No wonder our bougie, West Coast friends shun Bloomin’ Onions and Big Macs in favor of meals from farm-to-table gastropubs and “undiscovered” ethnic food joints. And it’s not just them. Food — obscure, locally sourced, painstakingly chef-crafted — has become a defining obsession, a “measuring stick of cool,” as New York magazine put it. Today, a quarter of Americans eat organic products on a regular basis, up from 13 percent a decade ago. The number of Americans who regularly eat hummus has jumped 200 percent since 2000.
That’s all well and good. We love fancy fine dining; we love divey food trucks with “C” ratings from the health department. We pretty much love any place that offers things to put in our mouths in exchange for currency.
But we also love chain restaurants. And those elites who smugly dismiss them as disgusting or “insidious” ignore the very important role these places play in our culture and economy. Not to mention, a lot of them serve really good food. We make repeat visits to Chili’s for the famously jingled baby back ribs or to Carl’s Jr. for the Western bacon cheeseburger. Chains deliver unique and specific flavors, tastes you can’t get anywhere else.
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Americans are more polarized than ever, but chains remain a common point of reference. Eating at them is one of the few things we still do together as a country. Eight out of 10 Americans eat fast food at least once a month. Some months, nearly half of all Americans stop in at McDonald’s (and 1 in every 8 U.S. workers has been employed by the fast-food giant). A columnist at Think Christian says some of her “best memories” were made in the chain’s “cold pleather” booths. Actor James Franco wrote that “McDonald’s was there for me. When no one else was.” Food guru Michael Pollan has an opinion on the company’s lobster roll. What else in America could bring Franco, Pollan and a Think Christian writer together?
Chains put us in conversation with one another. As we learned from the fans of our weekly podcast on chain restaurants, people forge fierce allegiances to their regional chains, such as In-N-Out Burger, Waffle House and L&L Hawaiian BBQ. National publications cover controversies over Starbucks’s pumpkin spice latte or Taco Bell’s Doritos Locos Taco. An unironic review of the Olive Garden in Grand Forks, N.D., by local restaurant critic Marilyn Hagerty went viral a couple of years ago. Hagerty’s rave (she described the restaurant as the “largest and most beautiful” in the city) was met with predictable coastal mockery, but at least her sincere appreciation got people talking.
Americans eat just 1 percent of meals at fine-dining establishments. Chains account for 88 percent of U.S. restaurant options. People should be able to eat there without scorn. There’s ceremony in sharing a meal with your date, your family, your departing work colleagues, your victorious softball team. And there’s dignity in ordering a meal and having it served to you by a waiter who’s tasked with making you feel welcome.
Another reason to celebrate chains: They’re consistent. You know what you’re getting, whether you’re eating at the Denny’s in Fairbanks, Alaska, or Honolulu, Hawaii. That’s good for us, since we travel a lot, and it’s good for American food in general. As Bloomberg View columnist Megan McArdle wrote, chains put “a floor on quality; any family owned restaurant that cannot provide at least as good food and service as a chain has gone out of business.” If chains went away, she wrote, we wouldn’t have better food. “We’d have a lot of soggy pasta and awful hotel buffets — remember those, small town America? Not an improvement.”
Indeed, chains are responsible for some of the weirdest, most innovative, most absurd dishes out there. The Cheesecake Factory has a burger topped with deep-fried mac-and-cheese balls. Pizza Hut stuffed hot dogs into its crust. Where’s the closest Hut? Don’t bother answering; we’ve already ordered from the app.
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We know what the haters say — that chains serve meals made from low-quality ingredients. But many chains are trying to change that. And when they do make a shift to healthier, greener options, that ripples across the food industry. This year, for example, McDonald’s announced that it will stop selling meat from chickens that have been raised with antibiotics. Soon after, Tyson Foods, the country’s largest chicken processor (and a major McDonald’s supplier) decided to stop using antibiotics to raise its chickens in the United States. As New Yorker journalist Michael Specter wrote, “McDonald’s has the power to fundamentally alter the food system.”
Of course, there are real problems. One in 12 Americans work a restaurant job; fast-food employees account for 3.6 million workers. Many of them are underpaid — sometimes even below minimum wage, with tips to “make up” the difference. But these issues are not unique to chains — they’re endemic to the food industry.
So, yeah, we love food, but we’re not one-dimensional meal demons, carving through rows of chain restaurants like fried-food Langoliers. We have vibrant lives that also include snacking and drinking beverages and getting unreasonably mad about “Star Wars.” And our passion for chain restaurants is about more than just wanting to consume 1,700 calories in a single sitting. Chains are an essential component of our nation’s cultural identity. If you’re thinking of American food, you’re thinking of food that’s served at chains.
Read more from Outlook’s food issue: