Chain restaurants. Whether you love them or hate them, they’re everywhere and they are busy. Drive by any Olive Garden, Red Lobster, Chilli’s or Earl’s (in Canada) on a Friday night and they’re guaranteed to be packed, often with wait times anywhere from 20 minutes to over an hour.
Why Chain Restaurants Suck!
There are a metric tonne of reasons to dislike chain restaurants. We’ve already mentioned the wait times, but the kicker is that most won’t take reservations since it would cost them way too much money in lost profits.
Chains tend to pay lower wages to their staff. And because prices are sometimes lower, bills are lower and as a result, tips are lower. That means they attract younger, more inexperienced cooks and servers naturally resulting in lower quality service.
Here’s one of the biggest reasons for me: They don’t really cook their own food. That’s right. The only thing the Olive cooks is the pasta. Everything else is reconstituted or heated from frozen. Same with Red Lobster and nearly any other chain restaurant. Most of the food they serve is pre-mixed, pre-cooked, filled with preservatives and mass ordered from major food distributors. Quality suffers as a result. I’d way rather spend an extra couple of dollars to eat at The District (one of our favorite local restaurant/pubs) where they order local, fresh and organic ingredients and make their own beer and ketchup and cure their own bacon than any Boston Pizza.
A lot of chain restaurant food is very unhealthy. For example, the Outback Steakhouse’s New Zealand Lamb, with garlic mashed potatoes and vegetables has 1820 calories, 80 g of saturated fat and 2600 mg of sodium. How about the Cheesecake Factory’s pasta carbonara? It’s just pasta with peas, bacon and chicken? How bad could that be? Yeah, that’s 2500 calories and 85 g of saturated fat. If you choose the Chocolate Tower Truffle Cake (1670 calories and 48 g of saturated fat) and eat the free bread, you’ll be pushing 4000 calories in one meal.
At this point, I’d like to note that the Canadian government recommends 2350 – 2900 calories per day for men and 1800 to 2250 for women, depending on age and activity level. They also recommend that adults need 1500 mg of sodium per day and should not exceed 2300 mg per day.
Ok, sure, I cherry picked a couple of terrible meals from the CSPI’s 2010 Xtreme Eating “Awards”, and not all non-chain restaurant meals are ‘healthy’ anyway. But it’s clear that most chain restaurant food is still not very healthy for you.
I recall eating with Kristen at a Mexican restaurant in Arizona where they brought my entrée on one full-size plate covered in so much cheese, I couldn’t even tell what I was about to eat. Then they brought another full-size plate for my side dishes. No wonder North America is overweight.
If you’re a regular BBD reader, you’ll notice that we’ve talked about supporting local business in the past. The fact is that a lot of these chain restaurants can’t be considered local. Most are corporate owned so you’re not even supporting a local franchisee in many cases.
Why They’re Successful
So, if chain restaurants are so…. mediocre, why are they so popular?
- Lower prices. Yep, they’re often less expensive than their non-chain counterparts. Why? Economies of scale mainly.
- They invest more money in their buildings, so they’re bigger and can serve more people.
- They have massive marketing budgets that are shared across the chain (again, economies of scale).
- As a result of their many locations, advertising and quality of locations, they have major name brand recognition.
- They cut costs by mass ordering (often pre-cooked or frozen food) from major food distributors. (very interesting blog post on this here).
- Since the kitchen staff don’t really need to have any real culinary skills, they can hire teenagers and college kids to “cook” (read: reheat) the food at lower wages.
- Convenience. Notice how most chain restaurants are located near shopping malls or tourist centers. It’s pretty easy to just stop in at your local East Side Mario’s when you’re already in the neighborhood shopping.
- Comfort/familiarity. You can hit up any Olive Garden in North America and know exactly what you’ll get and how much it will cost.
Sometimes They’re Unavoidable
Kristen and I try to support local businesses when practical, but there are plenty of situations where the convenience of a chain restaurant is impossible to pass up. Or sometimes you’ll be invited out for dinner without any say in the choice of restaurant (maybe it’s your great aunt Mildred’s 90th birthday and P.F. Chang’s is her favorite). To us, that’s no big deal. We just try to make smart choices whenever practical.
If you do find yourself headed to a chain, you can still attempt to make healthy choices by avoiding certain dishes at the popular restaurants (foods to avoid at chains / 9 dishes to avoid in chain restaurants), or perhaps choosing a healthier chain altogether.
How to Discover Local Restaurant Alternatives
I’m willing to bet that any major city in North America has hundreds of great non-chain, locally owned restaurants. Sometimes it takes effort to find them since they don’t usually have the massive marketing budgets, brand name recognition and great locations. Here’s a few tips on finding great local restaurants:
- The internet! It’s all about the internet these days. Check out reviews and recommendations on these sites:
- Urban Spoon: Search by type of cuisine, neighborhood, price, read the reviews, post pictures. Also, they have a great iPhone app that will randomly suggest restaurants with certain filters that you can set (price, neighborhood and cuisine type).
- Yelp: Not specifically for restaurants, but they have a lot of restaurant reviews on there. An excellent resource.
- Your local paper often profiles newly opened restaurants. Not to mention reviewing new and old restaurants.
- Ask your friends and family for recommendations!
- Pay attention to restaurants you see on a daily basis but never think about.
What do you think about chain restaurants? Do you love them or hate them? How do you resist the unlimited bread sticks and salad at the Olive Garden? Let us know in the comments!