Since the dawn of the shopping-mall era, people have eaten at chain restaurants. And for almost as long, they have made fun of them. The nutty-kitschy, kooky-urban, farmy-charmy interior design became the aesthetic of the strip-center banal.
Perhaps sensing the cliche, two of the nation's top chain restaurants -- T.G.I. Friday's and Ruby Tuesday -- have been giving themselves quiet makeovers. (Out, for Friday's: farm implements. In: Pee-wee Herman's "Tequila" platform shoes. And you could be forgiven for not having noticed, even if you eat there all the time.)
"We're kind of in a strange situation, where what's on the wall in a restaurant is supposed to attract an audience, but to be honest with you, I don't know if that's true at all," said Scott Schershel, vice president of Florida-based Interior Spaces Inc., an art vendor for Ruby Tuesday.
Schershel, 48, has seen lots of Ruby Tuesdays, spending an average 120 days a year on the road decorating them -- as far away as India.
He and Deborah Conrad, who owns a South Carolina-based company called Prismatic Interior Works, work as suppliers of decor for the chain. They hire "pickers" to explore flea markets and rummage sales to find their stuff; then they oversee the installation. Conrad said her personal record was the year she spent 256 nights away from home, decorating yet more Ruby Tuesdays. (On one out-of-town job, her car was stolen.)
The aesthetic of Ruby Tuesday comes off as a toned-down approximation of Friday's old look -- it's still wainscoting, dark-leather booths and a smattering of stuff on the walls. It wants you to believe you're in a sportsman's club or hunting lodge -- one with a salad bar. Pretend it's the Harvard Club and you were once the rowing captain.
This escapism replaces the restaurant's old theme: familiarity and sense of place.
"We used to give the restaurants a little local flavor," Schershel said. "We would contact local museums and archival societies to find old photos and other stuff related to the area. If there was a college nearby, we'd prominently feature things related to a sports team at the college."
That was until a few years ago, when Ruby Tuesday's head office gave the decorators prototypes to which they had to adhere. Gone was regional specificity, in came a more general Americana.
Atmosphere and Attitude
Hollywood once consigned Jennifer Aniston to work at a chain restaurant in the 1999 cult hit "Office Space." (Her character quits in a huff, when the manager of the fictional Tchotchke's berates her for not wearing enough "flair" on her uniform.) Bartender Moe on "The Simpsons" turned his dive into Uncle Moe's Family Feedbag -- with the usual decor of traffic lights and an alligator wearing sunglasses. The staff of "ShennaniganZ," the fictional chain at the center of the recent comedy flop "Waiting . . . ," express their dislike for customers by doing unspeakable things to the food.
As casual dining became a hallmark of casual life, it also came to be the butt of jokes. ("People can get a cheeseburger anywhere," Aniston's prickly boss not-so-gently reminds her in "Office Space." "They come to Tchotchke's for the atmosphere and the attitude. That's what the flair's about -- it's about fun.")
Rob McKittrick, who wrote and directed "Waiting . . .," took pains to replicate the chain decor schemes in his film but still finds himself unable to justify their existence:
"I think what it was was that one person had a bunch of crap on their walls and it was successful and everybody followed. Who the hell knows?" he said. "When I go to Chili's, it's not because of the southwestern decor."
Susan Sontag nailed the idea of camp in the 1960s, labeling it as "failed seriousness," but no one has yet put a finger on the failed joviality of the retail age -- and its air of enforced cheer, sentimental prefab and the replication of nostalgia.
Nevertheless, it's a profitable formula, but one that needs to be served to a new generation, whose retro tastes run more Atari than Great Depression.
And so T.G.I. Friday's undertook in 2002 a corporate-mandated makeover, a $200 million process that continues to this day -- location by location, exit ramp to exit ramp -- until all 531 of its U.S. restaurants will get the "new" look: a slightly less-cluttered update with pop-culture touchstones that evoke the mid-1960s to mid-1990s. That means skateboards, bicycles, classic rock and new-wave album covers, surfboards, disco balls.
Which is where Michelle Edwards comes in.
Based in Nashville, Edwards, 39, is Friday's principal supplier of decor. She's been with the company for 13 years, part of the old guard of collectors -- a group of treasure hunters hired to fan out to various garage sales and flea markets in Tennessee in search of antiques and other quaint clutter to send to wherever a new Friday's was about to open.
When the corporate office decided to switch looks, most of Edwards's old-guard collectors "didn't see it as doable," she said, because "when we went to this newer look, it was harder to find because it wasn't surfacing in the flea markets."
She persisted on her own, and eBay and other Internet sites amply provided most of the ephemera that Friday's needs. She estimates about a quarter of the company's restaurants have been redecorated so far. To meet demand, she constantly acquires album covers, road signs, Boba Fett helmets, Gumby dolls, vintage Levi's signs and more. She ships three to four completed assemblages of decor a week to be included in a new-look Friday's.
