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Other Passions 

Death to  

Chain Restaurants!!








Applebee's: A sign that 
the End Times are near

Civilizations in decline are consistently characterized 
by a tendency towards standardization and uniformity.

-Arnold Toynbee, historian

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 thing."

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, too. 

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

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.

Why 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. 

Eat Local

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!

Needless 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 Farmer's Market.)

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.

Anti-Monoculture Links

Slow Food 

The perfect anti-monoculture food site...except it largely ignores beer and fawns over wine. Eh, the movement was founded in Italy, whattaya expect?! In any case, these is good people. Slow Food is all about local, regional, unique foods, recipes and raw ingredients, heritage fruits and endangered food species. I particularly like the way Slow Food defends against big corporations AND "government hyperhygienists."


Jim Leff is a musician who thoroughly enjoys both great beer and great food. But not fancy, madly elevated food: chow. Good eats. The best dim sum, pizza, Mongolian barbecue, hot dog, Portuguese cookies, you name it, he wants it. He built a website to exchange information on great eats like this, and it works beautifully. Get into it. 

DiBruno Brothers "The House of Cheese" 

Okay, it's "just a store," but they're local to me and they Get It in capital letters. Great source for artisan cheeses, and they made a good lead for a story I did on high-end beer shops.

The New Rules Project

These guys are a lot more left than I am, but that doesn't mean we can't get along. I like some of their ideas.  They support a "new localism," and are much more widely anti-chain: anti Wal-Mart and Walgreen, for example. Go to it, I say. I go to my local non-chain hardware store for as much as I can, went to my local office supply store until Staples put 'em out of business.

Wake Up Wal-Mart

These guys are after Wal-Mart for their labor policies. Does Wal-Mart charge low prices because that's all their employees can afford? (Me, I'm mad at Wal-Mart for their business policies.)

Michael Moore Loves Chains!
Hey, I didn't want to get political, but this just baffled me. Mr. Anti-corporate himself, Michael "Roger and Me" Moore, was quoted (rather saltily) in the Arcata Eye, a Humboldt County (CA) newspaper, as being pro-chain restaurant and anti-small business. Here's the whole amazing thing, as reported by Cory Ratzlaff

"Asked about Arcata limiting the number of pattern restaurants to nine, Moore said he didn't think it was a good idea. But what if corporate dominance transforms Arcata into "Anywhere, USA?" "You are in Anywhere, USA," Moore said."

"Moore seemed to embrace capitalistic Darwinism. "If the small businesses suck they'll be driven out of business," he said. "If they got a good restaurant, people will go there and eat. You know in my town the small businesses that everyone wanted to protect? They were the people that supported all the right-wing groups. They were the Republicans in the town, they were in the Kiwanas, the Chamber of Commerce - people that kept the town all white. The small hardware salesman, the small clothing store salespersons, Jesse the Barber who signed his name three different times on three different petitions to recall me from the school board. F**k all these small businesses - f**k 'em all! Bring in the chains. The small businesspeople are the rednecks that run the town and suppress the people. F**k 'em all. That's how I feel.""

[Moore evidently didn't consider the crap wages paid by chains, the anti-union stance of chains, the agribusiness-grown food bought by the chains...oh, never mind.]

A Chain Lover Responds

I recently received the following e-mail, and figured it wouldn't -- couldn't -- hurt to put it up here. I have not received a response from my return e-mail.


I have read your article "Death to Chains" and want you to know I strongly disagree with you. Some chains have a impressive selection of beer and wine and to make a blanket statement that Chains have a poor selection is uneducated, uninformed and only serves the interest of businesses that brew beer. I worked for a distributor with a small portfolio of imported beers from England, Germany, Holland and the Ukraine. I found placement in several "Chains" and moved product due to an educated consumer that eats at "Chains." 

My opinion, Van

My response:

Fair enough, Van. But I do balk strongly at your statement that I'm uneducated, uninformed, and serving the interests of businesses that brew beer. I did note that some local chains have good beer selections. There are some few units of chains that serve non-mainstream beers, but it has been my experience that most of them -- not all of them -- really don't know much about what they have. Bennigan's tried a big beer program but never got their servers motivated to support it, the key to a good beer program, and it failed. Our local Don Pablo's unit briefly served local beers, but a new manager dropped them. Red Robin serves Redhook and Widmer, but that's at the behest of the A-B salesman. And the only interests I "serve" are my own.
I still believe that few multi-state chains have a large beer selection.
Where are you having your success?
Anyway, as I said in the piece, it's not even really about beer. It's about the stultifying influence of chain restaurants in general. That's a growing problem in my opinion...and that is, of course, all that piece is.


Lew Bryson

Other Passions 
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Copyright © 2008 Lew Bryson. All rights reserved. 
Fee required for reprints in any commercial media.
Revised: July 10, 2006