How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Chain Restaurants
by Michael Hobbes
Last weekend in London I had a cute little lunch at a cute little patisserie in Soho, and was feeling all satisfied with myself until I was on the Strand later in the day and saw the same patisserie — same food, same interior, same smell coming out the door.
Oh, I thought, deflated. It’s a chain.
Suddenly I felt scammed. These punks tricked me! They made me think their little bakery was all artisanal and small-scale, when actually it’s some venture-capitaled, focus-grouped, conveyor-belted profit factory. They probably have a corporate headquarters in midtown Manhattan, some Yale econ grad staring at the surveillance cam footage of my purchase, trying to moneyball me into buying more next time.
So my immediate reaction was Well! Never going there again. But now that I’ve thought about it, I’m less sure of my reaction.
First, let’s get the obvious out of the way: Of course it’s a chain. Soho is one of the most expensive neighborhoods in the world. Thatcher, gentrification, celebrity chefs, they ran mom and pop outta there decades ago. The only businesses that can afford Soho rents do so through high volume, high margins and manufactured cosiness. That “grandma’s cinnamon roll” smell coming out the door is as deliberate as the font above it. What did I expect?
So I should have known. Next up: Who cares? I had a tasty meal at a reasonable price in a pleasant environment. It was precisely what I wanted. What’s the difference if there is a duplicate of my experience happening elsewhere? Or 100 duplicates? Or 1,000?
When I lived in Copenhagen, my favorite bakery was called Lagkagehuset (“layer cake house”), and it had the best bread on the planet. There was only one location in Copenhagen, family owned, and I glowed with self-satisfaction every time I bought a dense loaf of bread or a misshapen (artisanal!) breakfast roll there.
A year after I left Denmark, it was bought by a private equity firm. Now there are nine of them in Copenhagen (industrial!), and last time I visited I walked past one at the airport (monetizers!).
But you know what? The products are exactly the same. Still dense, still misshapen, still crazy-overpriced, still so salty you want to dip them in a cup of water like a hot dog eating contest. The only difference, as far as I can tell, is that now I can buy them in nine places instead of one.
Which brings me to my last point: What am I actually against?
Among my people (urban, lefty, low BMI), places like Starbucks, McDonald’s and Applebee’s have take the role of a kind of punchline, the culinary equivalent of Coldplay. For us, they’re not restaurants or cafes, they’re totems of America’s — and the world’s — relentless, inevitable march toward sameness.
I’m generally sympathetic to this. Starbucks kills independent cafes, McDonald’s cuts down rainforests, Applebee’s wants you to have diabetes.
But in every other aspect of my life, this doesn’t bother me. I wear Nikes, I shop at Safeway, I use rapper-endorsed headphones to drown out the clacking on my MacBook. All of this is just as mass-produced as anything from Starbucks, and yet I willingly (OK, maybe grudgingly) submit.
But chains underpay their workers, my conscience shouts. They get foodstuffs from poor farmers and nonrecyclable lids from petroleum! They donate to ugly political causes!
All that’s probably true, but there’s no reason to think an independent restaurant or café is any better by default. Maybe the guy handmaking the gluten-free scones at that ‘small batch’ bakery makes the same minimum wage as the teenager at McDonald’s. Or maybe he owns the place, and thinks women never should have been given the vote. Just because I have no way of knowing his conditions, impacts or beliefs doesn’t mean they’re not there or that they’re not problematic.
So if I don’t object to chains in principle, and I don’t object to the goods and services of some chains in particular, then all I’m left with is opposition to chains as a class signifier. I reject them not because the food is bad or they’re worse for the planet than other corporations, but because I personally don’t want to be associated with them. Starbucks is for tourists, Applebee’s is for flyovers, McDonald’s is for the poor.
I’m not defending chains, really, I’m not going to start actively seeking them out or anything. I just need to be honest with myself about what I’m avoiding, and why.
My favorite cafe in Berlin is called The Barn. Silky lattes, snobby staff, handwritten prices, brownies dense as Jupiter — it’s perfect. Just before Christmas they opened a second location, closer to my house than their first. If I’m lucky, next year they’ll open a few more.