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
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,
I get questions about that, and I've got some
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.
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!
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
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.