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Thursday, September 30, 2010

DeRushaEats: Are Corporate/Chain Restaurants Evil?

I will choose a locally-owned restaurant over a national chain every time. But how do local chains fit into that paradigm? And just because it's a chain or a corporately-owned place, does that make it bad?

Eating last night at Il Gatto, I was thinking about Parasole, and corporate-owned restaurants. Tim McKee is cooking there now, and it's fantastic, so you need to go. The pastas are killer. Absolutely killer. Thank me later.

At any rate, Jim Christensen (who used to work at Sea Change and La Belle Vie) now runs the Il Gatto kitchen, and when he came out to our table, I asked how he felt about working for Parasole, working for "the man." He said he loves it, and he's learning a lot, taking his career to a new level.

I think most of us who love food romanticize the chef-owned single restaurant. But aren't most chefs lousy at business?

In the Twin Cities you have Crave, which opened restaurants in Florida and Nebraska, Blue Plate Group which has restaurants from Maple Grove to St. Paul, and Parasole. What do we think about those guys?

I'm just reevaluating my thoughts on chains. Do we dislike them because they're mediocre? Because of their size? Can you be big and still create amazing food and amazing experiences?

Posted on Thursday, September 30, 2010 in Permalink

Comments may be edited for length, clarity, or appropriateness.

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Sep 30, 2010 04:56 pm
 Posted by  Geri

Right or wrong, in my mind, I don't necessarily put Crave (yet), Blue Plate or Parasole in the "chain" category.

That being said, in most people's minds, "chain restaurant" conjures up PF Chang's and Cheesecake Factory. And I believe publicly held chains are drastically different than privately held chains.

Il Gato and Buca di Beppo may have come from the same place, but the privately held Il Gato has a quirky personality, whereas publicly held Buca di Beppo might be considered more along the Walmart of Italian food.

Blue Plate Restaurants has developed their brands so well, that I think diners view them as a neighborhood joint rather than a chain. All because they aren't held to Wall Street telling them they have to stick to the same format/operations at every location.

Sep 30, 2010 07:32 pm
 Posted by  shevvi

You left out Lettuce Entertain You aka Big Bowl and Twin Cities Grill. I just had a great lunch at Big Bowl yesterday. So it can be done right up to a point somewhere bigger than a local change but smaller than than the current footprint of the Cheesecake Factory.

Sep 30, 2010 08:04 pm
 Posted by  Emmysue

I don't think we can measure all corporately-operated dining establishments with the same yardstick, for the reasons Geri has mentioned, among others.

On one hand, you have the Parasol-owned Il Gatto with its killer pastas, some adventurous, chef-driven cuisine, and a unique atmosphere. On the other hand, you have the independently-owned Ma and Pop operation who gets all of its ingredients off the Monsanto/Sysco/Hormel truck and sticks them into wraps and sandwiches in a fluorescent-lit, suburban strip mall space. So which of these is more "evil"? It's all a matter of where your food priorities and passions lie. Chef-driven? Independently-owned? Local/sustainable practices? Gastronomically artful? Forming opinions about restaurants is complex if these are all qualities you care about to some degree (as I do.)

I think the corporate vs. independent question is just one of the many factors to consider when pondering the question "is this place evil?" And while I believe that corporate/chain establishments that do the above things well are the exception rather than the rule, I can't call all corporate/chain establishments categorically "evil."

Sep 30, 2010 10:37 pm
 Posted by  Zimmern

My man, dont confuse chain (multiple unit of same concept) wiht restaurant group/company (one entity owning several/many concepts).
Look at what Nobu does with dozens of high end Japanese restaurants with identical menus executing at near flawless level across the globe? Look at the awesome work of local pizza kings Punch Pizza...and look at the crap served up by Crave? all are chains. Parasole is a restaurant company. not a chain owner. They essentially sold their chains off.
Results matter, good food is good food and if someone can pull it off in disparate markets, they are geniuses. doesnt matter if its 5 Guys or Craft.

