By definition, alleys are narrow streets bordered by walls. By reputation, they are often gathering places for seedy activities of all sorts, from dumpster-diving to vandalism. But there's one alley in Boise through which all the patrons to three of downtown's most popular stops must pass. It often serves as a corral for waiting concert-goers, is the view for diners on the patios of Happy Fish and Ha' Penny Bridge Irish Pub and despite its considerable foot traffic, often serves as little more than a parking lot. Between 8th and 9th streets, and bordered by The Big Easy, Happy Fish and Ha' Penny Bridge Irish Pub on one side and 8th Street Wine Company, The Funny Bone and The Bistro @ BoDo on the opposite side, the well-used little alley recently received a name, thanks to an informal group of business owners.
For the last several weeks, the group has been accepting submissions for what's been loosely considered their "Name the Alley" contest. While the contest itself wasn't much of a competition, garnering only a few entries, the official christening of the alley as "Alley 8-1/2" is the first forward step in a collective effort for local businesses to distinguish themselves. It's one small way in which local business owners are claiming a little part of Boise as their own, without any association to nebulous districts created by out-of-state developers.
Over the last year, Boise has seen a number of major retail and restaurant chains, which have heretofore overlooked the Treasure Valley as a viable investment opportunity, reassess its economic growth and ventured into the local market. BoDo has nearly completed construction and renovation of the 8th Street Marketplace, and is currently operating at near capacity with a number of national chains as tenants. Just last month, the Old Spaghetti Factory franchise announced its agreement to lease space downtown. The area's first Cheesecake Factory opens in the Towne Square Mall this fall, and on August 25, the outdoor supply chain Cabela's will open its doors, drawing an expected one-and-a-half million visitors each year. With numbers like that, and with even more national retail and restaurant chains presumed to announce openings in the near future, some local business owners have had to reassess their positions in the community and start asking how they can realistically compete with the virtually unlimited resources and financial backing of direct corporate competition.
In the downtown sector, the appearance of national chains is a recent phenomenon. With few exceptions, Boise's downtown has, until recently, been dominated by local business, many of whom are now in an unapologetic run for their money against newly opened big businesses. Boise watched last fall as Edwards opened a nine-screen megaplex within a stone's throw of locally owned and independent Flicks Theatre and the historic single-screen Egyptian Theatre. With last fall's opening of P.F. Chang's China Bistro, both Yen Ching and Oriental Express suddenly face a formidable opponent. And BoDo's completion brings to downtown plenty of household names like Ann Taylor Loft, White House Black Market, Levi Strauss & Co. and more.
In the wake of recent growth, and on the brink of stepping into the next phase of major economic change, Boise consumers have unwittingly reached a precarious but most powerful position to determine the fate not only of scores of local businesses, but more importantly, the fate of Boise's community identity. Are valley consumers so fully embracing the arrival of corporate business in Boise that eventually our cityscape will resemble others of its size? Are consumers aware of the impacts on the local economy when they choose Cabela's over a specialty shop or the Olive Garden over Gino's? Boise may be poised to become Anywhere, USA, but will its residents let that happen?
When Cabela's opens just more than a mile from John Wolter's fly fishing speciality shop Anglers next week, Wolter admits that the retail giant will affect his business. And he's looking forward to it.
"Yes, I do think [Cabela's] will have an effect on my business," he says. "I think it will increase."
Wolter, who has owned Anglers for 10 years, says Cabela's will not only introduce more people to outdoor sports like fly fishing, but in the long run, Cabela's presence will actually improve business for the locally owned specialty shops in town as new anglers find themselves more familiar--and thus less intimidated--by the goods offered in specialty shops.
"However they get into fly fishing, they eventually come to a specialty shop and we take them from there."
According to Wolter, his optimism is shared by other local specialty store owners. "I think everybody is pretty upbeat about it. The specialty shops have so much to offer when it comes to knowledge and what's happening locally and there's rapport and friendship between customers and owners."
However Wolter doesn't just reflect what he says is the general consensus about the arrival of Cabela's, he's in almost complete agreement with what Cabela's spokesman John Castillo offers. Castillo cites several examples in which vociferous local opponents were eventually won over, and have even partnered with, the Nebraska-centered chain.
"In Owatonna, Minnesota, just a few miles away [from a new Cabela's] was a long-standing gun store [whose owner] had some concerns prior to our arrival," explains Castillo. "However, now his business is actually thriving for a few reasons. First, we partnered with him and now send all our gunsmithing work to his shop. Second, we have raised awareness of shooting sports and third, he has tailored his business to cater specific products that are not found in our inventory.
"I think in our case," says Castillo, "it's a bit of a misconception to say that Cabela's will put local stores out of business."
