Civilizations in decline are consistently characterized by a tendency towards standardization and uniformity.
–Arnold Toynbee, historian (1889-1975)
There was a time when I’d always point to Lew Bryson’s pioneering essay as my inspiration for the “Death to Chains” mantra. It’s been more than a decade since Lew wrote this stirring call to arms, and at some point I stopped giving him a bow, but let’s give credit where credit’s due.
Ladies and gentlemen, Lew Bryson breaks it down: Follow. The. Money. — and reject monoculture.
|Applebee’s: A sign that the End Times are near.
I used to grab a burger lunch at McDonald’s frequently, two or three times a week. That’s frequently for me; I like to cook and I’m too cheap to go out much. I’d take the family to Chi Chi’s and Red Lobster and Pizza Hut and never think twice about it.
Then I interviewed Don Feinberg, half of the brains behind Brewery Ommegang and beer importers Vanberg & De Wulf. Don walked me all over Ommegang’s territory by the Susquehanna River in upstate New York, took me on a wild brewery tour, and fed me local apples and cheese sliced with a pocketknife while we sampled his delicious beers outside in a beautiful summer’s day. Then he gave me a ride into Cooperstown and started talking about monoculture.
“The real problem,” he said, “and this is politics, not just beer, it’s monoculture versus diversity. That’s what we are fighting the fight for, for good beer and for better food against McDonald’s and Monsanto.
“Look, monoculture actually means two things,” he said, waving one arm wildly as he navigated the small road. “It means a lack of diversity. We’re only here for 60, 70, 80 years, I’d like to try as many things as I can, with as many peoples’ input, creativity, and fulfillment expressed as possible. The other thing: 99 times out of 100, you’re not giving me one choice because it’s better for me. It’s because it’s better for you.
“Having said that,” he said, calming a bit, “the reason monoculture is so successful in the world is because it’s predictable, and predictability leads to efficiency, and efficiency leads to profitability, and that leads people to get involved in it.
The Seductive Key: It’s Easier
“Why did everyone in America in the 1950s want to have a franchise for McDonald’s?” He posed the question, and here was the nut that would knock my noggin and make me realize exactly why chain restaurants are a blight upon our land.
“Because the chances of you coming up with an idea for a restaurant that would be that successful… there aren’t that many creative people. It was easier for you to take this person’s formula and make money off of it, and most of us have to pay the rent and put the kids through college. So it’s easier to adapt things, especially if what you’re adapting has proven to be successful.
“Monoculture is very powerful,” he said in conclusion. “But powerful and better are not always the same thing.”
No Chains On Me
I stepped out of that car a changed man. Today I shun McDonald’s and chain restaurants — not entirely, because sometimes it’s all you got — and go out of my way to try new local places, wherever I am. It’s one of the reasons I love upstate PA and NY; lots of local eateries and stores left up there, and out on Long Island, too.
I get questions about that, and I’ve got some answers.
Do all chains suck?
No! John Harvard’s Brew House doesn’t suck, Rock Bottom (despite what beer snobs say) emphatically doesn’t suck. Regional chains like Quaker Steak & Lube don’t suck. Why? Because they all allow their local operations a lot of flexibility. They don’t always impose a menu, a beer list, or (most importantly) suppliers. Besides, when does an expansion become a chain? When the second place opens? The fourth? The tenth? It’s like pornography: I know it when I see it.
If local people own a franchise restaurant, isn’t that a local business?
Yeah, like a Toyota made in Indiana is an American car. Follow the money. Money’s leaving the area, and what comes in? Orders, ideas, and supplies. Headquarters doesn’t care about supporting local suppliers, or serving local beers, or making allowances for regional tastes.
Why is a successful chain restaurant bad for my town?
Because it sucks up loan money that local, unique businesses could be using. A banker will always loan money to a guy with a chain restaurant franchise over a guy with a new idea: the chain idea is safe, proven, and bankable. It’s also boring, leveling, and is never going to make your town a destination. Sure, it’s convenient, it’s popular, it’s reliable. But what kind of great new food is going to come from a place that gets its potatoes pre-peeled and pre-sliced in 100 lb. plastic bags from a depot 500 miles away? Will people from far away come to your town, shop in the other stores in your town, and tell other people where they live to go to your town…because of your local Ruby Tuesday’s? No, but I’ve done all of that for the Miss Albany Diner in Albany, NY, and it’s worth the trip.
So the next time you’re away from home, don’t do that stupid, cow-consistent thing and go to Applebee’s, Shoney’s, Denny’s, or Wendy’s! Take just a little more time and ask around till you find a place, a local place, a one of a kind place. Chances are good that you’ll get lucky and find a place like the Academy Dinor in Erie, and you won’t find bumbleberry pie at Applebee’s!
Needless to say, this goes for beer, too. Chains hardly ever carry any decent beer, and when they do, they don’t know a damned thing about it. Local chains are often exceptions, of course, like The Winking Lizard’s outstanding beer program in Cleveland. I’d still stack Augusta’s Winking Judge in Hamilton, ON up against the Winking Lizard, though! (And you can find some outstandingly fantastic local foods at the Hamilton Farmer’s Market.)
It never ends, the quest for the rare, the local, the different, the best. “Powerful and better are not always the same thing.” Reject the chains, and make your life more exciting at every turn.