When I was growing up in Arizona in the 90’s, there was nothing but chain restaurants. I literally didn’t know anything else. My birthdays were spent waiting for two hours on the patio of Black Angus, Red Lobster, or Olive Garden for a table so I could enjoy some mushy pasta and anemic shrimp scampi, followed by frozen tiramisu or a reheated lava cake. It was a treat only because the meal was somewhere other than my own house (where my mother probably could have made the same dish, but ten times better). There simply was no escaping the chains until I moved to Chicago nearly ten years ago, and once I’d had a taste of what independent restaurants could offer, “chain” became a dirty word, never to be spoken in my presence.
Over the last few years, however, I have relaxed my rules about visiting establishments with a national presence and found that there are quite a few who are actually making an effort to not just serve up tasteless, pre-cooked, easy to assemble dishes for the masses. Case in point, a few weeks ago I visited a flagship location for Roti Modern Mediterranean where their new menu was being launched to feature all sorts of seasonal, freshly prepared, and well thought out items that cater to a more informed food lover. The beef is now grass fed, their salmon sustainably raised, their salads offered with a variety of organic greens, and their chicken freshly grilled with herbs and spices added by hand, instead of the spongy “meat” that has been soaked in salt and chemical laced marinades then heated up in a microwave like what Subway serves. Roti is a chain that is seeing the way of things and is changing with the times, as there are plans to implement all of the new menu items and preparations into all of their locations by 2017.
International chains are making headway in the US as well, bringing with them a concentration on quality. Pret a Manger, a UK favorite, has several locations in major US cities, serving up their brand of fast casual fair with not only a mind to food consciousness, but community service as well. All of their locations make everything fresh daily, from their sandwiches and salads to their oatmeal and mac and cheese, so at the end of each day, their unsold products go directly to local food depositories, and because they are using only fresh and local ingredients, it means people in need are actually getting a healthy meal.
Le Pain Qutioden is another European import that has arrived in the States recently with a whole host of freshly made options, including bread baked on premise. They even offer cooking classes at many of their locations, helping to teach people how they can prepare fresh, healthy meals at home, a lesson that sadly needs to be learned since so many people have gotten used to simply living off fast food.
This is the kind of thing I long to see more of. There is nothing wrong with the concept of a national chain in theory; the whole reason they exist is because increasingly transitory people found it comforting to be able to visit a restaurant in Nashville, New York, or San Francisco and know what they were getting each time, but somewhere along the way, everything just got too homogenized. Now, you can literally go to the grocery store and buy a frozen entrée from your favorite chain restaurant and have it taste exactly like the dish at the restaurant. Why even bother going out at that point? With recent numbers suggesting these sorts of restaurants are bleeding money, they’ve simply got to do something more than brining back never ending pasta bowls or making lunches out of breadsticks. They’ve got to look at where they started, just like Roti and Pret and others have done; go back to making as much as possible in house, having not just seasonal, but locally focused specials, and stop compromising quality for convenience and mass production.