Wolter agrees. "There's an old saying that the best place to be is next to your competition," he says. "And it will bring a lot of people toward the area."
Downtown, many business owners sit on the proverbial fence, sometimes finding themselves, like Wolter, speaking the benefits of retail and restaurant chains locating downtown, and sometimes finding themselves far less hopeful about the future of their own business and others.
Erik McLaughlin, owner of Richard's in Hyde Park, Taste and the recently opened 8th Street Wine Company, readily admits to speaking out of both sides of his mouth on the issue of restaurant chains.
"There's definitely good with the bad," he says. "I'm personally conflicted because I don't like corporate restaurants and the percent of dining dollars being consumed by corporations is a huge threat to my business. But having P.F. Chang's across the street is a huge benefit for me. They're an anchor store and I get tons of business from people who have to wait at P.F. Chang's so they come to my restaurant to have a glass of wine or dessert, and then they come back [to my restaurant] for dinner two days later."
McLaughlin is among the group responsible for conceiving and coining Alley 8-1/2, along with Jan House, owner of Bistro @ BoDo.
"I've been preaching for people to think twice," House says. "I'm not saying, 'Don't go [to chains],' but, 'Do also patronize your local businesses and stretch a bit.'" House said she thinks there's a basic unawareness among local consumers about how hard it is to run a local business and to be an individual business person.
"People in Boise seem to be very drawn to franchise and chain restaurants," she says.
However, if owners of local and independent restaurants facing head-to-head competition with new chains and franchises are concerned, they're reluctant to show it. After two decades in Boise, Yen Ching won't talk about whether business has slowed for them, and the owner of Louie's Pizza and Italian Restaurant, Chris Mallane, has been surprisingly nonchalant about the impending arrival of nationwide franchise Old Spaghetti Factory next door to his restaurant.
"I think business is always changing," says Mallane. "And businesses that adapt are the ones that will overcome everything."
Though Mallane's comments may come off as lip service from a businessman facing an uphill battle, it's textbook business advice.
"The fact is that companies always have something to worry about," says Rick Vycital of the Idaho Small Business Development Center at Boise State. "As the [business] environment changes, that's a big deal and we have to devise how to change. There is plenty of room for you as a small business because the larger the [competition] is, the larger their mistakes are. Bigger doesn't mean better."
What bigger does mean to the small business owner, however, is the ability to change the business environment, and when that happens, says Vycital, "you get down to some basic rules of business that don't break and then reassess those rules and the environmental changes." He says that the arrival of corporate chains and franchises can improve business, as Wolter speculates, but that's not always the case.
"You can't do something about everything. For example, Wal-Mart won't go away, but there are smaller shops that are compatible with Wal-Mart and that may not compete for Wal-Mart's business, but feed off of its traffic instead."
The idea of smaller, locally owned and independent businesses feeding off of the benefits larger corporate budgets bring to an area is something city planners in Boise expect will happen not only as far as Cabela's is concerned, but in the downtown core, as well.
"It's always an underlying fear that a national store may take away from local business," says Karen Sander, executive director of the Downtown Boise Association. "But P.F. Chang's brought attention to downtown so all of the local businesses benefitted as well."
The women's clothing store Chico's on Idaho Street, Sander says, is an example of how a nationwide chain has been able to increase retail traffic downtown. "They have the large corporate budget to do the advertising that smaller places don't," she says. "It can be a real advantage being located next to a national store because you get that added benefit of having customers who were drawn in by their advertising dollars."
For economic development specialists, it boils down to the fact that any new business is good business.
"They love growth, sustainable profits, having people employed with benefits and retirement plans, and the chance to give back to the community and to hire interns and expand and create jobs and opportunities," explains Vycital. He adds that larger corporations may be able to provide more stability than a small business. And in the face of that competition, Vycital says the responsibility of success lies on the already burdened shoulders of the local business owner.
"A lot of businesses just don't get it," he says. "Even things like branding and referrals make a lot of difference."
But how do local business owners, like restaurateurs accustomed to eyeing one another as local competition, begin working together to "brand" local?
In 1999, a group of fed-up restaurateurs running locally owned and independent businesses found a solution. The Council of Independent Restaurants of America (CIRA) was founded by a half-dozen restaurateurs from all over the country who banded together and quickly began accumulating new members under the idea that "whether you are a neighborhood bistro, a four-star restaurant or the trendiest place in town, you are in danger of closing for good" thanks to "dinner house chains."
Now referred to as Dine Originals, the national organization has chapters in 19 cities nationwide, with an expected membership increase to 25 by the end of this year. CIRA president Don Luria, who was one of the group's founding members, as well as one of the founders of the Tucson Originals, says the reason the group has been so successful in increasing its member base is simple.
