Thursday, July 31, 2008

Chains, Indianapolis, and the Future of Food

A reader in the Bennigan's thread points out Indianapolis Monthly's August cover story on Indianapolis as Chain City, USA. The reporter verified information I'd always heard and adds some new data. The most frightening? We are 44% above the national average in the number of chain restaurants in Indianapolis -- and number 1 nationally in chain restaurants per capita. One O'Charley's exec call's Indy's economy for chains "bulletproof." But I'm not sure I agree chains here are successful because Hoosiers desire consistency. I suspect it's more our resistance to change and suburban demographics. (Along with, as the writer points out, our incomes, our low wages, and relatively low start up costs.) But I think she's spot on in noticing that success begets success. More will come.

Many fine diners -- and readers here -- have an automatically negative reaction to news about chains. And I generally agree. My primary resistance to chains is the poor quality of their product -- from food to experience. (Not to mention the gross ridiculousness, bordering on irresponsibility, of their menu choices.) However, there can be some benefits at the higher end. Sometimes, independents just can't draw the capital they need for a truly successful concept, and chains can execute. (More from me: Rethinking Chain Restaurants)

Read the piece. Will there be more failures? Agree? Disagree? What will stop the proliferation of chains -- or do we want to?


The Urbanophile said...

This isn't limited to restaurants. Chain retail dominates the city to an extent unrivaled among cities in its general size class I've seen.

One possibility: Indianapolis was not a historically large city in the 19th century when many of those old storefront districts were built. Thus it has virtually none of the urban pedestrian commercial corridors of the type favored by independents.

Also, the quality of chains has improved immensely. There is a big difference between Chili's and Palomino. If you've got one or two outlets per big city like Ruth's Chris, this is a chain of a different order.

I prefer local products, all things being equal, but am not willing to sacrifice quality to get it. The way to improve the local scene is to demand excellence. Having said that, there are plenty of independent good restaurants to eat at the in city.

Another thing that gives many cities a leg up is top notch culinary schools located there.

Given that the preference for chain retail and dining locally, I don't see much of a change coming soon.

Donald said...

I'll echo the sentiment of your past article and urbanophile's comment above. While I generally try to stay away from chains, I won't support a local place that doesn't deliver the quality of food or service I expect for the price I pay.

CorrND said...

One of the first things I was ever going to write for my blog was an analysis of the restaurants in the downtown loop broken into groups by number of restaurants in the chain. My suspicion -- and it seemed to be backed up by my initial look at the info -- is that there are far more independent or small local chains in downtown than large chains.

Unfortunately, it was way too time consuming and I gave it up. Maybe I'll try to finish it at some point.

The suburbs are the real problem and personally, I think they reap what they sow. Are the Indianapolis suburbs really that different than other similar-sized cities?