I'm sorry to be starting a new topic this late in the week--the subject has been obliquely referred to (perhaps it's been overtly written about here and I've missed it?)--but it's something I've been writing about recently and thinking about a lot, especially in my city where good independent restaurants are far out numbered by well-regarded chains.
To go to a P.F. Chang’s China Bistro, a successful Arizona-based chain, in Cleveland, for instance, is different on many levels from going to Michael Symon’s Lola Bistro or any of Cleveland’s independent restaurants. P.F. Chang’s is a corporate driven menu composed of decent but generic Asian food designed to appeal to people from California to Texas to Wisconsin to Alabama to New York. The ingredients they use are available to all chefs all year round. An independent restaurant is more likely to serve regional specialties using seasonal ingredients; the menu will change more frequently and probably convey the particular tastes and eccentricities of the chef. On the other hand, these independents will be less consistent in quality—the first time in you don’t know what you’ll get. Among the biggest lessons we’ve learned in this gigantic dining industry is the primacy of consistency over quality (thank you McDonalds!). But there’s an impact consumers don’t normally consider when figuring where they’ll take their evening meal. All P.F. Chang’s China Bistros are company owned, so some of the money spent there is going back to Arizona rather than into your own city’s economy, which it does when you eat at an independent restaurant run by a chef who gets his or her food locally. Given the increasing prominence of higher-end chains, this can have a some impact on a city’s economy, not to mention on all the purveyors who grow or raise the ingredients in the area and who sell to local chefs. The chains are the ones with the big Syscos trucks at their loading docks. Independent restaurants here have in fact grouped together in order to leverage better prices to compete with the big chains.
My question, finally, at this eleventh hour is, do diners distinguish between chains and independents, and should they? Should we make decisions based on this distinction?
Edited by Michael Ruhlman, 30 September 2005 - 01:50 PM.