"Chains have invaded almost all of our communities and they are taking an increasingly larger percentage of the pie," says Luria. "For three years running now, chains have taken better than 50 percent of restaurant sales. It used to be that independents took the majority."
In an attempt to reclaim their losses to chains in terms of comrades and lost revenue, the group uses the same philosophy behind Vycital's advice. "We're branding ourselves as Dine Originals and trying to get the public to understand that our members are local and they reflect the uniqueness of the community's culture."
In Albuquerque, New Mexico, where the Albuquerque Originals were founded by a group that included restaurateur Gordon Schutte, Dine Originals has been instrumental in helping local business owners attract a community whose restaurant market was quickly saturated with the addition of 10,000 new seats. Schutte says that his only advice to Boise business owners trying to keep their independent restaurants afloat is "to get together and make yourselves known and let consumers know you're local.
"For us, awareness was the biggest issue. The challenge was to make the consumer aware of the difference between P.F. Chang's and my restaurant, Vivace's," says Schutte, who adds that the China bistro had a record opening in Albuquerque. "We put up banners and signs and called attention to fact that we were locally owned."
Though Schutte says his campaign with Dine Originals has been successful for his restaurant, he cautions Boise business owners: "You can't make a complaint about keeping money in your community and saying that money has to stay here. The issue is that you're providing a unique product that's not the same thing you can get in Kansas City or Cincinnati." To consumers, he says that if you want a homogenous product, then go to a chain, but if you want something unique to your community, go to a local business.
It's a simple idea, that of financially supporting your friends and neighbors, and it's one that Denton Musser whole-heartedly agrees with. Musser may be the local face acting as the corporate fall guy in his position as operating partner for Boise's P.F. Chang's location, but, he says, "I've been in the restaurant business in Boise for over 10 years. And I've patronized everybody. I eat at all the local places and I'm a big fan of the downtown restaurant and bar industry." In answer to critics of P.F. Chang's, including Schutte, Luria and a handful of local restaurant owners, Musser defends his restaurant's presence in Boise.
"Do you know why we're successful?" asks Musser. "It's because we make all of our food fresh everyday. It's because my partner graduated from culinary school and does his job well. It's because we've put together a product that people want."
But maybe the real conflict isn't about P.F. Chang's arrival, it's the restaurant's downtown address.
"There are so many choices downtown, and I think that's really the issue," explains Musser. "I think there's a tremendous amount of competition downtown and it's going through a thinning process right now."
Regarding P.F. Chang's location, Musser speaks like a true champion of the downtown core: "Any reason to draw people downtown rather than to the mall area is healthy."
But then again, perhaps all the fuss about P.F. Chang's will reach its end when The Cheesecake Factory opens in Towne Square and crowds return in droves to the mall area. Boise diners have a notorious reputation among restaurateurs for flocking to newly opened bars and eateries en masse initially, and as McLaughlin points out, there's a larger force at play.
"A lot of excitement about P.F. Chang's is about pride in Boise growing. It's not about people wanting to eat Chinese food." And when The Cheesecake Factory opens in the mall, stealing some of the popularity P.F. Chang's has enjoyed for the last year, its predicted popularity may have little to do with cheesecake.
Tucson resident Luria had only one reference as to Boise's identity and it was from an article he'd read in the San Francisco Chronicle. The article, said Luria, described driving out of Boise, and how the landscape was one strip mall after another and if someone was dropped into Boise without any idea of their geographical whereabouts, they'd be at a loss to figure it out given the number of nationwide chains.
According to Dick King, CEO and president of the Missoula Area Economic Development Corporation, the Montana city is facing economic change similar to Boise's. In a regional economy of about 150,000 people, King's job is to ensure that not only do existing businesses continue to grow and be successful, but also to help start companies with the potential of well-paying jobs, as well as to draw large companies to the area that can offer the same thing.
King says Missoula's growth--like Boise's--is due to two major factors.
"The Rocky Mountain Northwest has been discovered, and corporate board rooms across the country are realizing what's here," he says. Corporate board rooms like that of the Cheesecake Factory's have suddenly discovered Boise's economic strength--as well as Boise's proclivity for chain restaurants.
"People look at Boise as the number one example of a Rocky Mountain city that's experiencing dynamic growth," says King. "Missoula is harder to get to than Boise, but we've still seen the emergence of a more diversified business sector here." But dig a little further, says King. Sure, national chain business is now locating in cities like Boise and Missoula because the coming economic growth to the areas ensures big profits. "However," says King, "there's another force at play here." And it's that force which is ultimately driving the wheels of the national economic machine and in turn, bringing Cabela's into Wolter's neighborhood and the Old Spaghetti Factory onto Mallane's street.
