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chains v. indies

Michael Ruhlman

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Isn't is important to recognize and acknowledge the different categories before we evaluate the experience and the food?

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 (log)
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I thinks most anyone who is active here on eg, distinguishes(spl) between chains and independents, the average diner is another story. My parents one time when I was visiting them, told me about a great local chinese rest' they had tried, so off we go, and arrive at, wait for it........PF.Changs, they had no idea this was in any way a chain, most people know Outback, TGIF, Applebees's, etc... are chains but with some of the newer chains it is not as apparent. I for one believe in slowfood(to a degree) and make it a point to support rest' that use local suppliers, I beleive this to be of great importence, it keeps great people employed which trickles down to me being able to buy great ing. for home use. I also believe a well run local rest' will be consistent in food quality, imho.(a side note, I have seen the Sysco truck pull into many a local rest') I think that people should distinguish between chains and locals, a number of people are duped into beleiving that chains offer more food, better price, higher quality ing., in my experience this is the exact opposite of the truth. The money issue is a very good point that I had never considered before.

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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?

It seems to me that there are reasons to make decisions based on this decision, yes. I personally would rather support an inconsistent local restaurant than an international chain not only because of the food possibilities but also because I'd rather my money feed into our local economy instead of into the accounts of shareholders in Sysco, McDs, etc. Also, as Steven points out in his book, being a regular at your neighborhood restaurant is often the smartest way to get the best food.

Finally, at the risk of sounding naive, I believe that communities are not just abstractions but are also legitimate social structures within which I can find meaning, affiliation, and pleasure, and eating in one of the regular restaurants in my town is a celebration of that spirit. Based on the data I've seen about the expansion of corporate restaurant chains at the expense of locally held operations, I certainly think that I'm in a small minority. :sad:

Chris Amirault

eG Ethics Signatory

Sir Luscious got gator belts and patty melts

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The major benefit to being independent in anything is that you have the complete freedom to do whatever you wish,

depending on what your goal is. If your primary goal is to make money then you are more or less indentured to

the marketplace that surrounds you, if money and possibly recognition are not your primary concerns, then you can

have a 4 room inn in the middle of nowhere that seats 8 - serve whatever your heart desires - and be happy

if you fill those tables every now and then.

Unfortunately, money and the need for it is what often destroys independence... though conversely,

when money is not a concern (as in you have enough to run whatever you are running more as a hobby

than a business) - then money fosters independence.

It is anywhere in between where things can be most difficult.

I think most people would like to just do what they do and have it embraced

so that they could continue and make a living doing exactly that, to do what they

love and make money at it but not to do what they love FOR money, there is

a very clear line between these 2 things - one implies that you would continue

to do whatever it is you are doing regardless, the other implies that if

you cannot make money - then you would change what you are doing.

Independents often morph into chains when they are heavily embraced,

the entire mentality of the United States is grow, grow, grow - get bigger,

make more money.

This often results in what was once an organic environment becoming

a mechanical environment - scanning what has made the concept successful

and attempting to bottle it, clone it and reproduce it exactly - stripping the soul

from it completely as it becomes an environment calculated to make money,

created for the purpose of profit.

A chain is like a machine that makes knives, it can stamp them out

one after the other, the last exactly the same as the first - all shiny

with perfectly sharp edges and a screen printed logo - technically

just as useful as any other knife but completely emotionless, cold

and devoid of character that was not intentionally targeted and


It finally comes to the point where no one cares so much

about the knives anymore, rather how to make

them cheaper in order to increase the profit margin in order to beat

last year's sales.

Like anyone, I'll use one of those knives when necessary,

but if I have a viable alternative - I wouldn't choose to.

"At the gate, I said goodnight to the fortune teller... the carnival sign threw colored shadows on her face... but I could tell she was blushing." - B.McMahan

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I'm glad that it's a distinction people here would use to decide whether or not to go--I'd guess most people who frequent egullet don't choose to go to pf changs or houstons or outback.

but that's not the case generally, so is it a matter of educating the public? or maybe the general public doesn't give a shit. but i think it would if they understood, lik M.X.'s parents.

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I think it is definetly a matter of educating the public, how this will be done I do not know(we can all stand in front of our least favorite chain with a sighn saying "eat at -------" put in your fave. local :raz: ). I have also noticed that some chains such as PFs do not advertise the fact that they are a chain, if this is intentional or not I do not know.

Edit: Clarity

Clark do you know if this is due to mrkt rsrch, is it intentional?

Edited by M.X.Hassett (log)
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