"No Americans come" to eat in Wheaton, say owners of Latino restaurants in the CBD. Staff with language barriers and a preference for traditional dining habits (according to the Gazette, loud music and futbol on TV) have kept other ethnicities at bay. Kosher restaurants are doing well with gringos in Wheaton, but that's mainly due to the area's substantial Orthodox Jewish population.
Local businesses are paramount to keeping our commercial districts vibrant and relevant in the face of competition from chain-dominated shopping malls. But to stay afloat, they have to attract customers outside their core base - and work harder to reach them. Not everyone's going to support a local business, but it shouldn't be because they feel discouraged to.
Take the record store, for instance. I like buying music, but I'm no audiophile; when I go to a record store like the now-defunct Orpheus Records in Clarendon or even our CD and Game Exchange at Georgia and Ripley, I feel intimidated by the clerks whenever I head to the register. They are knowledgable and hide no excitement or disdain (or little trivia you don't care about) regarding your purchases. And it's enough to keep me away, because I don't feel welcomed there as a perceived "newcomer."
Authenticity, or perceived authenticity, is important. I was raised to believe if a Chinese restaurant was filled with Chinese people, then the food must be good. That holds with Wheaton's Full Key or Oriental East in Silver Spring, where lines of Cantonese stretch out the door on weekends. (My Chinese friend jokes that you will not get seated there at these times if you are not Asian.) Traditional food is why Oriental East has so many Chinese patrons (and adventurous American patrons). It provides the best tangible connection to the culture you can get here, without placing a statue of a horse outside as P.F. Chang's does.
The P.F. Chang's at the Mall in Columbia.
For locals, atmosphere comes secondary, though it really shouldn't. There are many horses in the race for "Best Peruvian Chicken Restaurant," but one's reasoning for why one local chicken joint is the best never has anything to do with cleanliness, lighting or customer service. It's about amazing food. This goes for any local business, substituting "food" for "whatever service they provide" (a nationally-renowned selection of comic books, costumed staff who sing sea shanties, etc.)
But chain restaurants that supply some form of "ethnic" food, like Baja Fresh or P.F. Chang's China Bistro (perhaps the most inane moniker for an eatery, ever) have given even the least adventurous diners high expectations of what a Mexican or Chinese restaurant should look and feel like, whether in terms of atmopshere, cleanliness or customer service. I generally feel that chains - even with the jokes about "putting crazy crap on the walls" or forcing employees to wear "pieces of flair" - do a better job of creating a clean, attractive, and most importantly brand-centered environment.
A good local business is a gathering place for a community of people who patronize it, whether drawn together by proximity or culture or interests. But it's also an opportunity to expose those outside that community to new experiences (and lighten their wallets). They have to provide that authentic good or service to those within the core, while packaging it in a way that attracts and welcomes newcomers as well. By striking that balance, a local business can make the unfamiliar made familiar, or at the very least unintimidating.