"We've had so much business concentrated in certain geographic areas of the country for so long, and I think a lot of large corporations are rethinking that and have started spreading out and that's a positive trend for places that weren't always considered top places to live."
Not top places to live economically speaking, that is. Top places to live in terms of quality of life--places with a low cost of living, shorter commutes, a variety of cultural and outdoor activities, and all the other reasons people have been calling Boise home long before Starbucks arrived--were a different matter ... until recently.
"It's a new phenomenon that companies seek employees instead of the other way around," says King. "If you can provide some assurance that the work force will be there, they'll come. It's a function of the fact that the whole economic base of the country has changed. Now people can locate anywhere and be successful in business. So areas where the quality of life is good are going to pick up more of their share." Areas like Missoula and Boise.
"It's not new [for corporate businesses to move in], we're just seeing more of it."
And when it comes to whether that's a good thing for a community, King joins Boise's downtown restaurateurs on the fence. "Some people are seeing a market opportunity in Missoula and they're investing in it and they happen to run major large chains," he says. "In a sense, that's positive, because we're getting investment. In another sense, it's a challenge because they're a different dynamic when it comes to competition, and that can be detrimental or difficult for long time established businesses in a community."
But, asks King, "What's the alternative? Do we say [chains] can't come? How do we do that?" How do Missoula and Boise keep from so closely resembling one another after another 10 years of development so much so that an outsider to would have difficulty seeing the uniqueness of both communities?
What we have to ask ourselves, says King, is: "Are we less of a community because we don't have an Olive Garden? The answer is no, it's just more familiar." Though he notes that many Missoula residents would have King put the opening of an Olive Garden and a Red Lobster at the top of the Development Corporation's to-do list, King insists that the issue, while in the hands of the individual consumer, extends far beyond the individual to that sense of familiarity.
"Missoula used to be a quiet town and had a strong sense of itself as a community," he says. "Now we're asking, do we know each other here? And that's the catch in the Rocky Mountain Northwest. We still need to nurture and support community but a lot of trends for growth and development are contrary to that. A community, by definition, has services nearby, now we have living space but not community and that's a challenge. We need to tie them together because it's important for quality of life and when you lose that, people move elsewhere."
What it comes down to, says King, is community identity. "Community is really what you're talking about. Take a locally owned business, for example. They're part of the community, they have paid taxes, made community donations and when new people enter the business community, we ask, 'Will they be involved in the same way?'"
Sander thinks it's possible.
"A good example is Old Chicago," says Sander. "They seem like a local downtown business because they have become a part of the fabric of downtown, but it goes back to the type of management and ownership." Sander also cites the owners of The Melting Pot as franchisees who have made a huge effort to be a part of the community.
"They work hard to be part of the community and I think that as long as businesses have the idea that if they want be successful, they need the help of the local community, then they will be successful."
And when it comes to franchises specifically, King agrees. "Take Old Spaghetti Factory, for example. They're a franchise and that's not necessarily a bad thing. You still have local people in ownership."
"I believe in the community and I think sometimes franchises get a bad rap," says Howard Wasserstein, owner of The Melting Pot. "They're not corporate chains. We're not Outback [Steakhouse] or McDonald's. We're locally owned and sometimes people put a bad slant on that. The only thing we get from our corporate people is advice, but we buy a lot of food here in Idaho. For example, we buy our all of our bread from Zeppole."
Wasserstein says The Melting Pot is involved in as many as a hundred charity causes a year and, despite being part of a franchise, he and his wife Helen are local business people who are involved with the community.
And while Luria and Schutte may eschew the idea of franchises billing themselves as independently owned, Schutte admits the upshot of having stiffer competition is that it makes those facing competition do their job better. "It made us better restaurant people, and our business is better because of it," he says.
Wolter agrees. "The specialty shops are a really solid industry here [in Boise]," he says. "We're all going to have to play our 'A'-game and continue to do what we do best in terms of customer service."
Ultimately, as Vycital advises, the burden is on the business owner to devise an effective and competitive product for the consumer and to distinguish itself from the competition. But the burden is also shared by city planners and organizations, to determine where and how community identity is lacking and create that sense of collective local familiarity. And, of course the burden is shared by consumers, to be informed and aware not only of personal spending habits, but of the fate that lies so precariously in their hands.
As for owners like House and McLaughlin, distinguishing Alley 8-1/2 as a destination is proof that local business is staking its territory. Now it's up to consumers to ask themselves if, in the words of McLaughlin, it's really about Chinese food.