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.