Oct 1, 2010 07:52 am
 Posted by  Jason DeRusha

I just look at a place like Chipotle and wonder if food bloggers and writers would rhapsodize about it if it were a single shop.

Do people have any other national chains that they really enjoy? Feel free to be anonymous so as to not destroy your "foodie" cred.

Oct 1, 2010 09:43 am
 Posted by  tani

There are some national chains I do enjoy. You mentioned Chipotle. I like their veggie burrito. Big Bowl - it's ok from my point of view and the little lady loves it.

My problem with chains, in general, is what is done in the name of efficiency. Trying to squeeze out that last penny to increase the margin on a burger by using more artificial ingredients. I mean, c'mon.

I'm forgiving of ma / pop type places using sysco, etc...because well, they're independent business people trying to compete against the big chains. If I don't like the food, I won't go back. There's a tradeoff. If they're "authentic" and really try hard, then yeah, I'll go back to them.

I rarely ever see chain's try hard. It's all cookie cutter. I might eat it, but rarely will I enjoy it, and never as much. As much as I like chipotle's veggie burrito, I'd rather get a beef tongue burrito up on central.

Oct 1, 2010 12:29 pm
 Posted by  Dara

Great question.

Let's talk some benefits of chains too: Health insurance! 401Ks! Why should people in restaurants live without the benefits everyone else takes for granted? The Kieran restaurants are another good example of a place with various outlets and good stewardship.

My general rule of thumb for evilness is: What's the accountability? If you ask real questions about the food, do you get real answers that are verifiable?

I'll never forget the stand-alone restaurant which had on its menu: "Sustainably raised salmon." I asked them where it was from, they said: Norwegian fish farm. I said: That's the very definition of not-sustainable. They said: "When we say something's sustainable that means it helps us sustain our business." Oh, okay.... By that definition kidnapping people off the streets and press-ganging them into slavery is sustainable.

Everybody of course is free to make their own calls vis a vis whether your criteria for a good restaurant is: Good cooking, organic ingredients, treating employees well, culturally authentic experiences, or whatever, but for me being able to get answers to who is making the food, how, and with what is the start of the conversation, and if you can't start the conversation I'm suspicious.

Oct 1, 2010 02:29 pm
 Posted by  MikeFSN

Puh-leez. Go ahead and confuse them. A chain is a chain is a chain. And that's OK. Parasole and Blue Plate are the new breed. Rather than jam a concept into a location, they're actually conscious of demographic and neighborhood, and fit the concept to that. But they are companies. That have more than one restaurant. That is a chain. Alex Roberts, with Brasa, now has a chain, albeit small. And that's OK.

Oct 2, 2010 11:09 am
 Posted by  MorganW

I'm wary of conflating a chain restaurant, i.e. a publicly traded corporation (The Cheesecake Factory, Chipotle, Applebee’s), with a restaurant group (Blue Plate, Parasol). And the distinction is even more salient when comparing the first two to a restaurateur operating a few joints (Alex Roberts). I think these are all very different animals, at least from an organizational standpoint. While the bottom-line for all three is… the bottom line (operating costs like, say, food to put on the plates and cash to pay the people plating it need to get covered), it’s what happens next that differentiates the three.

For a PT corporation, hitting the black is not the ultimate goal. It’s a step in the never-ending process of creating revenue for shareholders. For many “indie” or chef-owned restaurants (and I use these terms fully aware few is the chef who owns her restaurant without the financial backing of silent or not-so-silent partners), the black is also just a way station to somewhere else. But after recouping OCs, most of these guys want to improve the quality of food and experience for diners (and varnish their rep). So yeah, there’s a huge difference, both experiential (for us), and motivational (for the chefs/owners/shareholders). Also, I’d say quality deteriorates the greater the separation between the people with the ideas and the operators. It takes a true madman (in the best sense) like Alex Roberts or Tim McKee to pull off an independent food “empire.” With a Chipotle, etc, we shouldn't expect any changes, unless profits start to lag.

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