Friday, April 13, 2012

Chain Restaurants - an examination and defense

My coworker and I were just discussing Ruby Tuesday and she expressed that she does not go to chains.  Her argument is "Why would I go to a chain when I have all of Baltimore?"  Which I completely agree with.  Mr. Barefoot and I try hard to avoid chains, and many people in our immediate circle of family and friends agree on this.  What is the problem with chains, exactly?  It varies.  Sometimes the food is surprisingly expensive, sometimes they don't have good vegetarian options (I am looking at you, Applebees), sometimes they move in next to a beloved local restaurant and drive them out of business. 
The problem, really, is the food.  Often it is mass-produced and over-processed.  I used to work at an Atlanta Bread Company and while our bread was made overnight, it was made from doughs that had been frozen months ago.  Our soups came in a plastic bag that you put in a vat of boiling water and eventually cut open to pour into the soup pot.  Having talked to various friends in the restaurant business, this is true of many other chains, especially fast-casual chains, as well.  Not to mention that when you eat at a local joint, especially one that purchases their food from local farmers, you are directly supporting your local community and local economy.  More of your money supports people that live and work in your neighborhood, which in turn supports other local businesses. 
However, I think chain restaurants have their place, and I am often grateful that they exist.  For example, when you have a large group of people and are in an unfamiliar location - such as when we went to run a marathon in Virginia Beach.  We had traveled from four states to converge for this race, and we had one car, and every restaurant in downtown VA Beach was totally full.  So we discussed where to go and none of us knew the area, none of us wanted to risk the race on unknown food, and we had one vegetarian and one gluten allergy to consider.  So we eventually wound up at Ruby Tuesday - because when it was suggested, all of us had eaten there in the past decade and knew that we could each order one thing off their menu that was vegetarian friendly.  After running the marathon, the five of us sat in the room and considered dinner.  Somebody said they wanted fries, and suddenly all of us wanted fries, and then somebody remembered there was a Gordon Biersch in town and suddenly we all wanted garlic fries. 
The value of chains is that it gives a common experience, which makes it infinitely easier for a group of people to agree upon a chain dining location.  With my hockey team, if you suggest Olive Garden or Greene Turtle, everybody is happy enough.  If you suggest the local indian or sushi place, some people have a problem with it and then it's forty minutes before you can make a decision and you're thinking, "I could be eating salad and breaksticks by now!"  I did put my foot down on one hockey trip and suggest to our captain that we pick one local restaurant to eat at for a fancy dinner, and we did, and it was amazing and a much more positive experience than going to Hooters.  (I don't want to talk about that trip.)
There is one other big advantage to chain restaurants that gets overlooked by people who don't have dietary restrictions - for people with allergies, chains can often put together a better dining guide, or there is a dining guide, for that particular restaurant.  Ruby Tuesday had a particularly spectacular vegetarian selection, for a chain, as well as many gluten free options, and Gordon Biersch has a whole gluten-free dining guide that is pretty amazing.  There are local restaurants that do this as well, but sometimes you don't have the time to hunt when you are hungry in an unfamiliar place. I also know where I can't eat - I know there is no vegetarian food at Arby's, no good vegetarian options at McDonalds, but at Wendy's I can get a baked potato, at Five Guys I can get a grilled cheese sandwich, at Subway I can get a veggie sandwich or a veggie burger. 
Overall, when it comes to making food decisions, I'm not sure that simply looking at a restaurant and saying, "it's a chain, I won't eat there" is any better than saying, "I won't eat anywhere that isn't a chain".  There is probably a lot more thoughtful examination required - how do they source their food, how is it prepared, is everything cooked on sight or is it prepared in a big corporate headquarters and then shipped out?  As I would like to engage in a more thoughtful examination of my food generally, can anyone point me in the direction of resources that might discuss such things?  Is there an app for this? Some kind of omnivore's dilemma rating system?

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