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Strength in Numbers

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There was a time when veteran Sarasota restaurateur Michael Klauber would eat sour mayonnaise before he would team up with his closest competitors in a marketing effort.

Now Klauber, owner of popular Sarasota restaurant Michael's on East, is a gung-ho supporter of the concept. In fact, a small marketing cluster comprised of local restaurant owners he co-founded seven years ago has matured from a grassroots group to an influential regional restaurant marketing organization.

That group, the Sarasota-Manatee Originals, is now armed with a new board of directors. The board hopes to increase the Originals' reach and launch a growth spurt, both for new members and new customers to eat at its member-restaurants.

“Our main objective is to educate the consumers,” says Angela Rodocker, the group's new chairman and the CEO of the Sun House Restaurant and Bar on Bradenton Beach. “We want to earn their dollars.”

While Klauber is an active leader of the Originals, a nonprofit, he still recalls a time when a restaurateur didn't team up with other restaurateurs. “When I was brought up in the business, the guy down the street was the competition,” says Klauber. “But times have changed.”

Klauber first noticed how much times have changed in 2003, when he sat in on a meeting of a group of independent restaurant owners in Arizona. Klauber sought out some of his peers and competitors soon after he got home, inspired by the band-together against the national chains attitude he saw there.

The Originals' roster originally read like a Hall of Fame of local fine dining. Initial members included Klauber's brother Tommy Klauber, owner of Pattigeorge's; Jean-Pierre Knaggs of Bijou Cafe; and Euphemia Haye owners Ray and D'Arcy Arpke.

The organization now includes a diverse cross-section of restaurants in Manatee and Sarasota counties. One of its biggest missions is a glossy magazine ad campaign — “I'm an Original” — that attempts to draw people away from some of the chain restaurants around town by showcasing six member-restaurants a year.

Individual board members are also helping to grow the concept on the Gulf Coast. They have consulted with a few independent restaurateurs in Naples about a group for Collier County and have spoken with some people in Pinellas County about launching a group there.

The organization has recruited four members since June, which pushed the total membership base past 50, says Christine Harman, owner of Vertori's Pizza House in Bradenton and the vice president of the board. Harman says the group hopes to add at least six more members by the end of 2010.

One of the group's calling cards to recruit members, says Rodocker, is its recently announced partnership with the Florida Restaurant & Lodging Association, an influential trade group. Now all Sarasota-Manatee Originals members are automatically enrolled in the FRLA, which provides discounts on industry products, access to group insurance and statewide networking.

There is no membership fee or annual dues to join the Originals. However, all prospective members must meet three basic requirements: The restaurant must be locally owned with no more than six locations; the restaurant needs to have been open for at least one year; and members must be referred by a current member.

Moreover, in lieu of a fee, all members must provide gift certificates for sale on the Originals' Web site, the proceeds of which are used for the marketing campaigns. All members must also agree to participate in Forks & Corks, the group's annual four-day wine and food festival held every January.

The latter event is a lot of effort, says Harman, but the results are worth it. Says Harman: “It brings [the restaurants] some incredible exposure.”


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