Organization to give a voice, offer services to restaurants

Chapter of state group to hold 1st meeting today

February 10, 2003|By TaNoah Morgan | TaNoah Morgan,SUN STAFF

A new business association is organizing restaurant owners and operators in Howard County to help give them a voice in local politics and help independents compete with chain operators.

The newly formed Howard County chapter of the Restaurant Association of Maryland has scheduled its first meeting for 2 p.m. today at the association's headquarters in Columbia to talk to members about marketing their businesses.

The association has come about in part because of the pressure that the influx of chain restaurants has put on local independents, according to chapter Vice President Joe Barbera, co-owner of Aida Bistro in Columbia Gateway office park. If the restaurants work together, Barbera said, they can help change the perception that there is a lack of independent restaurants in Howard County.

FOR THE RECORD - An article in yesterday's editions incorrectly identified the position of David A. Rakes. He is a Howard County councilman.
The Sun regrets the errors.

"One of the things we need to do is build respect for the culinary tradition we have with the independents," Barbera said. "We get overshadowed by the big guys, and it's hard to overcome. It's hard to draw people to Columbia because of the stereotype we face."

The group is a local extension of the statewide Restaurant Association of Maryland, a trade group for restaurant owners and operators, according to Joe Gabriel, director of chapter development. Local members of the association - both independents and chain operators - will have an automatic membership in the Howard chapter, which will help give restaurateurs a voice in local issues as they arise, he said.

One of the issues likely to affect the group is a push by a Columbia Council member to ban smoking in public places in the county - including restaurants and bars. Councilman David A. Rakes has said he intends to introduce a bill to ban smoking.

The new officers say they'll be a voice for issues such as that one, but will also focus on helping restaurant owners better run their businesses.

"When I was with chains, I had resources for accounting and human resources," said Jordan Naftal, president of the local chapter and owner of Jordan's Steakhouse in Ellicott City. "Now I'm all of those things myself. The members will be able to use those [association] resources."

Although Columbia has a history of strong independent restaurants, and Restaurant Association of Maryland is headquartered in the town, there has never been a local chapter because of a lack of interest, Gabriel said.

But with more restaurants coming to the county - national chains such as Longhorn Steakhouse and Z'Tejas, and new independents such as Eggspectation and Sarah and Desmond's Cafe - members have been getting more involved in association activities. A groundswell of interest among local owners arose, so executives at RAM thought it was time to start a group locally.

"There was enough response and comment at our statewide functions that they really felt we needed to get involved locally in Howard County and have a chapter available to respond," Gabriel said.

The association sent out surveys to its 135 members last fall to see if there was an interest in a local chapter, got volunteers to lead the organization, and held a mixer last month to introduce the new group. Today's meeting will focus on helping members market their business, an area of great concern for independent restaurateurs, Naftal said.

"Chains get such an advantage with marketing that we could never afford," Naftal said. "I think there are some restaurants that should work together [on marketing] if there's a similar target."

Chapter Secretary Ricardo Langford said one of the primary benefits of the group will be that it becomes a networking center where owners can exchange ideas.

"We'll be able to do quite a bit of networking, and pass along ideas, and be able to speak on some issues germane to us in our county," he said. "I think our county association is going to offer a lot to the majority of restaurants in the county. Their voice will be heard."

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