When you eat out in an unfamiliar area, do you default to choosing a big chain restaurant? National leaders Darden Restaurants (Olive Garden, Red Lobster) and Brinker International (Chili’s) count on our lack of a sense of culinary adventure to drive us in their doors. Just ask yourself “if I been to one Applebees I been to them all”. They all look exactly alike from Burlington NJ to Shreveport LA.

As I stated in other blogs, one unhappy experience at a locally owned restaurant can put a bad taste in our mouths that makes us run for the consistency of the chains. But mom-and-pops are far from dead — seven of every ten restaurants are still one-unit eateries, the National Restaurant Association reports.

With smart phones and apps making the world small, their’s no excuse for you not find a local treasure wherever your traveling too. A customer that was staying at a hotel nearby in Westampton said to me “I have a traditional place I stop for dinner on this trip, at one of the big chain restaurants. The food is consistent but unexceptional, yet it’s become our normal stop just because we’ve had so many bad meals stopping at locally owned, independent restaurants in the area. This time, I spotted a local eatery (Casamari) that looked intriguing and I decided to take a chance, I had a great experience” which could provide a guidebook for other independents looking to lure customers away from the chains.

Here are four points of difference that made our homegrown restaurant stand out that other independents could use to beat the big chains:

1. Better food. I’m not talking about organic salad greens here or grass-fed beef, or anything super-fancy. Order basic road food — Chicken Parm, Penne Vodka, and Pizza for the kids. You wouldn’t think there could be much to blow your mind in these dishes, but the food is exceptional. The French fries are skin-on, thick cut and then perfectly fried so they are crisp and not greasy — head and shoulders above a typical chain fry. The Pizza is done up on hand-tossed dough & homemade bread your kids about swooned over, and the cheese is high quality mozzarella, not American plastic. Seeing what local restaurant & cafe’s like ours do with these prosaic menu items shows you can exceed expectations even with simple fare.

2.Service. “Our servers are brother & sister along with the owners of the establishment. One spotted us waiting for a table immediately and left the counter area to come around to the floor and serve us”. “It was probably her not her job, but she wasn’t willing to let us stand a few minutes and wait”. No need to take a vibrating beeper and wait around for 15 or 20 minutes before someone cares if your hungry — just good old-fashioned prompt customer service.

3.Custom decor. The advantage of being a one-of-a-kind restaurant is that you can make the eatery reflect your personality. In are case, the interior is cozy and simple, one-off unique wall pieces including an old painting of Marco Polo and a Mona Lisa banner. There are lots to see and discuss while you waited for your meal.

4.No rush. Always note with interest that many tables seemed to be filled with local residents, who eat their meals in a leisurely fashion, relishing every moment away from their homes. Owners put out no vibe that they should hurry up and clear out so they could turn the tables over faster, either. When’s the last time you lingered at a table at a chain restaurant and didn’t get the stink-eye from your waiter to finish up? When there’s an owner on the premises, they keep their focus on what matters: building great customer relationships so that the regulars come back again and again, not trying to squeeze one more table into this week’s dinner service.