No wonder Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu was fired up about selling the Louisiana brand to the national travel market when he took the stage two weeks ago at the Lafayette Convention and Visitors Commission's annual Breakfast of Champions. Tourism is a $9.9 billion industry in Louisiana and growing. It's his job to keep it that way, and he has a short list of what makes our state such a hot commodity: "It's our food, our culture, our art, our music, our history, our food and eco-tourism."

Perhaps it was no mistake that Landrieu included "food" twice as he ticked off the things that draw tourists to our state. We know the value of our distinctive local Cajun and Creole cuisine: we like it, we like to talk about it and we like to share it with visitors. But it's also important to connect the dots between our food and a successful tourism strategy. Although national and regional chains have their place, tourists don't pull out the map and drive 500 miles in search of another Applebee's. The locally owned restaurants that offer unique culinary experiences are what make Lafayette an attractive dining destination. "We're authentic ' the real deal. We don't want to be another Disneyland," Landrieu said, speaking broadly about the Louisiana experience. And that experience is defined in large part by what we eat.

The restaurant business is a tough business, and as the city is inundated with more and more chains, it gets even tougher. The little guys don't have the bulk buying power for everything from marketing to mayonnaise so their operating margins are thinner. But their success is integral to our continued growth as a tourism mecca.

Local restaurateurs are banding together with the support of LCVC to market themselves more effectively and will launch the "EatLafayette" campaign and Web site next month. LCVC Executive Director Gerald Breaux was approached by Charley G's owner Charlie Goodson, Bella Figura owner Jack Ainsworth, Hub City Diner owner Jimmy Guidry and Café Vermilionville owner Ken Veron with the concept. "We want to remind everyone how important our local restaurants are and that they should not be taken for granted," says Breaux. "The campaign doesn't say, 'Don't eat in chain restaurants.' It says, 'Remember when you go out that we're so fortunate to have such a variety of good local restaurants in our community.' It's not a common thing." You don't have to look beyond much larger cities like Shreveport and Baton Rouge to see Breaux's point.

I'm happy to see LCVC support this message but for me there's more to the story. Consider the tremendous contributions these restaurants make to the philanthropic efforts in our community. Whether it's a gift certificate for a silent auction or a food donation for a cocktail fundraiser, they are the ones who make it happen. And when people attend events in support of these good causes, it can also mean a soft night back at the restaurant. This, too, should not be taken for granted.

It's not like we need another good reason or two to go out and have a great meal in Lafayette, but the EatLafayette campaign is a worthy reminder of why it's so important. It's kind of like voting: do it early and whenever you have the opportunity. While you're there, tell your local restaurateurs thanks for all they do to make this a great place to live ' and to live to eat.

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