Break the chain

EPA-EFE/ANDY RAIN

Pedestrians pass a McDonald's fast food chain restaurant in London, January 24, 2014. 

Break the chain


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Chain restaurants are hardly a new invention. We have all been to a McDonald’s or the more fancy chains that do fine dining – but with cartoons for the kids. We all know that it is not going to be a great culinary experience and that the menu comes from a cooperate level.

We get comfort food and crayons, the staff follows their manager and there is no intention of making any meaningful culinary innovation. An honest, fair transaction, which I enjoy myself. The game has however changed over the last years with chain restaurants diversifying into heavily marketed boutique style locations telling tales of “organically grown”, “locally sourced” and “innovative cuisine”. This at a price so; “you can do it on a Tuesday!” as I saw one ridiculous Facebook add say.

Each restaurant has a chic sounding name or the name of the founder with a big picture of him; where it all started. They invest heavily in both on- and offline marketing and have globally managed to get free publicity appearing in all types of public media. Their staff typically consists of limited key gastronomically trained personnel, a link to cooperate marketing and finally part-time employees, short on experience and no formal training. You know them by their nervous smile and how they recite the menu like it was a poem they do not fully understand.

The general public is buying into these chains in a big way. Like truffles and eggs big.

In my native Denmark, several chains are now run by hedge funds, trimmed to grow internationally and with a firm goal of investors owning private islands.

My friend, a seasoned Danish independent restaurateur, told me that he was finding it hard to market his new restaurant because all his words were taken. Not just taken, but shouted out on all platforms by cooperate marketing machines that drown his message. A message of actual culinary innovation based in decades of gastronomic dedication and curious, competent staff all contributing to giving their guests a unique dining experience…an experience, which may not fully comfort them but definitely leave them with something real to reflect on.

You know, what real restaurants are supposed to do.

We are, however, living in a time where the one shouting the loudest will be the one heard. This is not only making it hard to be a contemporary independent restaurateur, but is essentially destroying many chances for small passion-driven restaurants to be established in popular areas in the future. Rent prices are soaring and the market is fast becoming saturated.

One might conclude that supply and demand will handle it. Let fall what cannot stand might be the motto. The problem with that comes 10 years from now when the new chefs graduate with their practical experience from self-glorified restaurants with no real craftsmanship or broad knowledge to pass on. You are not going to get many Noma´s or serious mid-level restaurants out of chefs trained at a Wetherspoons level.

It is, however, still possible to change this development of chain restaurants run by suits for profit to a more innovative gastronomic climate of smaller independent food professionals.

But do not count on the chain restaurants to change unless consumers do. Capitalism has been watering down art for profit since the dawn of time and that is not going to change anytime soon.

So what is to be done? Do we stop going to all chain restaurants, period? No, of course not. Use them for what they are; a place with predictable food, drinks, and service level. Go there with the work friends you do not really like. Go with your parents. There is something on the menu for everyone at €29.50, cocktail included.

What you should not do, however, is shop around these hip chain places acting like you are at a serious restaurant.

I cannot handle watching more people on Facebook going, “Wow, cocktails with pizza! What are they going to do next?!” Dimmed light, a hip waiter in a bowtie, and your salmon tartare served on a funny shaped plate does not a real restaurant make.

If we want to keep the great climate of innovative, independent restaurants developed the last decades we need to take a critical stand on what marketing and craftsmanship should be. Challenge yourself to support the small players and I guarantee you will have great experiences no chain restaurant will ever give you.

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