I feel sorry for people who regularly eat at chain restaurants.
Don’t get me wrong, I understand why people (myself included at times) do; especially when traveling.
If I have my history right, chains like Denny’s or Cracker Barrel, or Colter’s favorite, TGI Fridays became popular as our culture become more mobile.
As more families took vacations to places they had never been, or had no family nearby, they needed someplace to eat. The problem with new places is that sometimes, the food can be very different from what is available at home. Chain restaurants met the need of travelers by providing predictable menus no matter where they were located. What a relief!
So why the sympathy for people who are simply avoiding a horrible roadside lunch spot or the greasy spoon that serves up food poisoning to unsuspecting vacationers?
The answer came to me after a winter of our family travels that took us from Detroit, MI to New Orleans, LA and back up to Wisconsin. It was a lot of ground to cover, much of which was virgin territory for me. I noticed that while the trees and fields varied somewhat by latitude, suburban sprawl had made much of the scenery along the highways look remarkably… the same. Chain restaurants, along with big box stores, are a major part of that similarity. To me it seemed somehow wrong that if I got off the highway in Louisiana it was indistinguishable from an exit community in Wisconsin. Where was the local flavor, the places that were unique to the culture of the community? What makes each place special if it is marked by all the usual eateries found all across the nation? Why was I even bothering to travel if everywhere was the same anyhow? There isn’t much point in it is there?
That’s why I feel sorry for people who regularly eat at chain restaurants. There’s no new experience; nothing to write home about. All you get is a full belly.
But isn’t a predictably happy belly better than any level of culinary excitement that comes with gastrointestinal risk?
Perhaps, but NOW there are ways to mitigate that risk that we didn’t have just a few years ago.
With the advent of mobile devices and social proof travelers can find the best of anywhere just by searching!
Apps like Yelp, Foursquare, TripAdvisor, Facebook and Google Maps allow people to rate, and leave comments about places along the way so you don’t have to wonder where the best Mediterranean food in Merrillville, Indiana is. You don’t have to look for the most familiar lit-up logo-on-a-pole while you’re filling your tank to figure out where to feed your face. You can have that a figured out a few exits in advance based on what you feel like eating, and “what’s good around here.”
Of course, if you know where you’re headed and when you’re leaving you can mark a few spots the you might like to try along your route. For instance, when we went to New Orleans, I ‘saved’ a few restaurants on Google Maps that I had found on Yelp, in the areas where I had a feeling we’d be getting hungry. Sure enough, as we were approaching Bowling Green, Kentucky, the kids were ready for breakfast. I pulled into Wild Eggs and we chowed down like royalty on crepes, omelets and cinnamon rolls. It should be noted that this example is actually a small, regional chain. (See, I’m not anti-franchise, just anti-same-old-same-old!)
I’m encouraged that local businesses, the small family restaurants that used to be the focal points of so many neighborhoods, can get new customers this way. My hope, especially since I live right near one, is that the exit communities across America will be seeded with such businesses, and not be choked out by the national chains that have so dominated that landscape. If this can happen, then the charm of these communities may be experienced by anyone passing through, and you’ll decide to get off at exit 29 not because there’s a Denny’s and a Cracker Barrel, but because you discovered that the locally made goat milk delicacies are out-of-this-world!