The Chipotle that’s soon to open at Abrams and Richmond doesn’t seem like much of a reason for controversy. It is, as fast food restaurants go, a notch above the usual, and its founder, a Denver chef named Steve Ellis, has always insisted that the chain was more than another corporate knockoff.
Yet our blog pages were surprisingly full of back and forth when the restaurant was announced in the spring, the idea being that Chipotle wasn’t a local company and didn’t deserve our patronage, regardless of how we felt about their burritos and tacos. The gist of the argument: We already have plenty of local Mexican-style restaurants; why do we need another one that’s not from around here?
In other words, how local is local?
This question is being asked more often, and it has a harder edge than ever before. That’s because, as the neighborhood continues to grow and prosper, it is attracting deep-pocket investors who are enamored of that growth and prosperity but are less concerned with local than we are. So a lot of us are asking if enough of the new tenants in the Lakewood shopping center are local, or if they are there because they can pay higher rents. And if the new Los Angeles owners of the Henderson shopping strip between Ross and Central will keep the street’s focus on local or bring in suburban-style chains whose biggest attribute is that they can pay higher rents. There have even been questions about whether the Greenville Avenue Trader Joe’s is local enough, and we haven’t had a Dallas grocery store chain in Dallas in almost 20 years.
Local matters here, and it has for decades. Much of the rest of Dallas may be content with the Applebee’s and Walmarts and T.J.Maxxes that make up the post-modern retail landscape; that’s why one of the selling points north of LBJ in the wet-dry referendum two years ago was that voting wet might get them a Costco.
But we’ve always wanted more than that. Local is part of Lakewood and East Dallas, and has shaped what we have become. People move here because we believe in local, and it’s the main reason why we’re still here and doing so well. North Dallas, for one, bet on non-local, and the result? Empty malls and strip centers. In fact, local is so important to us that we grasp at it any way we can, even if it means supporting poorly run businesses that should have failed and would have failed elsewhere. They’re local, so they get the benefit of the doubt. I hear this all the time — Jeff, you should write about this business because it’s local, or Jeff, this woman really needs your support, since she’s local and trying to help the community.
And why not? Local, for the most part, is better than non-local, and it’s not just about the economic advantages or that local means more money stays here and isn’t trucked off to a shiny-glass-tower corporate headquarters. Local means the businesses pay attention. I’ve been having a running battle for six months with my bank, one of the new-breed multi-nationals, about a $6 service fee. Each month, I call and explain that they’re not supposed to charge me the $6, and each month someone in a call center somewhere takes it off. Then, the next month, the charge re-appears. I doubt I’d have the same experience with a local bank, where I could walk in the door and explain my problem.
Hence the debate over a restaurant that doesn’t seem like it should generate much debate. These days, though, the quality of the burritos and tacos may not be enough. We may want something more from our businesses, and it’s not about cost or convenience. It may be about whether they care about our neighborhood. And what a nice change that would be.
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