The pandemic has transformed America’s dining landscape into an oligopoly dominated by chains


by Adam Reiner, The Counter  



Big, sit-down restaurant brands are winning on a local level by offering dining experiences that appeal to the broadest audience possible. Familiarity is their secret sauce.


One of the greatest pleasures I had as a child growing up in the Chicago suburbs in the mid-1980s was delving into an unctuous slice of French Silk pie at Bakers Square. I couldn’t tell you how many Bakers Square locations existed back then, there were a lot. But I wasn’t thinking about any of that as a 10-year-old boy when my family anxiously piled into one of its ample, textured vinyl banquettes.


Bakers Square still exists today—a chain of about 20 sit-down restaurants and pie shops spread across five Midwestern states, inconspicuously nestled inside suburbs like my hometown. The chocolatey goodness of Bakers’ French Silk pie tastes exactly the same now as it did then.


The allure of chain restaurants often lies in this sameness. Writing about Olive Garden for Eater in 2017, Helen Rosner described the restaurant chain as “a plural nothingness, a physical space without an anchor to any actual location on Earth, or in time, or in any kind of spiritual arc. In its void, it simply is.” Rosner acknowledged in her cheeky essay, and to some extent I agree, that the predictability of chain restaurants makes them oddly comforting. But as independent restaurants disappear in record numbers, dining in them contributes to a broadening restaurant monoculture that is eroding the culinary integrity of our communities.


I grew up to work in some of New York City’s finest restaurants—never for a national chain—as an accidental career waiter in a city where denizens avoid chain restaurants as a point of pride, often snobbery. As a resident of New York City for over 25 years now, I can tell you that even our once incorrigible dining landscape has more chain restaurants than I ever would’ve thought possible.


As a suburbanite at heart, however, I understand why so many diners embrace chain restaurants. Many of them serve really good food. The problem is that their growing presence is beginning to pose an existential threat to the independently-run restaurants so integral to our commercial centers.


The pandemic has only crystallized that advantage, as big, sit-down restaurant brands like Olive Garden and Cheesecake Factory leverage scale to consolidate market share and aggressively expand their footprints.


History has shown that the unimpeded growth in chain restaurants often comes at the expense of our beloved family-run eateries. To wit: New York City—home to some of the best Chinese food in America—is about to welcome its first full-service P.F. Chang’s. I worry that this incursion, hastened by the pandemic, is reshaping how we define dining out in America.


Ten years ago, NPD Group, a consumer and retail research firm, issued a report showing that independent restaurants had been losing market share to chain restaurants at an alarming rate. According to NPD’s research, independent restaurants had accounted for 87 percent of the total visit losses over a three-year period. During the same time frame, 7,158 independent restaurants had closed in the United States. Chain restaurants, however, added 4,511 units. A decade before the world had ever heard of Covid-19, it was already a cautionary tale...


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