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Friday, March 21, 2008

Why Do Chain Restaurants Persist?

The other night a friend and I were eating sushi at a local Media restaurant, Margaret Kuo's on State Street. We had a lot of time on our hands to talk as is typical when you sit at any bar, sushi or otherwise, and our discussion turned to chain restaurants. My friend was particularly perplexed why people would wait two hours to eat at a P.F. Changs instead of some quality Chinese restaurants in the immediate area. P.F. Chang's is trendy and has a nice atmosphere, for sure, but what is the allure of an eating establishment that has no real connection to the area, doesn't compete on price except with other chain restaurants of its caliber and requires long waits on weekend nights? Naturally, I started to think about Wal-Mart and Home Depot and what those stores mean to shoppers and the communities they serve.

Communities resisted the entrance of these Big Box stores vehemently when there appeared the possibility that civic resistance could stem the tide of these "local small business" wreckers. In the end, though, we have all accepted their presence and only squawk occasionally about their treatment and pay of workers. These stores are where we all shop now for hammers, blankets, convenience food, music, toiletries and lumber among other things. And yes, small businesses did close, but for good reason. They couldn't compete on price and selection. This argument doesn't apply, however to chain restaurants.

Chain restaurants like Friday's, Appleby's, Cheesecake Factory, P.F. Chang's and others aren't considered fast food restaurants, but their business model isn't much different. In fact, they have standardized the formula for success so much that once the SYSCO semi pulls away from one, it backs up into the next one 100 meters away in the same shopping center. Ironically, no one protested the entrance of these restaurants over the past 25 or so years. They embraced them with enthusiasm and outright worship. This even though they put many local, good restaurants out of business, but not for the obvious reason; price. Let's face it, these restaurants are no bargain. Additionally, they tend to overfeed you, an unfortunate selling point, and serve food that only appears to be gourmet or 'home-cooked' when, in fact, it's assembled with most of the same ingredients you'd find at cheap hotels and institutions such as schools, hospitals and company cafeterias.

I think the American people have been duped. The same protesters that tried to block Wal-Mart and Home Depot from setting up shop in their communities happily dine at these pseudo-fancy restaurants and measure success by the amount of food they heap on a plate. Unlimited bread sticks, soup and salad anyone? While at the same time the local restaurants which have only improved over the past 25 years as the overall demand for better food has increased, struggle, then wilt, then die. It is our duty to patronize these fine restaurants. By doing so we are supporting our neighbors and communities and not paying any more to do so. Low Prices Always is irresistible to the consumer particularly when the products we purchase are so mundane to our lives. Necessities, if you will. This even goes for food as we seek bargains at supermarkets.

But dining out is a totally different experience for us. For many, it's a special occasion, a treat, a luxury. That's why the big chains don't compete on price. They have dedicated most of their revenue to marketing, location selection, interior decorating and some gimmicky theme. This is duplicated 100's of times, producing economies of scale that bring in big corporate profits. Good for them, but they are killing those local business so many of you cried for when those businesses were pharmacies, hardware stores and lumber yards. No one seems to care if it's the local Italian, Chinese, Mexican or Continental restaurant that goes out of business even though many offer better food, often at a better price and with a personal touch that can't be duplicated by large chains. Taking this to an extreme, have you ever felt special ordering a Big Mac and fries and a McDonalds? I doubt it.

So before you go wait for two hours at P.F. Chang's spending even more money at the bar out of boredom, consider a local eatery. At best, the big chains should be one of many restaurants you choose from when making dinner plans. If you want to save your downtowns, main streets or local neighborhoods, find a new BYOB that's received good reviews from friends and the media and spend your 'two-hour wait' beer money on a couple good bottles of wine, call a couple friends and have a meaningful, intimate dinner for four at your very own community's very own restaurant.

1 comment:

jenj said...

HEAR! HEAR! Bravo!