The State of Chain Restaurant Eating Has Reached Its Nadir
by LJ Pemberton
Let me set the stage: the year is 1994. You have received a Book It! coupon for one personal pan pizza from your 5th grade English teacher for reading the requisite number of extracurricular books for the month. Your whole family will now make the pilgrimage to the local Pizza Hut, where you will enter the dark room under the red roof and situate yourself in a red pleather booth of your choice. Your table is slightly off-kilter on the floor. The chandelier above it is stained glass, reminiscent of high end Italian restaurants in the 1970s in New Jersey, a place you have never been and will never visit. On the table are two round glass tumblers with perforated tops. One holds parmesan cheese. The other, red pepper flakes. A waitress sees that you are seated and she approaches with menus. She takes your drink order and returns with large plastic cups, designed to look like mottled glass. Your Diet Coke has never tasted so good. Your family decides on a large Supreme pizza, but you will be getting your own personal pan pepperoni. While you wait, your parents tell you to stop pouring out the parmesan and squishing it with your fingers. Your brother excuses himself to go to the restroom and returns. Other families sit around you. You judge them. You are audibly excited when the pizza arrives.
The year is 1997. Your family has decided to go to Chili’s on a Friday night, like everyone else in this goddamn town. When you arrive, you are told by the hostess that there is a fifteen minute wait. She suggests you wait outside, where there are benches. A PA system announces Hubbell, Party of Five. You see a group of strangers assemble and file in. You, too, will be that group of strangers soon. Inside, every inch of every wall, column, half-wall, ceiling, and display space is full of southwestern antiques. Broken spokes, black and white pictures, chisels, molding planes, rugs, lanterns, liquor bottles, petticoats — if it is associated with the Old West, it is here, used and assembled to create what was called “atmosphere,” what is now called “unprofitable.” By the door, if you know where to look, there is a picture of chili-makers assembled in Terlingua, Texas for the original chili cook off. You will remember this when, in college, years later, your roommate suggests you watch Wim Winders’ Paris, Texas, and the film opens with Harry Dean Stanton loping through what is left of Terlingua, ruining finally your childhood imagination of a place you knew the existence of because of Chili’s, its baby back ribs, and its kitschy décor.
What I have described, however, is not the Pizza Hut and Chili’s restaurant experience of the present. In the last fifteen years, the staff-light restaurant model called “quick serve” has infected nearly every middle class, sit-down experience that is offered nationwide. Gone are the décor touches that distinguish one chain from another. Gone, even, is true table service. A damnable touchscreen, tapped and touched by whatever work-tired family preceded you, sits at the table to take your order, to bother whatever over-burdened wait staff has been assigned to your sector. Machines are expected to lighten the load; in reality, they only increase what one person is expected to handle. The menu is full of unnecessary pictures. Your pizza is not personal. Your burger is worse. It is loud and no one cares if you scream.
This is the state of chain restaurant eating in America. You may long for the dining experience of pre-COVID. I long for the dining experience pre-vulture capital. Profitability and a good customer experience are no longer enough. Margin annihilation is the goal. Who cares if you have a good experience? There is no good experience anywhere else. We live in an America where pleasure is promised and only self-obliteration is delivered. You will accept what you are told is good, even if you know better. You have no other choice.
Applebee’s, TGIFriday’s, Buffalo Wild Wings, even Olive Garden — chain restaurants are not just a disappointment to their patrons, they are a disappointment to their former selves. And their decline is more remarkable than the returns wrought by their changes. The restaurant business has never had wide margins, averaging between 3-5%, but by converting to the quick serve model, they increase that profitability to 6-9%. A world obliterated for a few measly percentage points of profit. Atmosphere is expensive. Staff even more so. Food prices fluctuate. Alcohol sales are essential. Come in, sit, eat, drink, leave. It’s not personal. It’s business.
According to Edward B. Tylor, the long dead British anthropologist, “Culture, or civilization, taken in its broad, ethnographic sense, is that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society.” Do we know what capabilities and habits we are losing to the pervasive belief that our art, morals, laws, and customs should serve Mammon above community, place-making, and comfort? Is a restaurant a restaurant without a true front and back of house, the niceties exchanged between strangers in the ritual of service, and the chance for patrons to cultivate a third place?
I submit it is not. And neither, any longer, are Pizza Hut and Chili’s.
LJ Pemberton, 38, is a writer / artist / futurist living in Los Angeles, California. Her essays, poetry, and award-winning stories have been featured in the Los Angeles Review, PANK, Cobalt, VICE, the Brooklyn Rail, and elsewhere. New work is forthcoming from Cosmonauts Avenue, Hobart, LEVEE, and Drunk Monkeys. She currently reviews fiction for Publishers Weekly. Her (yet unpublished) novel, STARBOI, is a queer tale of obsession and heartbreak set in the recent past. She is an arbiter of complaint.