McKeon: Buy into local flavor

Shane McKeon, Op-Ed Contributor

Full disclosure: I love Soulwich. Never been? It’s a modern-looking sandwich shop just south of Church Street on Orrington Avenue. I dig the name. I enjoy the vibe. I love that they always seem to play Radiohead from the sound system. And, of course, I love the sandwiches: crunchy French bread filled with cilantro, shredded carrots, savory chicken or pork or, my choice, tempeh. I stand by what I wrote in my zealous Yelp review that three people found “useful”: “Each visit to this eatery truly rejuvenates my soul.”

It’s not the cheapest. A sandwich with a side of slaw will cost you $8 or $9 after tax. With $9 you could just as easily walk up the block to Burger King and buy a Crispy Chicken Jr., a cheeseburger, a carton of small onion rings, a vanilla cone and still have enough left for chicken nugs. But don’t do that.

For one, you’d miss out on the unique culinary experience only a small business can offer. There’s no other place like Soulwich. (Trust me, I’ve looked.) Soulwich has quirk and personality. It’s a more intimate experience. You know the menu was devised by some smiling face behind the counter, not a Food Technologist experimenting in a gray subterranean laboratory across the country.

We’re lucky to live in a city with such wide variety of dining options. You could spend all four years at Northwestern trying to eat at every spot in downtown Evanston and barely see half of them (to say nothing of the restaurants up on Central Street, or south of Main Street, or west of McCormick Boulevard, or, you know, Chicago). We’re especially lucky to have so many locally-owned restaurants serving such delicious, unique food.

But here’s what I dread: that fewer people choose to eat at locally-owned restaurants, the money stops flowing in, and my favorite restaurant closes.

Walk up the street from Soulwich, across Church, and you see Chipotle. The chain is popular with many NU students, despite the E. coli outbreak back in 2015. Chipotle was linked to more than 50 infections and 21 hospitalizations. But, you know, forgive and forget.

Bacteria notwithstanding, I understand Chipotle’s appeal. It’s familiar. You have a go-to order. You get the chips, and you know how they’ll taste: like deep-fried sodium, just how they tasted when you were 12. Each visit lets you practice some comforting, predictable ritual. But when you hand over those $8 at the register — even more if you splurged for the guac — you’re choosing to pay a multinational corporation rather than a small business.

A few things happen when you choose Chipotle. For one, more of your money proportionally gets funnelled out of Evanston and to some corporate headquarters. But if you spend your $8 at a locally-owned business, it’s likely that more of your cash stays here. Studies show local businesses spend a larger share of their revenue locally, which helps other local businesses and the city’s tax base. Also, don’t you miss the humanness of your food being cooked rather than merely assembled?

I have another nightmare: that enough people will choose Chipotle and force a local gem to shut its doors.

It’s not just restaurants, either. Every $3 you spend at Starbucks is $3 you aren’t spending at Brothers K on Main Street. When you buy a book on Amazon and not at Squeezebox Books and Music on Chicago Avenue, you make it harder for that niche shop to stay afloat. If you buy your loaves at Trader Joe’s, you’re making it harder for Great Harvest up on Central, or Hewn down on Dempster. You may pay a little more, but the money stays in Evanston, and these shops stay open.

I remember my economics teacher in high school talk about “dollar voting.” When you buy something, you endorse it and support its continued existence. And when you don’t buy something, you reject it, and you make it harder for that competitor to stay open.

We get to choose what businesses survive in Evanston. If you want vibrant options think hard about where you’re spending your money. Because that’s what decides who stays and who packs up shop.

Shane McKeon is a Medill junior. He can be reached at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected].
The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.