Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Us and Them

Hello, and welcome back!  That is to say, thanks for coming back.  I generally have taken a little hiatus after a big holiday to regroup and kick around some concepts for discussion.  I always feel a little more rejuvenated, too.  My first real topic of 2011 has to do with a subject I am very passionate about:  the independent restaurant vs. chain restaurants.

Chain restaurants are all over every highway and byway of America, and they are now bleeding out over the borders to commonly traveled destinations by Americans.   I define a chain restaurant as any dining place that shares a flag (as we call it in hospitality) of the same name, and you can get the same exact meal at any of their destinations worldwide.  They are the anti-restaurant, eating places without a soul.  Think "homogenized".  

I saw two related pieces in the news recently.  One was about Bon Apetit trying to re-brand themselves as being "more about inviting friends over for dinner" as they try to reinvigorate their ever-changing demographic. The other was a short video put together by the National Council of Chain Restaurants citing why people choose chain over "gourmet" restaurants.  Night and day.

Consumer insights provided by expotv.com

There are all kinds of arguments for why someone would choose a chain restaurant over an independently owned and operated one.  But, the one not discussed in the video above is supply and demand.  In other words, there are more of them because the demand is high for them.  Yes, convenience, consistency- all that stuff is important, but it's also important to independet operators, too.  Corporate America knows we are lazy.  And, they are cashing in on us.

Before the advent of the chain restaurant (almost interchangeable with "fast food") some 60 years ago, the local, mom-and-pop place reigned.  Service was folksy but sincere, the owner typically was in the kitchen or running the floor, and it almost always was characterized by a local specialty.  They were as diverse as their geography was vast.  

But, when convenience began to trump originality, the demand became greater for establishments that could snag the best locations.  That is the number one commonly misunderstood fact about chain restaurants: their business is not restaurants, but real estate.  We all know the major axiom in business is about location.  And, the reason they repeat it three times is because people seem to forget it, especially in restaurants.  Finding the best blue chip locations to put a restaurant ensures a healthy life (if the concept is sound).

Meanwhile, Bon Apetit, arguably the reigning elitist food magazine in the US is trying to re-brand themselves as more "food" than "foodie".  More fun dining than fine dining.  Tatoos and lattes.  Crockpots and cupcakes.  

What would we do if suddenly there was an independently owned coffee shop, bistro, steak house, pizza joint or sub shop on every corner of Mainstreet, USA?  For one, we'd have truly local food.  We'd also have truly regional food, with every nuance just a subtle difference to ensure competition and originality.  I don't deny the convenience of a chain, but has food sold its soul for convenience?

I want to hear what you have to say.

1 comment:

Food said...

Chains... Let us not forget a certain "mexican" chain that is now trying to prove that their beef is AT LEAST 40% edible bovine product. I have spent many years traveling throughout the country by car. Every 15 miles your tired body and droopy eyes are welcomed by a sign of red and yellow( the colors that trigger us to eat). Chains offer comfort when your far from home.

They are also a sure thing. We know what a burger at McDonalds tastes like in Delaware or DC. When you pull into a random town in Kentucky you have no idea what the quality food the local bar sells. I could guess they have wings, burgers, and fries. Maybe the next Thomas Keller is butchering whole cows in the parking lot after work and making them into burgers? Or just last week they could have been closed due to a Ecoli scare. I prefer the un-chain restaurants, but that is a route that most people in this country will not take. Americans would rather take a chance on a mortgage they cannot afford then a meal which may be unfamiliar.

Enjoyed the article in Out and About.


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