Monday, March 13, 2006

The Problem With Chain Restaurants

Currently in San Antonio, we have a controversy brewing over the corporatization of the River Walk. For those not familiar, the River Walk is a beautiful expanse of hotels, dining and shopping along a narrow river in downtown San Antonio. It is the second most visited destination in Texas (the first is the nearby Alamo). So it’s a big deal to the city.

The problem is, the River Walk is so successful that large corporations have been taking over the restaurant space and filling the river with the kinds of chain eateries more commonly found in suburban strip malls. And while authentic local places still far outnumber the chains, a lot of people are concerned that the River Walk is in danger of losing its unique flavor.

San Antonio is hardly alone in debating this issue. The proliferation of chain restaurants has concerned everyone from urban Manhattanites to small town New Englanders. San Francisco has even passed laws meant to restrict the development of chains, including chain restaurants. In all these cases, the chains are viewed as spiritless interlopers that drive out small businesses and drain the area of its local character.

Personally, I do not care for chain restaurants. The food is marginal at best and the atmosphere is either bland or contrived. I much prefer local restaurants where the dishes are less predictable and the ambiance more authentic. But I didn’t always feel this way. There was a time when I purposefully sought out Olive Gardens or Chilis or T.G.I. Fridays because those were the restaurants with which I was most familiar and most comfortable. Never underestimate the power of the safe, known commodity.

And I imagine it is the “safe, known commodity” aspect that keeps people coming back to chain restaurants. In fact, that’s why I think these restaurants have worked on the River Walk. After all, once a conventioneer or a family has been in San Antonio for a few days, they’re probably tired of all the locally owned Tex Mex and Southwestern cuisine restaurants and just want a plain ole’ hamburger from the Hard Rock Café.

There’s nothing wrong with that. And there’s nothing wrong with the chain restaurants on the River Walk—because I tend to think these mass-marketed restaurants are not a replacement for but merely a supplement to all the great local places that give the river its character. I would be shocked if national chains ever became more than 30% of the River Walk. The vast majority of tourists are looking for new experiences, new tastes. Thus it will be the free market, not restrictive laws, that will provide the real cap on the expansion of chains on the river.

The animosity towards chain restaurants is understandable, but they’re only successful because people eat there. They fill a need. But they can never fill every need.


Blogger M. Takhallus. said...

Chain restaurants survive also by having deep pockets. A lot of these chains started as subsidiaries of major corporations. The local restaurant may have to live month to month, credit extension to credit extension. The chain can lose money for months or years and outlast the little guys.

6:51 PM  

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