The Rise and Fall of Chain Restaurants

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1978  When I was a budding line cook and chef wanna be in the late seventies, I spent a lot of time considering what my future would be. Never one to hold still very long, especially in those days of frustrated youth, I was constantly forward-moving, reviewing better job opportunities in the paper (imagine if I’d had Craigslist !), always searching for something that would allow me to  unleash my talents and reward me for being the great person I hoped I would be someday. Due to lack of funds, I’d given up Private College after one term, tried out State College and finally settled into the reality that Community College was all I was gonna get. But they had a Restaurant Management Program, so there I was.

I’ll never forget the day I went to a job interview for assistant manager trainee for a fast food steak and burger chain in Portland, Oregon. I had just turned 18 and probably went on this interview with urging from my college instructor. Here I was a sauce snob due to my night job as sauté cook at a French restaurant in Portland, learning what a restaurant “chain” was and faced with what I knew was a great crossroads in my young life, when I was actually offered a management trainee job.

"I think it's part of a chain"

“I think it’s part of a chain”

 

The salary opportunities were astronomical, potentially in the high teens as the annual income, compared to the measly three bucks an hour I earned elbowing my way to recognition at the sauté stove. There would be travel, management growth, the chance to have my own store. Store? Why was it called a store? All I needed to do was give them a three-year commitment to start in their paid training program.

Trade hollandaise sauce for burgers and steaks? Trade art for a corporation? Commit to three years? I did not yet have this phrase in my vocabulary but in retrospect: I DISTRUSTED CORPORATE FOOD.

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I wasn’t the best decision maker back then and I agonized over what I thought what was the right thing to do versus what my gut was telling me. And I followed my gut of course, choosing art over money, choosing female hardship in the male trenches of kitchens over management recognition that appeared to be gender-blind.

2016 A lot has happened in 38 years, duh. But here is where I’m going with this:

Now that chain restaurants have blossomed into more than just fast food joints, encompassing all facets of dining from fast casual to fine dining, many of us restaurant/food snob-bitch-types have, over the years, poo-poo-ed the quality of chain restaurants over real restaurants run by real owners. But Consistency is the harbinger of success and chains by far have this trumped over the little mom and pop down the street, unfortunately. Higher-end chains now have famous chefs making their menus and many are on the cutting edge of design and atmosphere to boot.

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I read in one of my kitchen design trade magazines, ALIWORLD, a very interesting article about the dining habits of Boomers (me, a late boomer), Gen Xers, Gen Ys or Millennials (my daughter) and Gen Zs. I noted the mention of the habits of Millennials and their propensity to purchase food away from home more than any other generation. I put it on my boss’ desk since it really gives insight to the design of college food service. Then today, I read in the Sarasota Herald Tribune that Bonefish Grill is closing 14 stores. (This actually made me happy because I did go to a Bonefish once for Happy Hour with some friends and two of us got parking tickets for parking in an unmarked No Parking Zone and they did not accept any responsibility for lack of signage. I totally am a grudge holder, even though they’re a chain and could give no shit about me as a customer) The article cited that “Bonefish’s biggest competitors are independent restaurants.” Good to hear!

And this:

 “An ‘anti-chain’ movement from a younger demographic has changed the way consumers are spending their money and hurt chain restaurants like Bonefish. Millennials and generation X-ers are looking for value but often opt to try a locally owned restaurant rather than a chain.”

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There was more to the article about the ups and downs of seafood, the shrinking middle class and the stagnation of casual dining contributing to the chain’s struggles. But the paragraph above echoed that which I’d read in the work article and it got me thinking about my chain opportunity way back when and how, I think the reason why Millennials are so savvy is because their Boomer parents, although perhaps only subliminally, taught them to be that way. Yes?

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2 responses to “The Rise and Fall of Chain Restaurants

  1. Good article. You made the right choice. Why did the Corporate types who select “brand” names pick an inedible fish for their name? Not a good omen.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I always wondered that too when Bonefish first came into the market. Such an unappetizing thought, all these bones in my teeth. And the only time I ever went, I got a $150 parking ticket. That’ll show me.

    Like

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