Uniting of indie eateries has Arizona roots

Don Luria is an original, both in personality and mission.

He is a gracious and astute restaurateur in Tucson whose Café Terra Cotta has earned accolades from Zagat, the New York Times and Wine Spectator (for its 250 choices of Zinfandel). That was before the mountainview site burned in summer; it should reopen soon.

Why mention this man, and his Arizona place? Don has worked hard to help consumers realize why it’s important to support locally owned and independent restaurants. Through his persistence, and that of a few others, the Council of Independent Restaurants of America was established in 1999.

I mentioned the initiative last year, when Madison Originals was established. CIRA is a way for good-quality, home-owned eateries to fight the big bucks and infiltration of chain restaurants. As a group, the indie owners slowly are demonstrating more clout as their joint resources for advertising and event promotion have grown.

Sandy D’Amato, of the highly regarded Sanford Restaurant in Milwaukee, calls the Tucson Originals “by far the country’s most progressive chapter” of CIRA. D’Amato is president of Milwaukee Originals, roughly 30 independent restaurants in that city and others (as far away as DePere).

The four-year-old Milwaukee group will put on a Mardi Gras fund-raiser sometime in February, with a Dixieland band and food from 15-20 of its members.

“The hardest thing is keeping restaurants involved,” D’Amato says. “People are so busy, and they are accustomed to working independently, as an island.”

That has to change if locally owned restaurants and food vendors are to survive, says Lisa Lathrop, who operates the Wisconsin Cheesecakery in Madison. The Madison Originals, which at 50 members was the nation’s largest chapter, has printed a concierge’s brochure, which is distributed to hotels and other lodging operators.

Fund-raiser partnerships also are being pursued, to benefit Madison Originals and a civic/cultural organization, as well as the individual restaurants that provide event food.

A small-scale event featuring wine and appetizers was held recently. A bigger goal is to convince major event organizers to just use Madison Originals members as food vendors.

“Madison is very aware of local businesses, and the need to keep them in operation,” notes Lathrop, who is a new CIRA board member, the only woman in the panel of 13.

“A lot of this is public education. People get excited about new retail developments, but we can’t afford to think about moving into them – they are so expensive. It is the chains that have the resources to back them.”

Lathrop makes decadent, appetizer and specialty cheesecakes, a high-end line of products that is gaining visibility more through word of mouth and her website (www.wisconsincheesecakery.com) than paid advertising.

While in the Southwest, I attended the Tucson Culinary Festival, a four-day extravaganza of wine seminars and wine dinners as well as a night of food/wine tastings. It all was presented by Tucson Originals, which shows how aggressive the CIRA efforts can be, if there are enough volunteers and consumer support.

Tucson’s Original Zin, a label produced in honor of the event, made its debut here, too. Now that wine also is being served at Tucson Originals restaurants, plus sold in specialty food/wine shops.

What else goes on? Don Luria says these restaurant operators, every four or five weeks, invite a small group of low-income kids, ages 8-14, to dine at their place.

Why? A big part of it is exposure. The group gets a kitchen tour, tastes food they’ve never eaten – and is introduced to a world of eating that does not involve chain restaurants.

When I make a holiday gift list, there inevitably are a couple of people who will get restaurant gift certificates. My resolution is to make sure those certificates come from locally owned restaurants.

For more about CIRA, in Wisconsin and beyond, contact www.dineoriginals.com, www.milwaukeeoriginals.com or www.madisonoriginals.com. Gift certificates soon will be available at one or more of these sites; until then, get them from individual restaurant websites.

How else can lovers of travel pamper themselves and their companions during this holiday season? Consider two online auctions.

“The Great Chicago Fire Sale” is a city-sponsored eBay charity auction that ends Dec. 16. What’s for sale? Overnight stays in VIP suites, a private architectural tour for 50 people, a behind-the-zoo tour for a family, elaborate shopping sprees and restaurant meals, romantic getaways and a walk-on role in a theatrical production.

Others will be able to help dye the Chicago River green for St. Patrick’s Day next year, get a chauffeur-driven tour of the town, dine at a Chicago fire station.

For a description of items and experiences that are for sale, go to eBay.com or www.thegreatchicagofiresale.org. Information also is available at (312) 742-2151. Auction proceeds will help several types of non-profit cultural and arts programs.

If you don’t want to limit your adventures to Chicago, check out the annual Society of American Travel Writers online auction at www.satwauction.org. Proceeds go into our tax-exempt travel organization’s professional development fund.

Bidding ends Dec. 3, and there are dozens of getaways and other merchandise posted. There are cruises to Alaska, the Mediterranean, along the coast of Maine. There are air and train tickets that will take you across Canada, or around the world. Hotel stays are as far away as India and Thailand.

It’s also possible to buy vacation packages that are much closer to home, too, from the Apple Grove Inn in Bayfield and the Blue Harbor Resort in Sheboygan, to the yet-to-open Northern Bay Golf Resort in Wisconsin Dells and the Hotel Mead in Wisconsin Rapids.

Unlike the Chicago auction, there are minimum bids attached to SATW’s endeavor.

Last, if you really want to think big during this holiday season, consider a piece of real estate in St. Paul, Minn. The 1885 rowhouse that we mentioned a couple of months ago – former home of F. Scott Fitzgerald – can be yours for $676,000. It’s 4,000 square feet, with four finished levels and four fireplaces.

Maybe all that attention from visitors, on the new walking tour of Fitzgerald’s St. Paul haunts, was a little too taxing?