In the early 2000s,Sarasota began attracting the attention of national chain restaurants looking to open up in the area,and local establishments worried they would soon be competing with large companies. In search of solutions, Michael Klauber, the co-proprietor of Michael’s On East, attended an event in Tucson, Arizona, hosted by a group called the Tucson Originals, (which was creating an organization made up of local, independent restaurants). Inspired by that group, he contacted Don Luria, its president, to learn how he could establish a Sarasota chapter.   

This spread, left to right: Original SMO Restaurants: Michael Klauber, co-proprietor of Michael's OPn East and founding board president of SMO; Chef Paul Mattison, owner of Mattison's Restaurants & Catering; Chef Christopher Covelli, co-owner of Bijou Garden Café, formerly Bijou Café; Chef Harry and Lynn Christensen, owners of Harry's Continental Kitchens; D'Arcy and Chef Raymond Arpke, former owners of Euphemia Haye; and Chef Jean-Pierre "J.P." Knaggs, former owner of Bijou Café.

“I got myself and seven other restaurateurs together to meet with Don Luria, and he talked to us about what it was all about. At that time in Sarasota, we were starting to get some of the big chain restaurants looking at us and starting to dabble their feet in the waters here, and we were concerned about that. It was a ‘circle your wagons’ type of situation,” Klauber says. “The eight of us got together with this wonderful gentleman and he said, ‘I’ll come back in a month, and if each one of you can get two other restaurants to come, you’ll have enough to start a chapter.’ A month later, we did. There were 24 of us there. We’re at 62 or something now.”

Founded in 2003, this chapter, called the Sarasota-Manatee Originals, was comprised of beloved member restaurants such as The Colony, Euphemia Haye, Harry’s Continental Kitchens, Café L’Europe, Bijou Café, Mattison’s, Patrick’s, Roessler’s Restaurant and Caragiulos. “We wanted to level the playing field with the chains because the ones that were coming in were spending big money with full-page magazine and TV ads. Most of our restaurants at that time did not have much of a marketing budget,” adds Klauber. “I came up with this idea to go to Sysco Foods–one of our broadline distributors–and said, ‘We can’t purchase together, but what if you give us a percentage of each of our sales back into a marketing fund?,’ and they agreed. That’s how it started. We might not be able to buy the way the chains buy, but it gave us the ability to market.”

Armed with a marketing budget, the Originals wasted no time developing creative ways to spread the word. “We ran full-page ads, featuring chefs and owners saying ‘I’m an Original.’ in SRQ Magazine and other publications. It was a great program. A lot of these little restaurants could never have afforded a full-page ad, so that’s what we started doing,” Klauber says. The Originals organization partners with ABC7, which highlights different local restaurants on its weekly cooking show. The surge in digital media also helped the Originals get the message out through email blasts and website development. “In the beginning, when we created a website, most of the restaurants didn’t have one and didn’t know how to build one. We had someone to help build websites for our members, and the whole ‘I’m an Original.’ program was integrated into the website. We were able to have one website for people to go to and connect to all the different restaurants,” Klauber adds. This digital marketing has evolved into social media efforts, TV ads and digital banner ads, transforming the way consumers connect with local eateries. In 2008, after participating in local arts events, the Originals created its own event called The Forks & Corks Food and Wine Festival to showcase the member restaurants. “Forks & Corks gives everyone the ability to show off their food, to market to that group and, in many cases, do a wine dinner at their restaurant with a famous international winemaker that they wouldn’t normally get—with the publicity that goes along with it,” says Klauber. In addition to Forks & Corks, the Originals group supports events hosted by other organizations, such as Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium and The Bay Sarasota.  Aside from events, the Originals runs a quarterly gift certificate sale, in which the public can purchase discounted gift certificates that are usable at any member restaurant, further encouraging the community to eat locally.  

The Originals, which celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2023, has buoyed the Sarasota and Manatee food industry during a period of new opportunities and unforeseen challenges. On the positive side, eateries can now source high-quality, organic, biodynamic and sustainably grown products from local farmers. “Back in the day, most of the local farmers would all go to the Tampa market or the Chicago market and someone would come and pick up all their stuff, and we never could access it locally. That’s changed a lot,” Klauber adds. However, the pandemic created many obstacles for the restaurant industry, including massive increases in labor, food and insurance costs. While the Sarasota area has grown in population, the affordable housing crisis means that restaurant employees have no place to live, making it harder to keep businesses staffed. “The ability to make a profit in a restaurant is much tighter today,” Klauber says. 

For Originals members, the organization is a champion of supporting the local community. Hal Christensen, the general manager of Harry’s Continental Kitchens and a founding Originals member, says, “The money stays in the town, with the local people who then spend it on the local refrigeration or gas repair guys or air conditioning company. We don’t have national contracts with big names like chains do. Everything stays local, and that’s been the whole movement for the last 20 years.” Celebrating the restaurants that define the area also gives the staff the opportunity to connect and share stories with the guests. “When you look at food and wine, it’s about romance. It’s about the story. You get that from somebody who had their heart involved with the winery or the restaurant itself,” Christensen says. “If I’m here cooking eight days a week, you’re going to hear my passion about why this food is so good.”