my presumptions were correct.

We will come back to item #4 a little bit later, but I can tell you right away that item #1, dining local only, turned out to be a struggle, especially considering the number of times I shared meals with friends and family over the holidays. Perhaps now is a good time to show you where the money went, and you’ll see the red spots right away:


Dining Local Money Chart

Where I spent the money during my 30 Day Dining Local Challenge

Places I ate at / Hooray Local

Rather than inundate you with a massive listing of all the places I ate at last month (and the growing list of places I forgot of because they weren’t on my bank statement), I think the best way to go about it is to highlight the places that fall within my two favorite categories: restaurants/delis & coffee shops.

Locally-Owned Restaurants & Delis:

  1. Pig & Pickle: Scottsdale rustic/gastropub dining, selected by chef-genius Jeff Kraus; review forth-coming on Rogue Pepper.
  2. Matt’s Big Breakfast: As if I don’t eat at this place every week already.  I’d have to say that with the amount of work I was getting done in December, I actually had fewer easy mornings and thus was unable to visit this Roosevelt classic as often as I want.  Ernie is a shining example of how hands-on owners make a stunning impact.
  3. Hula’s Modern Tiki: Dane is another great owner who’s hospitality keeps me coming back for more, and the Hula Burger is easily #2 on my Top 5 Burgers in Phoenix.
  4. Pane Bianco: Somewhat unusual, went to this market deli classic for dinner instead of lunch and ran into the always awesome @eatSlow behind the counter.  Bianco’s pizza without the wait: top scores all around.
  5. Vovomeena: Great atmosphere, helpful owner chatting up incoming guests while there’s a line for breakfast service.  My order wasn’t up to snuff, but the rest of the food we got was great, so I’m sure we’ll give them a second try soon enough.
  6. Ray’s Pizza: Not nearly as good as I had remembered it.  Decent for a hole-in-the-wall place, but far worse than their old location on 7th Ave & Bell. Please don’t make a supreme pizza if it prevents the dough from cooking all the way through.

    There's a duck leg under there somewhere. via ...

    Pig & Pickle: There’s a duck leg under there somewhere.

Locally-Owned Coffee Shops:

  1. Lola Coffee: For years this was my coffee shop, (I think it’s the only place I’ve ever reviewed on Yelp) pretty much from the day they took over the space formerly inhabited by Calabria deli. Since the sale of their uptown location and their expansion into Sky Harbor Airport, however, I have to admit that there has been a significate downturn in the enviroment within this shop.  No longer does it feel like a more industrial, more sparse version of the other shops around; now it’s over-crowed with too much furniture and seems less like a local workplace (third-place) and more like a weird hybrid that doens’t quite know what to do.  Still the home of my favorite barista, and a place where I get my “usual”; if you see Susie, give her a high-five.
  2. Giant Coffee: Whenever I need a change-of-pace from Lola, Giant makes for a great place to work from.  The huge, bay doors on the front and soft ambient lighting are pretty sweet.  Only downside is how suprisingly rare it is to see either Ernie or Matt Pool at the place; odd considering their dedication to their customers at other places.
  3. Fair Trade Cafe: Honestly, I only come here if I miss my train and have 10 minutes to kill before the next Light Rail comes along.  The folks are mostly helpful, but the coffee is really only good as a way to keep your hands warm on the train platform; easily replaced by functional pockets.

Places I ate that weren’t local

– Ichi Ban: My brother invited us out to dinner, and letting him pick the place, he decided to opt for teppanyaki.  All-in-all, the food was as good as could be expected, though I feel like we got the least funny samurai chef in the place.

Starbucks: As much as I am an advocate for local coffee shops everyday, regardless of challenge, I still struggle to resist the holiday flavors from the coffee giant.  Plus they are the clear winners when it comes to convenient locations (right there inside the Safeway!), drive-thru’s and hours of operation (can’t buy from a local shop at 7pm, but Starbucks doesn’t close til 10 or 11pm.

– Texas Road House: This one was totally not on me.  The GF decided she wanted steak after watching an episode of Pioneer Woman, and we ended up in West Phoenix eating at a place that encourages you to throw saliva-coated rubbish on the floor. Needless to say, the service was crap and the steak was disappointing.

– AMC Esplanade: It’s not the holidays without seeing a movie (or several movies) and the Esplanade is far and away my favorite US theatre (sorry Film Bar, I still like your quirks).  Going to see Lincoln in a leather recliner and not have to leave your seat for a refill; heck yeah!  I did feel a slight tinge of guilt on willfully breaking my challenge restrictions for this, but I quickly overcame it.  On the service note, I’d say that I did have to wait an unusually long time for the refill I asked for, but I’ll chalk that up to not being staffed well enough at the holidays.

Zoe’s Kitchen: Another one I’m going to lay responsibility on the GF for.  I seem to recall this was some night we were coming back from visiting family and needed a place that was open late and close. Considering that every place nearby other than NYPD is either a chain or somewhere we had eaten recently, I conceded this one in the favor of keeping the peace when we were both hungry.  My penance for giving in: waiting around for food while the kitchen staff flirted with each other instead of cooking, and finding out that Zoe’s decided to end their free drinks promo that had been in place for years. Oh yeah, and food that was cold and feel apart once I got home.   Felt like I needed to go to localist confessional to remove the jinx.

– Schlotzsky’s: I actually do not feel too bad about this choice, since the Scholotzsky’s near my work is a franchise owned and operated by a friendly elderly couple.  Sure the shell is a chain, but the service inside is top-notch and makes you forget about the chain name rather quickly (especially when they’ll make you a sandwich that’s supposed to no longer be featured). I guess there is a happy compromise when the owners are still motivated to make an impact.

What I discovered

I set out on this challenge because I wanted to find a higher level of service and feel like I was supporting the local business owners I have so often touted as essential to Phoenix’s rise as an urban center and an improvement upon our history of strip malls and cookie-cutter business development.  I can confidently say that on average I found what I was looking for: better quality ingredient, more attention to the food and more attention to the customer, but I have to also admit that this may have been a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy.  Perhaps I didn’t run the experiment long enough, or put enough restrictions on myself.  I think that upon review, it’s clear I visited places that have a stake in offering better service than their more efficiently-run corporate competitors.

Throughout the challenge, lunch and dinner were relatively easy to obtain; it just took a little bit more thinking than our typically robotic auto-drive to the nearest place.  Breakfast, however, was a rough one, as was any on-the-go order.  Most locally-owned places seem to struggle with to-go options, a sad reality I had to face with multiple day-trips to visit family during the holidays. Hopefully Crepe Bar can hurry up and get a downtown presence so I can nab some duck frites and a crepe on the run.

Oh, also, the worst service I received? Easily the cafe at my work.  Nothing like being ignored by cashiers and staff that make it plain they have better things to do than helping customers.  No wonder I spent to much money at the bodega down the street instead.

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