Where is the local love? Guest Commentary by Michelle Manker

Aug 16, 2006 at 12:42 am

I have lived in Louisville for the last 3-1/2 years and come to appreciate its many unique and independent businesses. Sadly, however, in just the last few weeks I’ve witnessed the closing of two such restaurants and one really hip little bar: Lentini’s, Mayan Gypsy and Red Lounge have all locked their doors. I don’t know about you, but visualizing empty darkness, coupled with suffocating, inert “For Rent” signs where lively patrons once visited, is flat-out depressing.

I wonder about the present and future of Louisville society if locals are closing because of lack of business. What is this about?

There is a flipside to local establishments. You know them, see them everywhere. Turn on the TV and there’s a happy, cheerful commercial about dazzling service people, seemingly lavish with Prozac smiles, teasing and tempting with combo platters and appetizer specials meant to be washed down with oddly hued cocktails. They’re popping up on every block, sitting side by side, mile after mile, beaming through garish façades and promising speed, efficiency and consistency in your dining experience.

Overall, this appears to be a win-win situation. You get the plate you expect, with presentation and flavor identical regardless of location. You can forecast with uncanny precision just what your experience will entail. This is easy. It is non-threatening. It lets consumers avoid thinking or making any consuming (so to speak) decisions. Simply default to the comfort of the restaurant concept; it will rarely fail you.

But if we’re not careful, it may lend directly in the failure of others.
In the Mid-South where I was born and raised, independent restaurants were the pulses that coursed through the city’s veins. They were everywhere, scattered like crunchy leaves on a blustery fall day. They were loved, frequented and supported. They rarely suffered the lack of a core crowd of regulars. I remember being led in by the grip of my mother’s hand, aware that I was to be seen and not heard. My tradeoff was being allowed to choose any of the interesting and unique dishes on the menu. Maybe I was more adventurous and curious than most children, but I found this fantastic. I don’t remember visiting a place without recognizing the owners and their families. It was a sense of familiarity and community. They were neighbors and friends.

I understand that independent restaurants face a 1:10 ratio in terms of funds available for advertising, compared to chain establishments whose average is a whopping 9:10. That stands to reason; when you own other successful units, you harvest resources that can perpetuate further success. That is well and good.
But as local consumers, do we not have a responsibility to maintain equanimity within our community? Would it not make sense to remember our independent business owners as who they are? These are the people with such passion for service and entertainment that they have devoted their lives, and certainly every penny they have, into creating and offering their gift of expression and personal style as their contribution to us. Think of it as art. Edible art.

I should clarify and say that I do believe chain restaurants provide a nice complement and alternative to any local restaurant scene. Life is about balance. But in the classic words of Tupac and the Outlawz, We ain’t shit without our homeboys. Amen.

Sitting in front of Mayan Gypsy on its last night, I saw a couple walking away and then pausing to turn and look back. Remarks of memories of wonderful meals and celebrations experienced were expressed. As they continued to their car, they glanced back wistfully. I saw another man with a half-dozen containers of that delectable seafood bisque. He said one would be consumed immediately and the rest prepared for freezing, to be rationed a tiny bit at a time, to wean himself of his addiction. I felt blessed to score one of those phenomenal tablecloths. Yeah, I got the one with the sunflowers. You know you’re jealous. But I would trade it and much more to know that, once again, I could slide into those super-cool swivel rolling chairs, sip an excellently chosen glass of wine and grin while I waited for a piping hot plate of duck mole with plantains on the side.

Spread the wealth. Share the love.
Think about it.

Michelle Manker is a frequent
contributor to the LEO Music Desk. Her full-time gig is with Southern Wine & Spirits. Contact her at [email protected]