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Break the chains


Think you can’t kick the habit of national chain restaurants? Think again.

Jenny Coon Peterson June 15th, 2011

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Credits: Shannon Cornman

Chains. They’re lifeless, soulless and just about every other “-less” you can think of. (Shameless? Yup.) They’re a turn-and-burn atmosphere where your meal gets dumped onto the faux-Mexican-tile tabletop surrounded by the same schlocky decor that you’ll find in every single one of its 325 nationwide outposts.

Chili’s, Applebee’s, Olive Garden.

Been to one, and you’ve been to them all.

Sure, some of the actual dishes might be a bit different, but the feeling’s the same.

What’s the solution? How do you break out of the chains? Simple: Eat local.

It’s not like there aren’t a lot of choices in the metro.

THE FOOD

Here’s a little secret: That plate of chain food you’re scarfing down is probably not a cherished recipe. It’s probably not even one that the kitchen tweaked to perfection. It’s the result of groupthink.

Olive Garden was developed by General Mills (yes, the cereal company) in the early 1980s and opened its first restaurant in Orlando, Fla.

While some chains were born the way most local eateries started, some were spawned in other ways.

“You know, we’re really focused on being genuine, not necessarily authentic,” said Olive Garden president Dave Pickens in a 2010 ABC News feature about the chain’s philosophy when it comes to developing food. “We’re not sure authentic would translate so well.”

That equals doling out, according to the ABC story, 612 million breadsticks a year and cooking pasta exactly one minute longer than traditional pasta in Italy (since Americans apparently don’t like to chew).

Now part of the mega-company Darden Restaurants (which also owns sister eateries Red Lobster and Longhorn Steakhouse — also hugely popular), Olive Garden has more than 700 restaurants worldwide.

You know what doesn’t have 700 locations? Local, a new restaurant slated to open later this summer in Norman.

Co-owned by Melissa Scaramucci and her sisters Heather Steele and Abby Clark, Local strives to build relationships not just with the food producers, but with the customers.

“You’re having a relationship with someone who created their own menu, who agonized over what the flavors are and where the product is coming from and what the dining experience is going to be,” Scaramucci said. “It’s not market-researched to death; they’re not having huge test trials with designers and … everything that goes into creating a corporate dining experience.” Chris Branson agrees. He’s the cofounder with Bryce Bandy of the Keep It Local OK card.

“You can get to know the creative mind behind these local restaurants and build relationships with these people,” Branson said. “It’s one thing to be marketed to by a business, but it’s another thing to meet the owner, meet the people behind it and feel like you can give some input.”

And what about the food? There’s no comparison, said Kamala Gamble, co-founder of Slow Food OKC and owner of Guilford Gardens, a 2-acre suburban farm in Oklahoma City.

“Want my three reasons to eat local?” Gamble said. “It tastes better, it’s more nutritious and your money stays here.”

She focuses on food that is sourced locally, but said local restaurants that don’t source locally grown ingredients still have a benefit over chains.

“Even if they’re not using local food in general, a restaurant that is here is going to be actually making something,” Gamble said. “Even if they’re using conventional products, at least they’re preparing it, instead of just dropping it into a fryer out of a frozen bag.”

But the fact remains that, no matter a difference in quality, diners love chains and their familiarity. They’re a $230-billion-a-year industry for a reason.

“It’s just what we know,” said Robert Painter, managing partner and general manager at Iguana Mexican Grill. “We think Mexican food is this one type of food with refried beans and rice. I will go eat a refried-bean dinner every now and then because it’s just because what I grew up with; it’s familiar.”

But, he said, the metro restaurant scene has developed and diversified, so for every chain we once loved, there’s a local counterpart.

Gamble shared an example: “If you want On The Border, go to Iguana.”

THE FLAIR

Is there anything more depressing than some sad sack forced to wear light-up buttons and suspenders? No, there is not.

Step inside Iguana. That’s flair, from the local art on the walls to the personal experience while dining.

“I think a chain designs for what food they’re serving,” Painter said. “I designed a beautiful restaurant that can serve any type of cuisine, but at your chain, if it’s Mexican, then it’s all the kitsch you’d expect to see painted on the walls.”

At chains, he said, there’s not a lot of freedom to try new things. “To have that many restaurants, to keep control of them all, I see where they have to (keep it uniform) to roll them out,” he said. “There’s just no originality, no personality.”

That personality extends to service.

Painter mentioned a recent dinner at Rococo Restaurant & Fine Wine, where the bar manager twice came to say “hi” and ask how everything was, although he had no requirement to do so.

“Just here in Norman,” Scaramucci said, “the difference between what is happening in Coriander Cafe and what’s happening in Pei Wei is night and day. It’s a completely different experience.”

THE ECONOMY

Branson said that if diners were to shift just 10 percent of business from a chain to a local restaurant, the benefit could be millions of dollars pumped into the community.

Plus, he said, “You could be introduced to your favorite restaurant that you didn’t know existed. It’s not necessarily just about the best value; it’s a lot about how you’re shopping and the choices that you’re making and how those choices affect the community.”

And they can affect it quite a bit.

Branson said research shows that for every $100 spent at a local establishment, $73 remains in the community.

“The same $100 spent at a chain, only $43 is recycled back into the community, and the rest is sent out to who knows where,” he said.

When diners make a local choice with their dollars, they can bet on seeing a local return. Take Iguana, which is well-known for its involvement with events and charities.

“You share and you feed,” Painter said. “I always believe that if you give, you do get in return. I know those (chain) restaurants probably give huge dollars on a national scale, but when we do these local events, it’s the local restaurateurs you see. I have just one restaurant; that’s all I have, but we give.”

Scaramucci summed it up: Know your neighbors. Eating local strengthens relationships, which strengthens communities.

“You’re spending money in the state that goes back to a business owner who’s paying taxes in this state,” she said. “When you eat at local restaurants, you’re directly impacting the state as a whole.”

THE EXCEPTIONS
We may try to eat local, but there are always exceptions. We’re not perfect, but some say Olive Garden’s salad dressing is.

“I don’t visit them as often as I used to, but I do have a couple of sweet spots that would be hard to give up completely,” Chris Branson said.

He mentioned Chick-fil-A and Chipotle, which has made strides to use local products.

Kamala Gamble is so committed to eating local that she said she has completely given up chains.

“I just don’t go. I have to walk the walk as well as talk it,” she said.

Sometimes, heading to a chain is less about caring what you eat and more about doing something familiar. Robert Painter said eating at chains every once in a while simply reminds him of what he grew up with.

“When I’m finished, do I feel good about it? Not really. But at the moment, yes,” he said.

For Melissa Scaramucci, eating at chains is a balancing act, but what’s truly important is making the effort to eat as locally as possible.

“Do I eat at Chick-fil-A? Of course. We are not saints,” she said. “I think it’s like recycling and everything else: You do as much as you can. You can’t let it dictate your life, (but) you can let it lead your life.” —Jenny Coon Peterson

 
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