Via e-mail today at 2:50 p.m.
Chain restaurants, by their very existence, cause a lot of angst among cosmopolitan city dwellers, which is really just more evidence that the post-modern age has left us with precious little to worry about. Still, if you have found that you have gotten all the party-disrupting mileage you can get out of talking about abortion or school prayer, you can achieve just as much social awkwardness by saying you were in New York last week and had a great meal at TGI Fridays.
The great conundrum, of course, is that chains proliferate while everyone claims to hate them. Just like pornography is a billion dollar industry that everyone is against, and Wal-Mart is destroying the world while simultaneously selling most of those who live in it cheap toilet paper, Taco Bell has corrupted quality Mexican food and, this is key, forced the mom and pop Mexican food stores out of business.
We have a certain romantic notion of the Mom and Pop store, or the restaurant run by the true artisan who makes food that you can only get at the corner of 8th and Sansom. The reason why we revolt against chains is because they rely on mass, rather than individual, production.
Something about the value of the individual is deeply ingrained in American culture. We teach our history as a series of stories about great individuals, usually presidents. We often make decisions about what is best for us rather than what is best for our immediate peer group or even those we don’t know. We celebrate singular leaders in various fields. Even supposedly team efforts always have their individual stars.
And so we value and honor the individual who starts a restaurant and puts her signature style to it, and we respect those who eat there. They get written up in the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, and the truly successful get their own cooking shows on the Food Network.
Chains, on the other hand, are not unique. The Outback Steakhouse in Pittsburgh is the same as the Outback Steakhouse in Los Angeles, or in Peoria, Illinois. Employees are interchangeable and transient. A person who has worked at Outback for 20 years isn’t a genius who knows how to make a great Blooming Onion; he’s a loser who made bad choices and can’t get another job.
We don’t like thinking of ourselves that way. We don’t like being robbed of our individuality and our creativity by mass produced recipes that are created at a corporate office far removed from an actual kitchen.
So why do we go to chains? Because they are cheap. Their economy of scale allows them to keep prices down so that people can eat out without having to budget for it or wait for a special occasion. But something always feels wrong about food that tastes the same whether you are eating it in New York or Nashville.
And we really don’t like eating it because it makes us feel cheap.
Profound thoughts coming from a man who eats at the Houlihan’s in Penn Station every time he travels to N.Y.C.