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Chicago Independents Organization Aiming to Draw Casual Diners to Top Independent Restaurants

The group, which includes mfk, Elizabeth, Hopleaf and many more, trying to achieve visibility for restaurant members instead of chains.

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Chicago's true food and drink enthusiasts know about these "hidden gems" restaurant and bars. But for tourists, those who stick to their neighborhood standbys, and those out-of-the-loop, it can often be far too easy to eat at chain restaurants or the same places over and over again. A new restaurant organization named Chicago Independents aims to change that by giving top local independent restaurants "the visibility they deserve" through an online directory, a mobile app, gift cards, recipes, events listings, and alternative marketing.

Chicago Independents is the second such restaurant organization helmed by executive director and president of Cleveland advertising firm CATV, Inc. Myra Orenstein, who joined Cleveland Independents nine years ago. The Cleveland organization began with a mission to protect independent restaurants there from an "influx of chain restaurants" and now has more than 90 restaurant members. "Local restaurateurs realized they could be gobbled up by Cheesecake Factories," Orenstein says.

16 months ago, Orenstein traveled to Chicago and was frustrated when "the same six restaurants" were recommended to her when she asked around for places to eat. She did her own research and found Jam, the standout brunch restaurant in Logan Square, and after a conversation with chef Jeffrey Mauro, the seed was planted for the Chicago branch.

Officially launching Thursday, Chicago Independents already features nearly 20 restaurants, including Elizabeth, Mfk, The Radler, Hopleaf, and CH Distillery, and more restaurants are coming aboard seemingly every hour. The website is live, a mobile app will launch Thursday, and each member restaurant will sell very limited gift cards (13) for deeply discounted meals (excluding tax, gratuity, and restaurant holidays) beginning that day to raise proceeds to pay their member dues, as well as give food enthusiasts a chance to "help support the organization and save some money." The gift certificates are worth $50 but priced at $35, according to the Tribune, and more will be announced every quarter.

Eventually the group will provide cards representing each restaurant for diners to carry and keep track of, sell gift cards that can be redeemed at any member restaurant, and provide member directories so not-in-the-know diners can find these noteworthy independent spots, in addition to recipes from member restaurants and event listings.

Orenstein says the group is "very selective about who they bring aboard" and that the entire board needs to approve each new member. "Part of the goal is to remain exclusive," she says. Scott Worsham (mfk) is the local president and other board members include Thai Dang, Jeffrey Mauro, Kurt Guzowski (Tete Charcuterie), and Adam Hebert (The Radler).

Will Chicago Independents help steer casual diners from chain restaurants to noteworthy independent spots? Does it provide a unique service to diners? Check it out on the website now and purchase some discounted meals on Thursday, and decide for yourself as it gains more momentum.

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