The experience of sliding into an overstuffed leather booth, hemmed in by walls decked in dubious Americana, the metal signs and pilfered taxidermy alluding to a time and place steeped in myth and wholly alien to the strip mall outside, while perusing a menu of oversauced fried hunks of protein and cheap carbs, all under the tawny haze of a poorly cloned Tiffany lamp, wasn’t quite universal. But it was common enough that the market, the great American arbiter of truth and beauty, blessed the suburbs from coast to coast — where so many of us were spawned and haltingly shepherded toward nominal adulthood — with thousands upon thousands of places in which to have that experience: The casual dining chain bloomed, almost like an onion you might say.
And now it’s dying, sort of. Because they’re terrible places, or because of millennials, or because of looming class warfare, or probably all of the above. Whatever the reasons, it should probably be less surprising that a monoculture as vast and mediocre as the suburban sitdown restaurant has contracted a terminal illness now slowly spreading from specimen to specimen, from Applebee’s to Ruby Tuesday’s to BW3 or whatever the fuck they’re calling Buffalo Wild Wings these days. More fascinating than the grinding demise of this corporate culinary hegemon, maybe, is the knowing, mournful soundtrack that we can’t help but provide with the collective gnashing of our teeth: Why do we still care so much about these places that we’ve since decided offer us such hollow fulfillment? —Matt Buchanan
What one typical American town reveals about the fate of the great suburban chain restaurant
“TGI Fridays and Applebee’s and their ilk are struggling as the American middle class and its enormous purchasing power withers away in real time, with the country’s population dividing into a vast class of low-wage earners who cannot afford the indulgence of sitdown meal of Chili’s Mix & Match Fajitas and a Coke, and a smaller cluster of high-income households for whom a Jack Daniel’s sampler platter at Fridays is no longer good enough.
At the same time, the rise of the internet, smartphones, and streaming media have changed the ways that consumers across the income spectrum choose to allocate our leisure time — and, by association, our mealtimes. In-home (and in-hand) entertainment has altered how we consume casual meals, making the Applebee’s and Red Lobsters of the world less and less relevant to the way America eats.”
I visited a dozen Olive Gardens to ponder the meaning of a chain
“One of the things I love about the Olive Garden, the reason I continue to love it, despite its gummy pasta and its maladaptive, kale-forward response to modern food culture, is its nowhereness. I love that I can walk in the door of an Olive Garden in Michigan City, Indiana, and feel like I’m in the same room I enter when I step into an Olive Garden in Queens or Rhode Island or the middle of Los Angeles. There is only one Olive Garden, but it has a thousand doors.”
What the data does and doesn’t say about the supposed death of chains
“On first glance, mid-level restaurant chains — including suburban favorites like Olive Garden, Red Lobster, and Chili’s — might appear to be doing fine. But a deeper look tells another story. Eater looked at SEC financial filings to track growth rate (the change in total locations, year over year) and sales for five familiar chains. The growth rate of many mid-level chains is declining — and getting slower each year — while in recent years in particular, sales have also started to take a downward turn. This has been the case since about 2007 and 2008, when the financial crisis rattled many American industries, restaurants included.”
Amidst the cultural wreckage of white suburbia, an ur-memory of eating in chains with dads
“The last time I saw my father was in an empty strip mall parking lot, cold creeping under our collars and up our sleeves as we stood in front of dirty stucco storefronts. It was Christmas Eve, and we were trying to go to Friendly’s. The plan had been to visit a Vietnamese restaurant, but it was closed, and when my brother and I saw a Friendly’s floating alone, detached, in the same commercial plot, we thought we were saved.
The lunch, crammed in between other family commitments, was already shaping up to be truncated and awkward, and maybe going to a restaurant we grew up in could salvage it. None of us had been inside a Friendly’s together in twenty years, but when we were kids, it was the restaurant our father had taken us to the most.”
Five diners, four generations, 7,000 calories, one dying chain
“Love them, hate them, or simply scratch your head at them, chain restaurants are one of America’s defining contributions to food. To discuss the past, present, and future of restaurant chains, Eater recently took five people — aged 19 to 72 — to a Portland, Oregon-area Red Lobster for a weekday lunch. The result of their conversation? Nostalgic flashbacks, revulsive memories of meals gone wrong, and a curious probing of the plates on a deeply shellacked table.”
A millennial explains why his fellow millennials are killing casual dining chains, by a millennial who is a millennial #millennial
“People don’t want to eat a pile of fried onions that’s got almost no nutritional value and is literally 50 calories off from one’s suggested daily limit. GOOP and its lifestyle-’gramming ilk emphasize the virtues of “clean eating,” of sketchy superfoods, of chia seeds, and of various superstitious practices that seemingly exist only to help quell one’s fear of death. Despite their occasionally local and organic ingredients, chain restaurants won’t be able to compete unless they too come up with a better way to sell you on a cure for living.”
Editors: Matt Buchanan and Erin DeJesus
Art direction by Brittany Holloway-Brown
Illustrations by Julianna Brion; photos by Laura Watilo Blake and Katie Acheff
Contributors: Bijan Stephen, Elizabeth Dunn, Helen Rosner, Mattie John Bamman, Meghan McCarron, Dana Hatic, and Vince Dixon
Thanks to: Adam Moussa, Amanda Kludt, Helen Rosner, Mary Hough, Daniela Galarza