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The Price of Independence 

The Cost of the Chain Gang vs. the Indies

"It's the price," Shara said, explaining her preference for chain restaurants over independently-owned ones. She is not alone in her beliefs. Price is one of the two (See "Showdown," CL issue #36) most often cited reasons diners opt for chain (aka formula) restaurants rather than independents. "When my mom comes to town, I take her to the Cheesecake Factory. You can't beat the price."

But can you? Are formula restaurants cheaper than the independents? To look at this issue, I picked some SouthPark restaurants that described themselves in equal terms. The Cheesecake Factory describes itself as an "upscale casual dining restaurant" that offers "over 200 menu selections." In order to produce these 200 items, the kitchen is operated within a high-tech system. Orders are sent via monitors to stations. Want a Crispy Crab Wonton appetizer? The order is sent directly to the fryer station and replicated according to the formula sent from the mother ship, uh, corporate headquarters.

The cheesecakes that made this restaurant famous, and which were the CL Reader's Pick for the Best Dessert of 2005, are not made in house. They are, in fact, shipped in frozen from California. A piece of "original" cheesecake costs $6. A ten-inch original cake costs $36.

Red Rocks Café Bar & Bakery, owned by John Love and Ron Herbert, is an upscale casual indie. Their executive chef, Ron Brown, oversees all the food stations in his kitchen. Red Rocks doesn't have 200 entrees, but management has the ability to change the menus according to local preference. Their desserts are brought in as well, from the Mooresville-based Queen City Pastry that delivers them just-baked every morning. Desserts cost $6, including the cheesecakes.

How do the prices vary for entrees? The half-pound Angus burger at Red Rocks is $8 and includes a choice of French fries, pasta salad, baked beans, mashed potatoes or fresh fruit. Meanwhile, the Angus burgers at Cheesecake Factory are $9 and include fries only. The Chicken Marsala at Red Rocks is $14, while Chicken Marsala is $16 at Cheesecake. The Shrimp Cajun Pasta is $14 at Red Rocks also compares to Cheesecake's Sheila's New Orleans Pasta at $16.

I don't see much price difference here. Do you? In fact, it seems the indie edges out the chain.

Does Maggiano's Little Italy, a formula restaurant with family-style portions and red-checkered tablecloths, charge less than local Italian indies? Maggiano's sell their lasagna for $14. So does independently owned Il Posto Osteria located at Phillips Place. Italian Pot Roast is $18 at Maggiano's and Spezzatino di Manzo (beef stew with potatoes, tomatoes and fresh vegetables) is $17 at Il Posto. Dolce Ristorante Italiano, an upscale casual independent, sells their renowned Yukon Gold Gnocchi for $15. The Gnocchi is also $15 at Maggiano's. Maggiano's desserts include cheesecake, tiramisu and apple crostada and cost $6.50. At Dolce all the desserts and gelatos are made in house and range in price from $5 to $7.50.

On the whole, prices at the independents seem to be in the same ball park with the formula restaurants.

What about the ethnic versus epnic (my term to describe Epcot + ethnic) eateries? Not many ethnic restaurants consider themselves upscale casual, but Baoding, a locally owned Chinese restaurant in SouthPark, does. Their entrée prices range from $8 for Chinese Eggplant in Garlic Sauce to $18 for Steamed Whole Snapper. Down the street at formula epnic P.F. Chang's, the entrée prices range from $9.25 for Mu Shu Chicken to $19 for Oolong Marinated Sea Bass. Even these kinds of restaurants do not seem to vary that much.

Does price vary at high-end restaurants? SouthPark has been overrun by these casual "fine dining" spots: Morton's, Ruth's Chris, The Palm, McCormick & Schmick's. How do these places stack up in price compared to Zebra's, Barrington's, and Upstream -- all three chef-driven, locally owned SouthPark restaurants? Note: High-end formula restaurants use "fine dining" or "casual fine dining" to describe themselves while high-end independents typically use "chef driven."

At McCormick & Schmick, entrées run from $8 to $25, apps from $7 to $14 and desserts from $6 to $8. At chef-driven Barrington's Restaurant, Bruce Moffet, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in Hyde Park, NY, offers his well-rounded entrees from $17 to $26; apps are $7, with $15 for foie gras; and all desserts, including their famous flourless pudding cake with homemade ice cream, are $8.

A fellow CIA graduate Jim Alexander owns the chef-driven Zebra Restaurant and Wine Bar, which Alexander describes as a restaurant in the French Laundry tradition (Chef Thomas Keller's world-renowned restaurant in Napa). Entrées at Zebra typically range from $22 to $36. Entrées at The Palm are $27 to $52, with a typical check averaging $65 per person.

Lamb T-bones at indie Upstream are $32. Three lamb chops at formula Ruth's Chris are $36.

So what does all this number rattling mean? I found that independent-upscale casual, upscale-ethnic casual and chef-driven eateries were, on the whole, slightly less expensive than their formula counterparts. However, here's a creepy thought: According to Nation Restaurant News, in the 1970s, the independent, locally-owned restaurants had 85 percent market share. Today the formula restaurants hold 88 percent share.

Don't let price keep you from discovering a locally-owned restaurant. Instead of cookie cutter, try free form. As consumers we should hope that everyone, indie and formula restaurants alike, has a place at Charlotte's dining table.

Have a restaurant tip, compliment, complaint? Do you know of a restaurant that has opened, closed, or should be reviewed? Does your restaurant or shop have news, menu changes, new additions to staff or building, upcoming cuisine or wine events? Note: We need notice of events at least 12 days in advance. Fax information to Eaters' Digest: 704-944-3605, or leave voice mail: 704-522-8334, ext. 136. To contact Tricia via email: tricia.childress@creativeloafing.com.

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