Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Is Franchise a Four Letter Word?

Over the course of the last six months, we've reviewed a lot of restaurants with gluten-free menus, ranging from local one-offs to major national chains and franchises. Looking back over the comments and other responses to those reviews, a commonality seems to emerge. You, the readers, (and me, too, for that matter) express a general aversion to national chain/franchises. Local = good. Big chain or franchise = bad.

The reasons for adopting such a posture usually fall along one of several lines... A) We prefer to support local restaurants, keeping our dollars in the local economy. B) We prefer healthy foods, and the franchises don't qualify (this usually applies when thinking about the McDonald's, Burger Kind, Wendy's, etc. fast food family of franchises). C) Franchises/chains contribute to the homogenization of food in America - by eating at these places, we cease to experience the regionality inherent in America's food system. And I'm sure you could rattle off a few more reasons.

But here's the rub: we support a local restaurant, hoping for them to succeed. And if they do succeed, maybe they open a second location, and then a third. And if they become successful enough, at some point, maybe they become the national chain or franchise we profess to despise. What happens then? Do we suddenly stop supporting them, because the local restaurant that we wanted to succeed actually did and became too successful? Did the restaurant and its food change, or just our attitude? Where's the critical threshold where that shift takes place?

It's like when someone is a big fan of an independent music group that no one's heard of, and then that group suddenly explodes in popularity. The once-fan ceases to like that group, because "they've sold out," or "they're too popular." But nothing about that band changed. Only the fan did...and you have to ask yourself, what were they really a fan of? The music? Or the independentness of it? When it comes to national chains and franchises, I challenge you to ask yourself the same questions. Whether we're talking about the fast food family, or other chains/francises such as Chipotle, Outback, PF Chang's, Maggiano's, or a long list of others, evaluate each on its own merits. It would be unfair to lump them all together into one large slush pile.

Here's good example of the process in medias res. In February, we reviewed Larkburger, an atypical burger joint in Edwards, Colorado. At the time, Lark had just the single location. But it recently opened a second location in Boulder, with a third coming online in Denver. I strongly suspect that the new locations will be as successful as the first, and that, in turn, will yield even more Larkburgers. And although I can't predict with absolutely certainty, it wouldn't surprise me in the least if at some point in the distant future a Larkburger location comes to a town near you. And when it does, will I stop eating their burgers and throw my support behind the latest local joint to win my affection? Hardly. I think the world could use a few more Larkburgers (for reasons mentioned in the review), and I'm happy to support it. (The same pattern, it should be noted, happened to Chipotle, which started as a local Denver burrito joint that opened additional locations, and look at how successful it has become!)

For all the criticism we place on franchises/chains, they do have some important, redeeming, positive attributes. For one, because of their size (both in scale - lots of 'em - and in scope - they're in many places), franchises/chains have power. They can exert demand-side influence. And in so doing, they affect the supply side of our food systems. If a restaurant wants more natural, humane beef, or organic produce, or gluten-free foods, suppliers will shift their supply to meet the demand of what ultimately constitutes a major stakeholder or client of their business. In this way, franchises/chains can throw their metaphorical weight around to positively influence America's food supply chain. (This has partly been the story of Chipotle.)

For another, one of the fundamental attributes of the franchise/chain restaurant model is that it provides consistency, standardization, a set of known expectations. (When viewed through the lens of homogenization, this isn't necessarily good.) But when viewed through the lens of gluten-free dining, this is a huge plus. For me, there's a degree of comfort knowing exactly where I can reliably find a gluten-free meal to eat. When I'm traveling on assignment for a magazine, oftentimes one of the first things I'll do in preparation for the trip is a basic Internet search to see if there are any Chipotles, PF Chang's, or Outbacks in the surrounding area. Perhaps this is my shortcoming, my failure to more earnestly seek out a local joint with a gluten-free menu. But I prefer to think of it as a commendable trait of franchises/chains.

I hope you'll agree with me that, by taking a step back and looking at the big picture, franchises and national chains aren't all bad. Sure, there are some concerns and issues of which to remain aware and vigilant. But there's also a lot of good that can come from those same franchises and chains. Evaluate each on its own merits, and decide for yourself whether you'd like to eat there or not. Franchise isn't necessarily a four letter word, even if it feels that way sometimes.

- Pete


Amanda on Maui said...

Your post is totally that episode of South Park where "Harbucks" comes to town. They explain that if the company hadn't been so smart when it was small then they wouldn't be this big corporate entity, but because they were a small business with good sense they were able to grow exponentially.

I see dining at local restaurants as a good thing, if they offer good food. I'm interested in seeing that a restaurant is offering quality food. I've gone to PF Changs while on the mainland, and I've gone to Outback here. I'm extremely happy to get a gluten free meal out.

On my blog I'm trying to share information on all of the restaurants here, as I go to them, local or not and how they treat gluten free diners.

Dining out always breaks down to: Good (quality) food, good service, good setting.

Steph said...

Haha! Amanda, I was totally thinking about that episode :)
I totally agree with you Pete, that we tend to stereotype those franchises. My first thought when I read the title of your post was negative, toward all the bad experiences I've had at so-called GF-friendly franchises.
But then, as I reflected, I realized I'd had quite a few good experiences with franchise restaurants as well.
Funny, I'd never thought of myself as prejudiced against franchises. Thanks for helping me clarify that in my mind :)
I wonder if we have this aversion to the chains because we hear such good things about the Red Robin so-and-so went to, but when we ourselves head there, with high hopes, we may have a less than perfect experience. Do we set our sights too high?
The only place I can say I have consistently eaten at with no glutening experiences is Disney World (and let's be honest, they've nailed the GF dining experience, at least in my book)....now I can't remember where I was going with that.
But anyway, thanks for posting, and once again making me question my initial reaction to a not-so-four-letter-word.

GFE--gluten free easily said...

I think I am pretty even handed in my dining. It's largely based on my own personal experiences, whether the restaurant is local or a chain. I've had good and bad experiences in each. The most important thing is whether the manager and site staff want you to be able to eat safely. Even the chains with the gf menus often get stuff wrong and in a big way. As we all know having a gf menu doesn't mean one can eat safely at a restaurant. There's so much more involved, including proper training of the staff, etc. But, your point is very good. Thanks for sharing it!


peterbronski said...

Hey Amanda and Steph... I think I can count the number of Southpark episodes I've seen on one hand, and sadly Harbucks wasn't one of them. Sounds like I missed a good one! And I agree: the quality of the food and the quality of the experience means so much - whether a restaurant has a dedicated GF menu or not, and whether it's a franchise or not.

Hey Shirley... well said. There's risk involved in eating out, no matter what kind of restaurant we're talking about. I do like to think, though, that the one's with GF menus stack the odds in our favor! =)

Cheers, Pete

Amanda on Maui said...

Pete- The episode is the one with the underpants gnomes. Just in case you want to look it up.

peterbronski said...

Thanks for the tip, Amanda! Look forward to checking out the episode... the few episodes I've seen of SP have been awesome.

Cheers, Pete