Chains and the Pandemic
I receive many things in my email inbox. Some are relevant to my business or personal life, and some are just a public relations person sending out a blast to anyone who has ever written anything about food anywhere at any time.
I got one today that gave me something to write about. The release in question said, in part, that: “Since COVID-19 gripped the nation’s conscience in March and April, fast food has consistently outperformed traditional sit-down restaurants in terms of customer visits. On average, casual dining has seen 58% less traffic since the start of the pandemic, whereas fast food restaurants have only experienced a 30% decrease.”
I want to make sure that I do not misrepresent the release I received. It was, as I read it, an offer that if I was interested in “learning more about [the company’s] most recent casual dining report or how visits to casual dining establishments and fast food favorites have differed as a result of COVID-19,” I could reach out.
There was a graph showing which chain restaurants were dominating each state. These restaurants included Denny’s; Texas Roadhouse; Chili’s; Applebee’s; Olive Garden; and, in Georgia and North Carolina, “Longhorn Steakhouse.” Mississippi was the only state in which Waffle House was the Alpha Chain Restaurant, and while I do not often envy Mississippi, I do in this case because like many, many other states, Louisiana’s favorite “fast casual” restaurant is Olive Garden.
I did not independently verify the data I received in the press release, nor indeed did I actually respond to the person who sent it to me. I am not actually addressing the data, and I hope that is clear. I am addressing the concept.
I am not saying that any of those restaurants are bad or that you are bad if you like those restaurants. I am saying that you probably like those restaurants because you know that when you go to those restaurants you are going to get the same food you got the last time you went there. And you will get the same food if you go to that restaurant anywhere that restaurant exists.
There’s nothing wrong with that. Consistency is important in any restaurant. The real measure of a good chef is not that he or she can sometimes make superb food; it’s that he or she can consistently make superb food. But from a diner’s perspective what should matter is whether there is any soul involved.
You will not experience a chef’s food at any of the fast casual restaurants noted in the press release. You will experience the food calculated by the folks who run the company to please the most people in every market in which they operate. That includes places who use mayonnaise in their pound cake.
I have no problem with fast food or chains. You will not find better fried chicken than at Popeyes, and I believe that the McDonald’s Sausage Egg McMuffin with Cheese is possibly the best proof we have that there is a loving God. But I do not fool myself that there was a personal touch behind the recipe. It is a soft, sausage-laden cheesy bite that makes me happy, and I am content with it.
I am also not saying that chain restaurants are an inherently bad thing. There are people who’ve opened multiple restaurants that serve consistently excellent food without playing to the lowest common denominator where palates are concerned. Those “chains” tend to be regional.
If this sounds like I am a food snob, it is because I am a food snob.
I have eaten in Olive Gardens and Chili’s and Applebee’s when I have been away from New Orleans for work and there were no other options available. I have had the same experience at each of those places, and I could not tell you the difference between the pasta I had in Shreveport from the pasta I had in a small town in Iowa. But I can tell you that the fried chicken steak I had in a bar in Iowa that came with sauerkraut, cheese curds, and fries was awesome and beat the living hell out of the pasta I had at a fast casual chain before I asked someone where I should eat.
We don’t have that problem here, because our fast casual restaurants are many and good. We are not Iowa or Shreveport or Oklahoma City or anywhere else. We love food here and while there are chains around, they are not as ubiquitous as elsewhere.
I don’t know what the pandemic will mean to our restaurant industry, but I have faith that New Orleans is not going to become a place where “fast casual” dining means going to a restaurant that’s indistinguishable from a restaurant in Albany, Georgia or Fort Worth, Texas.
Fast casual here is a po-boy from the place on the corner, or 50 pounds of crawfish shared with your neighbors. Fast casual here is bringing your family to a place where they make the red gravy with a little sugar and they fry good seafood. It’s a place where you can order a peacemaker and three orders of fries to go. It’s a place where they call you “Honey” unironically and you end up talking about the Saints and what Ward your parents grew up in.
I’m not concerned that New Orleans is going to lose its culinary soul. On the contrary, I think that when we get back to normal – and we WILL get back to normal – people will want to experience the sort of food we have to offer more than ever. And I’ll be very interested to see the percentage of traffic that the national chains get then.