As you prepare for your July 4th backyard barbecue or your trip to the shore, consider where you'll buy your burgers and buns or your trendy beach bag.
If a Wal-Mart supercenter or the Gap seem like obvious choices, you might be a chain-a-holic.
You're not alone. Low-cost products and abundant convenient locations lure many Lehigh Valley consumers into playing the chain game.
Still, there are those who prefer mom-and-pop shops, delis where they've got ''your usual'' ready and waiting, and coffee shops where they know you like your latte with skim milk, not whole.
Local businesses might not have ''rollback prices.'' But, according to the American Independent Business Alliance, they provide community character, boost the local economy and promote quality of life better than their national and international counterparts.
Dedicated customers of Dogstarr, an Allentown cafe owned by 31-year-olds Matt and Adrienne Starr, would agree. Every morning, Matt unlocks the doors to the eatery he opened eight years ago and starts brewing coffee the first of about 25 pots. Although the cafe technically isn't open until eight, some customers arrive a half-hour early to get caffeinated before heading to work, and Matt gladly accommodates them.
''I know who's coming in and who's getting Columbian at 7:30, and I have it ready for them,'' he says.
The young entrepreneur enjoys the flexibility he has acting as his own boss and running his business according to his rules. Still, not every day is easy when you're an independent owner.
The Starrs can't afford to employ a slew of servers. When one doesn't show, it causes major problems when they're slammed by the noon lunch crowd. Also, they can't offer their employees health benefits, and they don't have a team of corporate lawyers or human resource reps to back them up, as chain establishments do. They also rarely get time off.
''We don't get two weeks paid vacation,'' says Adrienne. ''When we take off work we lose income and we get yelled at by our customers 'You're going to be closed? What are we going to do for coffee?'.''
For extra ''play money,'' Adrienne picks up waitressing shifts each week at Buca di Beppo, an Italian chain restaurant. While she enjoys working at the franchise, she says it helps her appreciate their small eatery all the more.
In honor of hard-working small-business owners like the Starrs, and in the spirit of freedom, this week we celebrate our independents.
3501 Broadway, Allentown, 610-706-0100
Established: 2001 by John Trapani and John Pukanecz
The price: Moderate
The hook: Co-owner John Trapani believes local diners choose Grille 3501 over chain establishments because they serve distinctive dishes made from high quality ingredients in a stylish matter.
We have the flexibility to try new things. John came up with a new dish popcorn-encrusted halibut and we were able to put it on the menu immediately; in a confining corporate environment we wouldn't be able to do it,'' says Trapani.
He also says that their fresh, home-grown ingredients, such as organic micro greens from local greenhouses, make them stand out from the corporate competition.
THE MORAVIAN BOOK SHOP
428 Main St., Bethlehem, 610-866-5481
Established: 1745 by Moravian Church
The price: Moderate
The hook: General manager Dana DeVito says the store's excellent customer service creates repeat readers.
''We know people are making the extra trip down here instead of going to the mall, so we want to make sure they're rewarded once they get here,'' she says. ''We know a lot of them by name.''
The employees are so dedicated to their patrons they even phone them to inform them about new books, make home deliveries, special order books overnight, ship to anywhere in the world and offer free wi-fi.
DeVito also says the store's selection gives it an advantage over national chains like Barnes and Noble or Borders. ''Those stores have central buying one person buys and then the books are shipped to all the stores. It ends up looking like a cookie cutter. Ours does not,'' she explains.
''We have independent buyers for our different departments; each department reflects their individual personalities and I think you get unique items that way. The things you find in our store you will not find at the mall.''
DOUBLE DECKER RECORDS
803 St. John St., Allentown, 610-439-3600
Established: 1996 by Jamie Holmes.
The price: Low $13 or less for new CDs; $6 or less for used.
The hook: Thirty-year-old Jamie Holmes says people opt to shop at his store because of its extensive selection of underground titles.
''Most of the chains only carry big, new artists and larger, classic titles; they don't go into depth with smaller artists or more obscure stuff,'' he says. ''If you're looking for Brittany Spears, this probably isn't the place.''
He also carries vinyl that the chains don't touch any more, and welcomes customers to listen to it on turntables set up in the store. ''People come in and spend four, five, six hours just going through stuff,'' he says.
Holmes also makes community connections by carrying local bands' CDs and promoting their concerts in the store.
DOGSTARR CAFE29 N. 6th St., Allentown, 610 821-1011
Established: 1997 by Nathan ''Nate Dog'' DeRock and Matt Starr
The price: Moderate
The hook: Matt Starr's wife and now co-owner, Adrienne serves up coffee and sandwiches with a smile. Her friendly table service keeps all 14 tables packed at lunch time.
''We have about 100 regulars and we know their names, what coffee they like and what time they come in to get it each day. It makes them feel special,'' says Matt.
Besides the personal attention, their fresh-squeezed lemonade and signature ''White Russian'' sandwich turkey, Swiss cheese, coleslaw and Russian dressing on rye toast keep customers loyal.
172 West Main St., Kutztown, 610-894-9544
Established: 2003 by Anne Kuronyi
The price: Low
The hook: ''If you want to look like everyone else, you go to the mall,'' says Anne Kuronyi, owner of the vintage/thrift store.
''Whether you go the Gap in New York or in the Lehigh Valley, they're going to be exactly the same. Here the layout and setup is unique with industrial wrought iron racks and antique wood boxes on the walls for displays and you never know what you're going to find on the racks,'' She explains. ''You could come in every week and get totally different items. At the Gap, you have to wait until they change seasons.''
In addition to carrying cool retro clothes, the store offers recycled brand clothing at a fraction of the original price ($50 Gap jeans for $10), making modern trends accessible to those who can't afford mall prices.
POCONO CINEMA & COFFEE SHOP
88 S. Courtland St., E. Stroudsburg, 570-421-3456
Established: 1996 by John and Carolyn Yetter
The price: Moderate $9 regular admission
The hook: Carolyn Yetter jokingly says an advantage their independent theater has over cineplexes is ''you don't stick to the floors.''
The indie cinema features a cafe that serves certified organic coffee and espresso and decadent desserts that can be brought into the three Dolby surround-sound auditoriums. There's also popcorn and soda for more traditional viewers.
''We used to have to trek to Doylestown to the County Theater because these films weren't being shown locally,'' explains Carolyn. ''We felt the area needed this.''
The mix of independent, foreign and studio pieces gives viewers variety that they don't get at chain theaters. The place is so popular that people travel from Scranton, the Lehigh Valley and New Jersey to catch a flick.
In lieu of arcade games, their lobby boasts an art gallery with rotating exhibits by area artisans. Their participation in local film festivals also fuels their mission to support the local community.