So voracious is Friday's need for retro junk that Edwards had to devise a bar code inventory system to keep track of it all. Working online, she found just the right kind of Internet kitsch mercenaries and manufacturers to join her army:
She has a woman in Maryland who sells her skateboards, a guy in California who manufactures surfboards, a guy in Tennessee who sends her propellers. She gushes about a Web site forum for BMX bike enthusiasts that drew compliments for the bikes Edwards had chosen for display at some of the restaurants.
She thinks that more people can identify with the new look, as few recognize or are interested in "old-timey" items.
"We've tested a lot of focus groups and they're they've reacted very well to [the new] design," she said. The items "were always designed to be conversation pieces, but people couldn't recognize them anymore."
Choice in Chains
Between 1994 and 2004, total sales at U.S. restaurants rose from about $194 billion to almost $314 billion annually. Almost 150,000 of the more than 500,000 restaurants in this country belong to the top 100 chains, and they generate slightly more than half of all sales, according to Technomic, a leading industry consultant.
In a survey this year by the trade magazine Restaurants and Institutions, customers ranked "atmosphere" (including the presence of whatsits, knickknacks and other decor) the sixth most important factor to their "casual dining," the subgenre to which chains like T.G.I. Friday's, Ruby Tuesday and Applebee's belong. (Convenience and reputation finished behind atmosphere.)
This, said Pete Cholewinski, research director for Restaurants and Institutions, is a testament to the ubiquity of chain restaurants: They are so everywhere that convenience is less of a concern.
For Ruby Tuesday, everywhere includes shipping American bric-a-brac to its restaurants in places such as Iceland, Mexico, Honduras, South Korea.
"They're given a generic American theme," Schershel said. "We try to shy away from military- or war-related images to make sure we don't step on any toes."
Conrad, Schershel's colleague, can think of only two examples where the company was forced to remove items that she had picked for decor. One was a vintage advertisement in a restaurant in Albany, N.Y., featuring a monkey drinking from a bottle of liqueur that one family saw as derogatory to blacks. Another item that drew concern was a crate label that featured the word "squaw," which a customer pointed out is a word from the Massachusett language meaning "woman," which some read as a reference to female genitalia.
Schershel lamented Ruby Tuesday's decision a few years back to create a prototype model for the layout of decor in every restaurant, stipulating how and where certain things should be placed.
"Up until two years ago, there was a very eclectic and free look," Schershel said. "You'd see between restaurants a big variation. Certainly, initially, there was a lot of a creative element. It was rewarding to see your work displayed. It's still a good job, but from a creative standpoint, it isn't as much fun."
Ruby Tuesday and Friday's have their eyes on the same, hulking target: Applebee's.
Applebee's is the revenue leader among casual-dining chains, with $3.88 billion in sales in 2004, compared with $2.4 billion for Friday's and $1.47 billion for Ruby Tuesday, according to estimates from Technomic. But its restaurant design is calculated to make a local connection.
The chain hired 13 small companies to install decor in company-owned restaurants, says Applebee's spokeswoman Laurie Ellison. It also conducts local research, determining a "hometown hero" in each area to highlight. This person can be anyone from a teacher to a firefighter, or someone the company considers to be a great role model.
And don't even suggest to her than an Applebee's isn't part of the basic fabric of a neighborhood or town.
"The people that work in these places live in these communities, so they're as entrenched as the mom-and-pop restaurants that operate there," she said.
Crowded on a Friday
It's a Saturday afternoon at the T.G.I. Friday's on Rockville Pike. The restaurant converted to the new look a few years ago, but the reaction is mixed.
"I'm not in favor of the remodel at all," said Andrea Katz, a bartender who has worked there for seven years. "The bar used to be wood, like a lot of the restaurant. It was warm and cozy, and now it's this cold black granite. We've gotten a lot of complaints."
Sebastian Amar, 22, gives a more positive assessment as he finishes off the last few bites of his lunch. "I think the atmosphere helps a lot. It's contemporary without being contemporary, if that makes sense. They preserved the good things about Friday's, but they kept intact what sets Friday's apart.
"You can get a lot of the same food at Ruby Tuesday or Bennigan's and those other places, but there's a more upbeat atmosphere here."
On a weekday at the Ruby Tuesday just off Branch Avenue in southern Prince George's County, Charles Ross, 23, of Fort Washington sits at a small table near the bar watching "SportsCenter." Asked whether he has a preference among chains, he replies, "I go to different ones on different days." In the same breath, he acknowledges, "They're both restaurants with a bar. They serve the same type of food." If the T.G.I. Friday's in Greenbelt, his chain of choice despite a considerable commute, is crowded, he'll come to this Ruby Tuesday, which is closer to his home. This usually happens on nights that he expects Friday's is going to be crowded.
Like, for instance, on a Friday.