As I was driving recently, I was listening to some innocuous chatter on the radio and then the dee-jay went into this rhapsodic monologue about his favorite restaurant – a fast food chain that serves alleged Mexican food.
I didn’t know if he was pandering to his audience or if he was being serious, but as he rambled on and on, it became abundantly clear that he was genuinely enamored of this fat-laden stuff. And I started yelling at my radio.
“Are you kidding me? This is what you want your audience to know about you? This is the kind of food you endorse?”
I admit that I am not immune to the occasional stop at a fast food joint. But it’s usually because I’m driving a long distance and it’s the only game on the road. I try to limit the caloric intake, but it’s not easy.
Aside from the generally unhealthful packing of calories, carbohydrates and fat into so many of the items available at all of America’s fast food establishments, I am equally alarmed by the proliferation of “fast casual” and other chain restaurants that have invaded our cities and towns. And while it’s true that many have made an effort to offer lower calorie items, can you really resist the aroma of the fried foods that dominate the menus?
For every Applebee’s or Ruby Tuesday or Johnny Carino’s that opens, it generally spells trouble for the locally-owned independent restaurant. The coffee shop, the diner, the fine dining restaurant, the burger joint, the pizza place on Main Street in your town. They’re all in jeopardy because they are outspent by the millions in advertising; and because of their sheer size, these behemoths can buy their raw product at better prices than the local restaurant can.
That’s problematic not only for economic reasons, but for the character of our towns and cities and villages. The painful recession that we’re still not out of took a great toll on so many businesses – especially locally-owned independent retailers, including restaurants – and the worst may be yet to come.
I read in my food and restaurant trade magazines on a regular basis about trends and I really don’t like what I see. For the tens of thousands of kids coming out of culinary schools, for instance, their best options are usually not to open their own restaurant or even seek employment at a locally-owned independent restaurant. Even after years of gaining experience and expertise, to open their own place is so incredibly daunting. They don’t have millions of stockholders whose investment dollars fuel the building of 100 or more new locations in a year.
Banks generally won’t lend to a new restaurant enterprise because the odds are so stacked against success and one reason is the proliferation of the non-local fast food and fast casual restaurants.
Many of my fellow chefs and culinary professionals tout the merits of being “locavores,” meaning that we source as much from our own geographic region as we can, thereby helping farmers and ranchers and other food purveyors in the places where we live and work to succeed.
And while we, as locavores, can save on the costs of transportation, packaging and marketing, it is a never-ending David vs. Goliath battle that the locally owned and operated restaurant faces.
I don’t have a solution to the problem. McDonald’s and Wendy’s and Burger King, The Olive Garden, Pizza Hut and all the rest will be able to outspend and purchase at better rates than local restaurants will ever be able to.
The only thing I can suggest is that you make every effort to skip the fast food or fast casual joint at least one day a week and patronize a locally-owned restaurant, café or pizza parlor. You’ll be helping a neighbor. You’ll be putting money into your local economy. You’ll probably be eating better food.
And to that moronic taste-deprived radio dee-jay who thinks that Taco Bell is the best restaurant around: here’s hoping the bariatric care you’ll need one day will set you on a more healthful path.
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