Melancholy news came recently that Friendly’s, the fast-casual dining chain that was home to so many post-little league sundaes and clamorous birthday parties, is filing for bankruptcy. Friendly’s isn’t alone in its struggles; every day seems to reveal another national chain, which had weathered everything from the OPEC boycott to the Bush recession, to be on the brink of extinction. Fuddruckers, Sbarro and the owner of the biggest Mexican restaurant chains in the U.S. (El Torito, Chevys Fresh Mex and Acapulco Mexican Restaurant) just declared bankruptcy as well, joining the ranks of Bennigan’s (2008), Don Pablo’s (2007), and Black Angus Steakhouse (twice, in 2004 and 2009). The incredible shrinking Tony Roma’s is down to just 45 units, and the Ground Round to 25, which I think officially qualifies it as an endangered species. There are only 141 Big Boys. Big Boys! Almost everywhere you look in chain restaurant land, the news is grim. Even the once omnipotent Olive Garden is struggling.
So much bloodshed can’t be simply the result of mismanagement. Tony Roma’s ribs are terrible, yes, and the Ground Round is so bad that it makes Outback Steakhouse look like haute cuisine. But they were always full, and now they barely have enough customers to fill a basketball stadium. So what happened? There are various theories, ranging from the destructive influence of Yelp to the growing sophistication of the American diner. Personally, I find both explanations ludicrous. If you live in Horseheads, N.Y., Yelp is about as useful to you as the Very Large Array of radio telescopes. And as for the American consumer, the day he grows tired of cheap steaks with oversize baked potatoes and all-you-can-eat salad bars, I will deliver up my citizenship and move to Minsk.
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No, the reason the chains are shrinking is that they were the great commissary of the American middle class, and the middle class is itself a besieged and crippled entity. There are more proximate causes: high food prices, for example. But in the natural order of things, the chains would just respond by raising prices or shrinking portions. They can’t really do the latter because big portions are to chain restaurants what drunken co-eds are to the nation’s pay-per-view industry. The economy is hurting generally, that’s true. But the QSR sector, as it’s called by the industry (quick service restaurants, or fast food to you) is doing great. And the reason it’s doing great is because families that were eating fajita quesadilla platters for dinner are now eating less expensive fare like Hardee’s Thickburgers instead.
It’s amazing to consider that, at least until the last couple of years, chain restaurants were considered by many foodies as the ultimate sign of American crassness and philistinism, the peppy, processed hell to which urban dwellers were exiled when they moved to the suburbs. In reality, they were one of America’s greatest achievements. They were places where any American could go to have a nice dining experience, with genial servers and attractive, relatively high-quality food, in big portions. And, best of all, patrons didn’t need to wait to go there on Friday night, or for a special occasion; miracle of miracles, they could go there on a Tuesday night, just because. More important, these restaurants provided decent jobs to thousands of Americans. But no more. The fact that the fast-casual chains are hurting also means that tiny bistros in cities may not be able to stay open and keep serving squab with foraged mushrooms and microgeens. And that little diner you saw Guy Fieri eat chili at on TV? Its owner is barely squeezing enough out of it to pay his rent. That picturesque coffee shop? The landmark luncheonette that has been its town’s unofficial social center for six decades? They might all be gone by the time the next Adele record comes out. As recently as The Gilmore Girls, the local diner was an unironic setting for romance. That was just a few years ago. Today, Luke would be working for Lorelai’s father, selling insurance.
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I, for one, am sorry to see so many chain restaurants go. Because in their bloat and their brashness, in their vast menus and cheesy patter, they evoke the hopes and expectations of a better, happier country — one in which you could go out for a big meal on Tuesday, just because you felt like it.